Wednesday, April 30, 2008


The garden alongside my childhood home,
Not properly-kempt, no ordered flower-beds,
But straggly-sweet, trod upon by my growing feet,
Like Alice, I can drink the memory-potion, shrink, and with the golden key, enter it still....

I can see the five green coconut trees, all in a row,
One was cut down to garage the car, and then there were four.
I can see the orange betelnuts fallen on the ground,
Gather them in my skirt and dry them brown on the roof.
I can see the guava tree by the pond,
Crows pecking at the hidden red heart of the pale green fruit.
I can see the miserly mango tree,
Sharing its fruit only once every two years.
I can see the barren jackfruit tree, gaunt against the pond-horizon,
Its bare branches mocked by the flourishing flame-cannas at its feet.

I can smell the shy white petals of the dolanchampa,
And the orange-stemmed, white-starred shiuli;
Gather them carefully, the autumn grass is wet with dew,
And green caterpillars crowd under the shiuli leaves.
I can smell the secret tang of the lemon-leaves
And the green chilli's punch-you-in-the-nose spice.

I can almost-touch the nayantara's magenta-softness,
Caress the tiny jasmine with fragrant-fingertips,
Or prick them on the spoilt, sickly rose - more thorns than flowers.
Neglecting the tagar's scattered white bounty,
I can reach up to pick the sprawling hibiscus-cousins -
Pink unfurled five-petalled panchamukhi and blood-red furled lankajaba;
Or the malatilata bending under the overburden of pink-and-white blooms
Weeping near the well in the garden.

I do not know what flowers grow there now.
I tend to the memory-weeds which grow within me,
And, sometimes, water them with tears.


Monday, April 28, 2008


I have grown up on STORYBOOKS and I remember the first fictional character who I really adored - Paagla Dashu, the eccentric schoolboy in Sukumar Ray’s school stories, who was always pardoned for his crimes because he was regarded as having mathaye chhit (bats in his belfry). I met him in the pages of a discounted orange paperback edition of Sukumar Samagra (Sukumar Ray omnibus), which my parents bought for me on their annual pilgrimage to the Calcutta Book Fair. I was about eight or nine years old, ripe for this quixotic madcap.

Although a skinny, short (though big-headed) scarecrow-fellow, Dashu had a booming voice, a flashing temper, a genius for arguing and fooling around and an enormous daring to live life as he wanted to. Once he came to school wearing a coat and loose ‘pantaloons’ because it would ostensibly help him to learn English, braving the mockery of the dhoti-clad majority. Once he burst kalipotka (firecrackers-on-a-string) in an earthen pot under the schoolmaster’s chair, because he wanted to share the inevitable punishment-for-this-crime with the unfortunate boy who had brought that pot to school and who had misguidedly refused to share the mihidana (a delicious fine-grained yellow sweet) in the pot with Dashu.

And, of course, there is that wonderful scene-stealing moment when Dashu peremptorily decides to return in the final act of the annual school stage production. His character of Debdoot (angel of heaven) had said his official farewell in the previous act. Just as the minister explains to the king the finer points of the debdoot’s departure, Dashu stages a comeback: “aabar shey eshechhey phiriya (again the angel has returned) – much to the consternation of the other actors, who immediately forget their lines. Dashu promptly parrots the entire cast’s remaining speeches and shoos the dumbstruck actors out: “jao shab nijo nijo kaajey (go and do your work), before pulling down the curtain. Later on, when rebuked for deviating from the script, he claims that he has redeemed the play by completing the lines when the others were obviously floundering.

That was Dashu. Irascible, incorrigible, unforgettable. Always right even if he is wrong. Always marching to his own beat (or writing his own script, literally). Always daring to be different. Always proving that truth is a perception, not a fact.

I fell in love with his cock-a-snook confidence, his stubbornness and swagger, his unerring skewed logic and his ultimate standing-apart-loneliness.

If he was born in English, he would have been a major money-spinning star for Disney Animation. As it is, he is a majorly cherished memory and a source of much animated adda (conversation) for Bengalis.

Who is the first fictional character who impressed you deeply?

Thursday, April 24, 2008


I like the sound of the word, "pond". There's a quality of stillness in it, as if you are throwing a pebble and there's a 'gloop' sound, some ripples stretching out, and then silence and stillness again.

