Saturday, December 27, 2008


Since my brother is visiting us along with his family for our annual bout of sibling revelry, here's a reminiscence about the daily bouts of sibling rivalry that occured when we were young and together.

Anything and everything edible given to us had to be shared equally. I was the more pugnacious of the two, and would set out complicated rules and regulations dictating the terms and conditions of the partition of every single morsel that came our way.

If there were two separate but similar things, like say, two toffees, then, obviously there were no problems. Each one eat one - was the rule.

If it was one piece of something which had to be divided equally, like say, a piece of cake, then the rulebook (authored by me) said - one of us would divide the cake (or cutlet, or...) and the other would choose his portion first. The rule was scrupulously fair in its nitpicking - the person cutting the piece would be very careful to cut it equally, because otherwise the other would get to choose the bigger piece.

The even more complicated rule for things that came in uneven sizes and in larger numbers (a bunch of grapes, or a bowl full of berries, maybe) was : the first person would take only one, the second would take two, and then the first would take another. Then this cycle would be repeated again and again till the entire loot was evenly distributed. WHY this particularly complex process, you may wonder. This was because the first person would usually end up getting the biggest piece (chosen first) and the fourth-largest piece, and the other one would get the second and third-largest piece. Now 1+4 equals 2+3, and although we never had weighing scales, we never had any complaints about unfairness either.

Ah, the deviousness of dharma (justice/righteousness)! Later on, when I read/saw the Mahabharata, I was amazed at the complicated routes taken by the righteous to achieve the victory of virtue. And, of course, I felt completely vindicated in my rule-setting, although everybody else felt otherwise, including my brother.


Monday, December 22, 2008


West Bengal, the state in India where I come from, has a long and unfortunate history of de-industrialization. Of mills and factories closing down, of sole breadwinners suddenly becoming jobless. Of the small dreams and security that a regular salary brings changing suddenly to a bleak-black-uncertain future. Of people trying desperately to cling to ‘respectability’ and not topple over into utter ‘poverty’.

We met such men on local trains, hawking plastic hairclips and handkerchiefs. We met the women behind these men going from door to door, selling small articles of daily use, depending as much on the buyer’s sympathy as on their own selling skills.

They were not the smartly dressed marketing professionals we see today. They were women who had never thought they would have to ‘step out of their house to work’. They had been content to toil within the bounds of domesticity and always blamed their “kapal” (forehead – where the inscrutable lines of destiny are supposedly etched) for pushing them out of doors.

When we were young, I remember three such women who were regulars at our house (and at the houses of all our neighbours, friends and relations – all part of a large network of ‘references’). With the intrinsic callousness of children, we regarded them more with curiosity than with sympathy, wondering why their eyes watered ever-so-often, wondering why our mothers ended up buying more than we needed (or more often than we needed).

I am sorry to confess that I have forgotten the names of two of these brave and gutsy ladies.

One lady sold ghee (‘clarified butter’, as they say), coming to our home once a month to fill up a jar of golden, rich-smelling ghee made from creamy cow milk. She was plump and smiling, with smooth dark skin that looked as if she had polished it with ghee. She would put down her heavy jars and sit in bedroom (all these women would come straight to our bedroom where they would chat with ma and barama over tea and biscuits; the drawing room was for strangers and male visitors), pour out ladlefuls of ghee into the ghee-er-shishi (bottle demarcated for ghee) and deliberately spill a little on the plate beneath so that we could lick the yummy ghee. When she left, the gheewali (as we called her) left behind the warm aroma of pure ghee.

Another lady sold us dhoopkathi (incense sticks) – indispensable in every household and used for the daily morning and evening puja of the household gods and goddesses arranged carefully on the thakurer aashon (altar). Maybe the close association with religious objects made her blame the Gods for her cruel fate. And blame she would, in a loud and continuous lament, pausing only to sip from her tea-cup or to count the change. She was usually disheveled and distraught, with faded sarees and straggly hair, and we (rather cruelly, I feel in retrospect) called her ‘Ghargheri’ (Hoarse-voiced).

In complete contrast was Rashmonidi. Thin, dark, neat as a pin, not a fold of her inexpensive saree out of place, she was more interested in hushed gossip than loud lament. She was an amazing job-hopper – she began by selling cotton chhapa (printed) sarees, then temporarily trespassed into Ghargheri’s territory by selling dhoop-kathis on the side. She could give new-born babies their daily maalish (oil-massage) and bath (a daunting task), she could help out when large numbers of guests came for weddings or pujas in the family. She was dynamic – doing whatever she could to earn enough money to put her son through college. And when this son’s wife and she did not get along, she opted out, willing even to accompany families moving out of Kolkata as their cook/maid/governess. I met her some years ago, still as thin, but with her hair cut short in a ‘boy’s cut’ for convenience, as gossipy and gregarious as ever. Fate has dealt her plenty of blows, but has not managed to blow out her spirit.


