Friday, March 27, 2009

THAT MYSTERIOUS SPACE UNDER THE BED…

has all but disappreared in this age of box-beds, where all the beds in my space-cramped flat have inbuilt boxes under them to store blankets and bed-sheets and other prosaic stuff.

Not so when we were young. Under the bed was a magical space accessible only to us children, out of bounds to most adults at most times. It would provide a cosy hiding place, especially if the bedcover was pulled down over the side. We would hide expectantly during lukochuri (hide-and-seek), emerging at the right moment all flushed and with the tops of our heads covered with cobwebs, to cry, Dhappa” (Caught you!). My parents’ bed, with its low cramped space where you had to bend double or lie flat on your tummy to wriggle in or out, was a good hidey-hole.

My grandparents’ old-fashioned bed, which was raised high by placing a couple of bricks under each foot, offered another kind of sanctum. It was high enough for us to crouch comfortably, and many a secret meeting of us cousins was held on long summer-vacation afternoons with dadu (granddad) snoring blissfully above us. These meetings, chaired (rather, crouched over) by me and including my Bhai (brother) and Antu (my aunt’s son), would usually centre around some idea for tricks to be played on the aforesaid unsuspecting granddad. But, to keep him unsuspecting, we had to conduct the entire meeting in phish-phish (whispers), which added immensely to the mysterious attraction of the place.

Sometimes, we had to share the space under the bed with dozens of coconuts or betelnuts or mangoes plucked from the trees in the garden and laid out on the cool green cemented floor under the bed before they were either eaten or distributed among relations and neighours.

And in moments of deep distress, the best place to cry my heart out (an activity which I did frequently and fervently) was under the bed. I would lie on my tummy, put my head on my arms and bawl and sniffle away to glory, emerging red-eyed but refreshed (and completely de-stressed).

WHAT DID YOU DO UNDER THE BED WHEN YOU WERE A CHILD?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

HAPPY BIRTHDAYS OF LONG AGO: PART II (AT HOME)

Sorry for the diversion into dark and sweet (and forbidden) chocolate territory.

When I was young, birthdays were celebrated at home in the evenings. The pampered ones had balloons and streamers put up on the walls (with a glittery golden cutout HAPPY BIRTHDAY in the background) and specially baked cakes with frosted icing (shaped like Mickey Mouse or a house in the woods or a cricket pitch - this was before the invasion of Cartoon Network), which would arrive in a white box from some shop (strictly untouchable with an invisble handle-with-care sign).


Being a more frugal sort, we neglected the wall decoration bit and concentrated on the food - not 'ordered from out' but home-made. Maa and Didia (my intrepid cousin) would bake two round cakes with holes at the centre in the trusty Murphy oven. They (the cakes, not the oven) would be full of bits of cherries, petha (a white candied bottlegourd), and kismis (raisins). One cake would remain plain and plump brown (this was held in reserve for second servings) but the other one, meant to be displayed and cut, would be decorated with white icing sugar, mixed and poured through a paper cone. My Didia's painstaking effort in writing my name on the cake would usually result in illegible semi-transparent squiggles on top of the cake. She moped, but we were happy because we got to break off the stiff pieces of icing sugar and suck them even before the cake was cut.


A few of my close friends in the neighbourhood (Mampi and Soma, Sujata and Sonali, with their plaits and pigtails neatly combed and oiled for the occasion) would come, as would my cousin J and her family. I would go ooh and aah over the gifts [faking my surprise, because they had all told and 'consulted' me before buying the gifts - pens and pencil boxes, a jhola/shoulder-slung-bag, crayons and water-colour sets, Amar Chitra Katha-s (comics about Indian history and mythology), inexpensive Bengali storybooks]. One grand present (costing the princely amount of Rs. 40) was a Tintin comic-book given by my Dida (mother's mother) on my tenth birthday - it occupied the pride of place in my bookcase for a long, long time.


The cake-cutting would be a swift and perfunctory affair, with some half-hearted attempts at singing the birthday song (I suspect many of my friends and family were uncomfortable with all that singing in English). The gusto would be reserved for the food.


There would be hot just-fried luchis (puris/ fried hand-made flour pancakes), alurdom (potato-curry) and chicken-curry, followed by the cake ( a nod to our colonial heritage) and payesh (rice cooked in sweetened condensed milk - a traditional Bengali birthday treat).

I remember a certain birthday when the payesh was replaced by a complicated caramel custard (from a recipe in Chic - a popular 'women's' magazine which was diligently devoured by Ma and Didia). My grandparents were slightly dismayed at this deviation from tradition, but everyone else enjoyed the novelty. Later on, in the nineteen-eighties, when Chinese cooking was making incursions into Bengali cuisine and long blue packets of egg-noodles were showing up on grocers' shelves, the luchis were replaced by chicken-chowmein-Bengali-style. But it was all still cooked at home. And after eating (surely the focal point of all Bengali celebrations), the grown-ups would settle down to a round of adda (conversation, often extremely animated) while we kids would be left to play (and sometimes fight) on our own. Unsupervised by any DJs or event-managers or hired men in grotesque Mickey-Mouse-looking-like-Gorilla costumes.

In these hard times, maybe it would make a lot of sense to revert to those simpler celebrations of yore.

WHAT IS YOUR TAKE ON BIRTHDAY CELEBRATIONS? SELF-SUFFICIENT OR DJ-DEPENDENT?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

THE GREAT CHOCOLATE DIVIDE

When we were young, many many moons ago, chocolates were not as plenty on the ground as they seem to be now. Now, every passing guest will bring a gift of chocolates to my two daughters; the fridge is full of yet-to-be-unwrapped Dairy Milk Chocolate bars and other goodies.

