Wednesday, June 25, 2008


This was when I was young and free of cares. It was 1980, I think. Long caftans were in fashion, at least in downmarket Barrackpore. I had a black-and-yellow patterned one, and I was very proud of my tiger-outfit. Like any other seven-year-old.

There was a khelar math (playground) near our house, used for football in summers, cricket in winters (this was way before the 24x7x365 cricket blitz), and for swimming in monsoon.

Or so we thought. A few days of heavy rain had submerged the green grass completely with only a few ‘islands’ poking out here and there. Tadpoles were swimming invitingly in the shallow ‘sea’. A few of us adventurous souls went chasing these ‘sea-monsters’, splashing about merrily…first with our kaftans (and what-not) lifted above our knees, and then, abandoning all pretense and caution, rushing headlong into the muddy water.

It was bliss to get so thoughtlessly wet, and great fun to splash the timid ones. If we jumped energetically, we could make waves in the water. We island-hopped gaily, wringing our dresses dry before plunging back into the water once more.

Full of glee and wet to the gills, I never noticed my mother till I felt the sharp sting as she literally pulled me by the ear and dragged miscreant-me off the danger zone. I was hauled back home, and was made to sit with my chilly feet immersed in a tub full of hot water and my chastised ears buzzing with pain and scolding, my bedraggled kaftan hanging on the clothesline. It never regained its original bright-yellowiness, remaining muddied with memory of my tadpole-in-tiger-disguise ‘misadventure’.


Friday, June 20, 2008


On my eighth birthday, my mama (mother’s brother) gave me a totally wonderful gift that changed my life. Knowing that I was a bookworm, he took me to a tiny shop, tucked away between a shoe shop and a shop for picture-frames on the busy-busy S N Banerjee Road in Barrackpore.

The S N Saha Book Shop was a twelve-squarefeet cramped-wooden-platform-on- stilts, covered floor to ceiling with piles of carefully-arranged secondhand books, with the eponymous owner (S N Saha) perched precariously on the said piles. But that tiny, cramped space thrilled me with the promise of vast unread treasures waiting to be discovered.

Mama gifted me two books, which could be returned after reading and two more books taken (at the wonderfully affordable rate of Rs. 1/- per book-reading, with a deposit of Rs 10 per book), and so on. And so began a long, long journey through the colourful world of paperbacks and potboilers, with the amiable S N Saha as my navigator.

Our weekend visit to my mamabari would always end with a half-hour visit to S N Saha's Book Shop, where I would return the books read over the week (my subscription soon increased to four books per visit) and browse and borrow my book-fix for the coming week.

S N Saha would sit on a heap of luridly-coloured and provocatively-titled Hindi pulp-paperbacks (I have no clue as to the contents, but the army soldiers of the Barrackpore Cantonment would come for their weekly fix of thrills). I was interested in the high piles behind and beside him – the endless supply of Enid Blytons he would whisk out at a moment’s notice, like multiplying rabbits out of an enchanter’s hat.

After reading and re-reading all available Blytons (it took me the best part of two years), I graduated to Nancy Drews, Hardy Boys’ and the Three Investigators’ series with a foreword by Alfred Hitchcock (I liked these best). In between, there were the comic-relief of Tintins, Archies and Richie Rich-es (I know it is blasphemous to speak of all three in the same breath, but my curiosity was as indiscriminating as it was immense).

Then there were the girly-goosebumps Mills-and-Boon phase, and the what-will-I-do-if-I-get-caught-thrill of the fast-and-furious sex-and-scandal world of Jackie Collins. And the best-selling potboilers (better than most, actually) of Sidney Sheldon, whose heroines taught me to dream big. And many, many more.

When I went to study in Kolkata, my college was situated in the heart of the College Street boi-para (neighbourhood of books). I met and befriended many other second-hand booksellers and their un-mapped book-jungles (along with my then-classmate-now-spouse-fellow-bookworm). But S N Saha remains a nostalgic favourite, because he was the first to quench my book-thirst with affordable sodas (the champagne-classics are another story!).


Sunday, June 15, 2008


When we were children, my mother provided the steadfast, solid, supporting fabric of our daily lives; while my father’s role was more of an embroiderer of fanciful and fantastic tapestry on this fabric. She taught us how to face the facts of life; he would tell us stories of whimsy, whisking us away from the cares of life.

There was a very big house near our childhood home: a huge mansion surrounded by large grounds full of tall trees and a pall of darkness and gloom (I never saw any lighted windows). There was a high wall encircling the house, cutting off a clear view but whetting our curiosity. Whenever we would pass by, especially if night was approaching, my father would tell us fantastic stories about the house actually being Count Dracula’s castle. I would shiver delightedly and listen, awestruck and wide-eyed, to baba’s (father’s) supple and succulent re-telling of the legend, longing-but-not-daring-to look at the looming, surely-haunted house out of the corner of my eye, my small hand seeking re-assurance in his. I would be scared-thrilled, and would demand a repeat-narration every time we crossed the house, especially after dark. And my father obligingly provided the goose-bumps, vivifying my imagination till it was on auto-pilot and could re-create the thrills for myself.