I loved this silence in the pond which lay next to my childhood house, undisturbed in the noonday heat. I would never sleep in the afternoons, and would often spend the time near the pond, trailing my fingers in the water. My hands would get caught in the floating roots of the kachuripana (water hyacinth), which grew at a ferocious pace and covered the entire surface of the pond, all green with delicate lilac flowers. When they dried, the brown balloon-like bulbs could be pricked with a pop. At other times, the pond would be covered with tiny green shaola (lichen). Sometimes, I would crouch down on the slab of cement that served as a ghaat (pond-bank) and gather the water in huge kachu-leaves (colocasia). The leaves were water-proof and the green water would transform into a shivery, silvery, mercury-like liquid, and I would imagine it to be my secret hoard of silver-riches. Sometimes, I would watch the white, orange-beaked ducks waddling aimlessly - they all obediently returned to their owner's home in the evening when they heard the familiar sing-song "CHOI-CHOI-CHOI" call. For some strange reason, nobody bathed in this pond, though the surrounding families (ours included) would use it for washing clothes and utensils (till we were upgraded and got the Municipality water connection). Once, in winter, I got the scare of my life when I almost put my foot on a whole gaggle of snakes, all sleeping together (is that the right term?), coiled around each-other at the foot of a pink hibiscus tree bordering the pond.

The pond where I (and countless other children) learnt to swim was part of a neighbour's property. The ghaat here was cemented, with proper, though slippery, steps, and the jaldhora (water snakes) and small fish would scatter away as we plunged and splashed about, practising backstrokes, dubsatar (underwater swimming) and (feat of feats) staying afloat with our feet above the water surface.

The other pond which comes to my mind is the pond-that-never-was at my mother's grandfather's (I told you, Indians love joint families) place at Belur. This was a really big pit at the bottom of the garden, with rough-hewn steps going down to the bottom, but which had no water. All the neighbours had ponds in their gardens, so this lack of water was very mysterious and much-discussed. I remember circling this pond-that-wasn't warily on my trips to Belur, and finally, only once in my life, gathering courage to go down the pit, and gaining a fish-like view of the sky and the garden.

A FINAL POINT TO PONDER: Ponds are fast disappearing from urban and semi-urban India, buried under piles of debris, newly-consructed apartments, and the greed of property developers. I have never seen a pond in Mumbai, though there are places like Dhobi-talao and Shantaram-talao (talao = pond).
What are the ponds you ponder about?

Monday, April 21, 2008


Blame this on Monday morning blues (it's already Monday afternoon in India). Like it or not, milk is an unavoidable part of growing up, isn't it?

I remember the gowala (milkman) coming to our house, the aluminium cans full of milk swinging against his bicycle. I would take the large dekchi (bowl) and the chhakni (strainer) and rush to the courtyard when I heard the milkman ringing his bell. Taking off the straw covering the top of the can, he would decant the requisite quarts of sweet-smelling cow's milk in the bowl held in my hands. I loved the pure whiteness of milk, though everybody complained that these gowalas always mixed water with the milk.

Which is why we switched to Mother Dairy's plastic packs, I guess, but this homogenised, toned and hygenic-tasteless milk never had the romance of the earlier experience. Like many people I know, I hated to drink milk when I was a kid. My ma tried, tricked and threatened, but she could never make me like milk. She would try to tempt me by adding Horlicks, or some chocolate flavouring, but I would still go yuck at the slightest excuse.

Later on, she changed tracks and made us delicious milk-and-bread puddings, mango-icecreams, badam (peanut)-icecreams, caramel custard and chhana (cottage-cheese)-sandwiches to give us (my brother and me) our daily quota of disguised-milk. I loved all her concoctions. I even liked the other milk-stuff like doi-bhaat (yogurt-rice) and dudh-chhatu (milk-and-gramflour porridge) that we were made to have because we refused straight milk. I loved sinfully-calorific dollops of butter mixed with spoofuls of sugar. And, strangely enough, I loved milk powder, often stealing spoonfuls of Amul Milk Powder out of the white-and-orange tin during the long, hot afternoons when the rest of the family were having their siesta. (I usually got caught because I could never properly wash off the stubborn-sticky traces of milk powder from the spoon and bowl I used for my ill-gotten feast.) It was just drinking-milk-out-of-a-glass that I did not like.