The overabundance of chocolates have made them mundane and deprived them of the luscious magic of the past. For us, chocolates were magical stuff to covet and lust for. When they came into our possession, we relished the joy of ownership and the pleasure of anticipation for a long while (almost till the chocolate itself was in danger of melting because of being clutched in our grubby hands for a considerable time). And then the unwrapping of the shiny silvery foil and gazing into the sweet delights of the best brown colour in the whole wide world. And the love affair continued at the first bite …and the next…down to the last licking of the gooey mess in the folds of the foil or the tips of the fingers.

It was understandable when we learnt in college that the word chocolate had its roots in the Mexican ‘xococatl’ – a fittingly exotic origin for an out-of-the-world flavour.

The appeal of chocolates was all the more because we got to eat them on rare occasions, and then usually it was a small Cadbury’s ├ęclairs or a 5-Star bar that had to be divided with great care and eaten with great relish.

So, you can understand our (my brother and mine) round-eyed, open-mouthed delight when my maasi (aunt) once gifted us a whole set of chocolate bars. The Amul company had then recently launched chocolate bars in different flavours, and maasi had generously given us the entire range!

We felt like monarchs who had been given the entire earth to rule over. There were orange-flavoured and coffee-flavoured chocolate, bars with nuts-and-raisins, rice-crispies, butter-scotch, peanuts, a dark chocolate one and a regular milk chocolate one.
Just the weight of the carry-bag and the feel of the rectangular bars (worth more to us than gold bars, at that moment) transported us to a kind of ecstasy.

And then came the difficult part. Like most monarchs who have to divide and rule, we too had to divide the booty to eat our share. Easy-peasy – eight bars, each neatly sectioned into sixteen cuboids. So what was the problem?

The problem was me. I was the glutton, gobbling my share in a matter of an hour or so, OD-ing on this unexpected bonanza, blissed out, but not satisfied. My prudent brother had a bite here and a bite there, and had kept the rest of his stash in the fridge, planning to enjoy his bonus a little at a time.

If only I would let him (Boy proposes, greedy sister disposes - this was the rule in our house). I remember coaxing him and cajoling him, then threatening him so loudly that my mother had to settle the sweet-dispute. Finally I used the pacifist-but-extremely-discomfiting ploy of sitting right in front of him when he would take out a bit of his hoarded treasure, and staring at him with starving-eyes, till he would be forced to shell out a cube or two (being a soft-hearted little fellow).

Ah, bliss all over again. Chocolate enjoyed through ill-gotten means tasted even better than the legally-devoured stuff.

DO SHARE A CHOCOLATE MEMORY.

P.S: THANK YOU, SCRIBBIT, FOR THIS MEMORY CALORIE-TRIP. (This post was written for Michelle’s Write Away contest).

Thursday, March 5, 2009

HAPPY BIRTHDAYS OF LONG AGO: PART I (AT SCHOOL)

When we were young, birthday celebrations had a pre-determined pattern that was much anticipated long before the day itself. For instance, if you were born in February (as I was), you could officially start counting the days and salivating in anticipation from 1st February itself (like I did).

First of all, there was the BIRTHDAY DRESS to be decided upon. No going out and buying from the shops for me. Maa (my mother) and Didia (my cousin) would decide upon a suitable pattern from a sewing book, I would be taken along to buy the dress material and then Maa would make it at home. I was too thrilled and tongue-tied at the entire exercise to offer any choice of my own.

Then, unless one was extremely unfortunate and the birthday fell on a holiday, Maa would purchase a big plastic bag full of toffees to take to school to share with my classmates. (Anything more than simple toffees was disallowed in my school, unlike in today’s schools where students often gift their classmates anything from CD-ROMs to expensive stationery sets). We usually got sugar-boiled candies or sticky toffees, even the 50 paise worth Cadbury’s Eclairs were given only by the affluent-elite nose-turned-up few.

Other preparations would be on in full swing, setting off an agony of expectations in me, which would increase so much that it would almost impossible to go to sleep the night before my birthday.

The great day would dawn and I would jump out of bed, vibrating with excitement. The ritual was to touch the feet of all the elders in the house (and there were plenty of them in my joint-family). I would dip down and bounce up several times, collecting blessings for the coming year.

A rushed-through-bath and a gobbled-breakfast later, I would be ready for school, not in my usual uniform, but in my brand new ‘colour dress’ which would make me the cynosure of all eyes at school. In the assembly during morning prayers, everybody would go nudge-nudge, whispering about the lucky one whose birthday it was. Oh, the thrill to be noticed and talked about. The trick, though, was not to be too obvious about it all; you had to pretend to be matter-of-fact while secretly walking on Cloud 9. But you could have your eyes saucer-shining and have a spill-any-moment-smile on your face.

Almost bursting with self-importance, I would give sweets (Parle’s orange boiled-sugar candies, my inexpensive favourites) to my classmates (trying to cheat a bit by giving more to my best friends) and then go to the other classrooms and staffroom to give the teachers and Principal (no wonder most of the teachers were overweight – the combined offerings of all the students all year round must have been huge). I would return, the victorious queen, to my class where everybody would stand up and sing loud-and-lustily, though sometimes indistinctly-through-toffee-sucking-mouths, “Happy Birthday to You”.

When we were in Class V (Fifth Standard), our class-teacher hit upon the idea of making a list of all our birthdays, collecting one rupee from each student (apart from the birthday boy/girl, of course), and gifting the birthday child something. I got a plain-jane stainless steel dish with my name inscribed under it. This might seem to be a paltry gift in this age of Conspicuous Spending, but in that simpler age the yet-to-be-devalued one rupee purchased a lot of joys for us.

HOW DID YOU CELEBRATE YOUR BIRTHDAY AT SCHOOL?