Another time, he took my brother and me on a Sunday picnic. Ma packed us off with sandwiches and boiled eggs, and we wandered around the picturesque banks of the Hooghly river on a summer’s day as bright as unshed tears. After a walk on the river bank, we strolled along the Riverside Road and, following my father’s restless, adventuresome fancy, discovered the cave of Phantom (the Ghost who Walks) in the middle of some unkempt bushes at a corner of an empty field. My father convinced us that THIS WAS PHANTOM’S INDIAN HIDE-OUT, and we ate our staid picnic lunch garnished with the spice of this thrilling discovery.

Baba was like that. He would pluck an off-beat leaf from the mundane book of life and fan the flames of our fancy. Thank you, baba, for igniting my imagination.


Monday, June 9, 2008


This year Jamai Shasthi (Son-in-law’s Day) is being celebrated in West Bengal on 9th June. This year, again, we are not celebrating Jamai Shasthi…the jamai (son-in-law) and the shashuri (mother-in-law to the spouse; my mother) being separated by 1440-odd miles.

Travelling back in time, I remember the jamai-shasthi celebrations in my mamabari (maternal grandparents’ house). Baba (my father), being the guest-of-honour, would dress with care in starched white dhoti and crisp kurta. Maa (my mother) would carry along a new sari to gift to my didu (mother’s mother). My brother and I would skip along, excited at the prospect of food-food-food (and new clothes). In honour of the occasion, we would give the bus ride a miss and take a leisurely cycle-rickshaw to arrive at my mamabari, well in time for lunch.

After a mandatory-but-perfunctory religious ceremony (which involved mangoes and palm-leaf hand-fans to sprinkle calming holy water on all of us) to placate the Goddess Shasthi-Thakrun (who was, for some obscure reason, very fond of cats), we would sit down to eat, being careful not to dirty our wrists, bedecked with thin bracelets of dubbo(grass)-and-flowers-tied-to-sacred-yellow-thread.

The decidedly-profane, prolific spread would include vegetarian, mutton and fish (at least two/three types, including the Bengali-favourite, hilsa) dishes and ending with rasogollar payesh (cottage-cheese balls in milk custard). My father would sit in his place of honour, with a plate heaped with fragrant white rice and surrounded by small sampling bowls of all the items on the menu. My dadu (mother’s father) would have personally spent the entire morning sieving through the local market for the raw veggies, fish, meat - the best on offer; only the best for the jamai. Everything was cooked at home, under dida’s painstaking supervision. The jamai (son-in-law) had to take second-helpings to show his appreciation - my father willingly did.

As did my spouse when we were invited by my mother to celebrate our first jamai-shasthi after marriage. Knowing his fondness for prawns, my mother had cooked prawn biriyani – the spouse promptly polished off a third of the entire quantity. My immensely flattered mother bullied my brother to revisit the market in the afternoon to buy mutton, just so she could cook mutton curry for the pampered jamai (who, of course, dug in delightedly).

Jamai-shasthi memories are all about food stories, really. I remember we had gifted my mother a white-and-green enamel cook-and-serve casserole (instead of the usual sari) for this occasion, because she (and we) loved food. The son-in-law was merely a convenient
excuse for FOOD – display and devour.


Wednesday, June 4, 2008


This summer, my daughters and I went shopping for their new school bags (as befits a new school year). Lovely, colourful things with Barbies and butterflies, they made me think of what I carried to school when I was very young, if only because of the sheer contrast.

An aluminium box with a handle and a latch! Our books and copies neatly arranged inside, along with a pencil-box and a tiffin-box (also of aluminium), we would swing the boxes jauntily, pretending to be our daddies and uncles, off to office with their important-looking briefcases.

Repeated use and incessant scratching would wear off the glossy polish and when the box became battered and battle-scarred (it was a useful weapon in fights), it was time for a new one. All silver-shiny, with my name engraved in looping letters on the top by the shopkeeper with a gnnn-gnnn-gnnnnn-ing engraving machine.

I remember envying my brother when he joined school with a bright red plastic school-box, which we (mainly I bossing little brother, as was usual) decorated with cheery posters of Complan and other Glaxo-products (I had an uncle who worked for Glaxo).

When I was seven and studying in the second standard, I began carrying my books and stuff in an embroidered Shantiniketani-style(jhola) cloth bag hanging artistically (and unscientifically) from one shoulder.

The indestructible aluminium school-box was appropriated by my dida (grandmother) to keep her hankies and knick-knacks in. It is still there in my mother’s flat, an undying family heirloom, used to store undies.