The only place where I would drink milk without kicking up a fuss was at my Pishi's (father's sister) house. My brother and I would stay over at their (my Pishi's daughter and son, who were nearly the same age as us) place for about a week during the annual summer vacation, and my disciplinarian Pishi would, without fail, give the four of us our daily dose of milk-mixed-with-Bournvita in big brown smiley-printed china mugs. Every morning, I would wake up and face this trauma, along with the wonderful view of docked ships that her balcony provided (she lived in Kidderpore in Kolkata, next to the dockyard), and I would dilly and dally over my milk-moustache till my cup got cold and I could safely leave about a quarter-cup at the bottom!

What are your milk-memories? Traumatic, or taste-of-heaven-ly?

Thursday, April 17, 2008


I don't, actually. I was born in a nursing home, which was actually the ground floor of the doctor's two-storey house. I remember seeing the place a number of times and my mother pointing it out, but I do not remember anything about the interiors.

My first memories of home are of of my family's haphazard, added-to-in-bits-and-parts house in Barrackpore, which is a small town near Kolkata in West Bengal. [The town was so named because of the barracks built for the British soldiers when the East India Company set up their first cantonment in India in this place in the eighteenth century.]

It (my home, not the barracks) began as a two-room house built when my grandparents came over with their four children during the Partition of India in the 1940s; the plot of land purchased after selling most of my dida's (father's mother) gold wedding ornaments. Such stories are common to many people when they were all uprooted during the Partition upheaval.

When my father got married, a room was built on the roof : this became our room, our corner of the house. More rooms were added later, when my cousin (my uncle's son) got married, when it was decided to have a "drawing room"....During the early years of my growing-up, the house seemed to be frequently under construction - rooms added, verandahs (balconies) elongated or grilled, a jalchaad (special roofing to keep the house cool in the very hot Indian summers) added, the red clay tiles covering a section of the house replaced with concrete roofing. As the inhabitants of the house got jobs/promotions and began to earn money, this new-found affluence would usually result in a new add-on (which was also an accepted way of impressing the neighbours).

The house was white-washed every two-years, usually in summers before the rains came; I remember the hullabaloo which this would cause. The workmen would erect bamboo scaffolding all over the place, climbing up and down the unsteady makeshift ladders quickly and easily, balancing paintcans and brushes. I envied their lithe grace; and I remember that once I climbed up a ladder but was too scared to come down till somebody rescued me. My dadu (granddad) hated moving out of his chosen spot in his downstairs room, so the workmen would have to paint around him, all the other things in the rooms shifted elsewhere, or shrouded in plastic sheets/old newspapers to protect them. Yet the paint would manage to fleck the furniture anyway, and for days afterwards we (my brother and I) would scrape bits of whitelime off cupboards and beds.

I liked the smell of the freshly-painted rooms, the golden-yellow of the kitchen and the blue-tinged white of the other rooms. I liked the way the house looked from the road outside, dazzling white in the sunlight. I also liked the fact that the new paint would keep away the lizards (geckoes) (for a few days at least), which would otherwise crawl all over the walls and ceilings in the evenings, catching insects, hiding behind light fixtures in the daytime.

How do you remember the home you spent your childhood in?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


My first memory is almost the memory of a memory, it is so distant, like an image at the wrong end of the telescope.
It is just a faint image of me sitting on a battered, lumpy sofa covered in what-was-once-pink cloth. I think I was wearing a pink dress (not too sure about this, though - it seems too much pink to be true) and was around four-five years old. The elders of the family were sitting at the dining table, eating lunch. My dadu (grandad) invariably had a bowl of milk and rice at the end of his meals. While my ma was putting sugar in his bowl of milk-and-rice she came across a big lump of sugar which was coloured pink. She gave it to me.
In those days, we would buy sugar from the government-owned ration shops. There was no awareness of the dangers of artificial food colouring. I remember being extremely excited by this jewel-like pink lump of sugar and sucking on it blissfully, my tongue soon sharing the sugary pink colour.
What is your earliest memory?


Today is Poila Baisakh, which is the beginning of a New Year for Bengalis. For me, it is the beginning of a new blog. Not an all-in-one mommyblog like my other one, but one with a more specific purpose, to catch and share memories of growing-up. I grew up in Bengal, India, during the 1970s -80s. Memory shifts and slips away so fast; I am trying to use the net to catch these fleeting memories and pin them down to a post.
So, please share your memories of growing up (wherever, whenever) and let us build together a house full of the warm past. If you grew up in the same time or space, we'll recapture a zeitgeist; if not, we'll construct a bildungsroman anyway.