Monday, December 15, 2008


We did not have a telephone in our house when we were children. Perhaps this childhood deprivation scarred my psyche somehow, because till today I’m not really a phone-person, being rather abrupt and let’s-get-it-over-quickly on the phone, even on my soul/cell-mate mobile.

But when we were children, phones were immobile, kept majestically on their special pedestals (usually the top of some bureau/showcase covered in flowery-embroidered cloth, out of reach of pesky toddlers) and attached to wall with a special curly wire. I always wondered where it came out after going inside the wall. The phones just SAT, menacing in their big black boxiness, emitting a shrill loud unmistakable tring-tring to beckon the entire household if there was a call.

The neighbours across our house had one such big black phone (far more solemn than the colourful light cellphones we carry nowadays). My mamabari (maternal grandparents’ house) had another such. Having a phone in the house raised the status of the family in the social pecking order. It also meant having an enormous social responsibility. Because all the neighbours would troop to your house to make calls from your phone if the need arose (as it inevitably did). Also, inevitably, it meant taking calls on behalf of your neighbours and shouting from the balcony to them to come and speak to whoever was calling them. Because of these, er, network (social, not telecom) problems, telephone calls were restricted to necessities, not frivolities. Which is not a bad thing at all.

I was very scared of speaking on the telephone. Because, in those days, you never got directly connected to any familiar, friendly voice of the person to whom you wanted to make the call. The calls had to be made via the local telephone exchange, where there would be some gruff-voiced disembodied telephone operator who would listen impatiently to your request to connect you to the required number, BARKING at every hesitation you made, and, with an almost audible sigh of irritable exasperation at being disturbed, he/she would condescend to do so in a voice dripping with unfriendly sarcasm. I am SURE it was NOT like that at all, only that it SEEMED so to my shaky-scared ears and trembling-stuttering voice.

Even when the call was put through and some familiar person was on the line, the crackle and distance would somehow de-familiarise the voice and make it cold and distant (pun intended now but not felt then). And because I was nervous about not being able to hear clearly, I always spoke very quickly in a very loud voice, trying desperately to end the conversation ASAP and putting down the receiver with relief, my hands clammy with gripping too hard and ears burning with effort.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008


The current disenchantment with, and ire and fire against, politicians makes me remember my first brush (or should that be scrape?) with politics.

I forget the exact time, but it was before the general elections after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. There was a huge sympathy wave for the Congress-I, led by Rajiv Gandhi, the son of the assassinated Prime Minister. But, West Bengal, as usual, was a red bastion, a Communist (CPI-M) stronghold, or should that be strangle-hold?

Hectic campaigning was going on, with regular evening marches by the contesting party-members and their supporters (mornings were presumably too hot for slogan-shouting). Almost every available inch of wall-space was partitioned between the Congress-I and the CPI-M for wall-painting and poster-pasting, with, expectedly, the red-party hogging the major share.

My friend Mampi and I deeply felt the injustice of this unequal distribution. Why should CPI-M’s Tarit Topdar have his name written all over the place and why should Congress-I’s Debi Ghosal languish in (comparatively) lesser space? All our adolescent sympathy gushed over for the underdog (who was also the perennial loser in a chain of previous elections, and, like all losers, reputed to be a ‘good man’).

There was a dilapidated wall encircling an empty field opposite our houses, ignored by the political paintbrushes for its unprepossessing appearance. To redress the imbalance of political justice, Mampi and I took some white chalk and some broken pieces of red clay-tiles (we could not find the green favoured by the Congress-I, so we had fall back on the red colour of the 'enemy'), and, with painstaking effort, we etched the legend “VOTE FOR DEBI GHOSAL” in somewhat uneven handwriting all over the discoloured wall. We scripted the letters as big and as bold as we could make them, scraping over and over again to make the letters legible from a distance (feeling decidedly ‘un-bold’ at our own daring – we would drop the chalk and run away as soon as we saw someone coming, returning to our task only when the lane was clear). We also drew a large and rather misshapen HAND the election symbol of the Congress-I.

And so, this was my first idealistic, if anonymous and unsung, contribution to the political circus of the elections. The Congress-I won on a landslide of sympathy, but Debi Ghosal, as usual, lost with good grace. Mampi and I, however, felt that our efforts had been vindicated because the margin of loss had reduced considerably.


Monday, December 1, 2008


My first awareness of terrorism was in 1984, in October– when Sikhs demanding Khalistan assassinated our Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. I remember a sense of unreality and disbelief, a sensation of being out of my ten-year old body. There was no continuous cacophony of television channels swooping in on newsworthy tragedies, like they do today. Only an eerie, tense silence, a suspension of activity for a long, stretched out moment.

In retrospect, it surely did not happen that way. The grainy black-and-white pictures on the state-owned Doordarshan repeated over and over again, the slow stumble and fall, the rumours spreading like a forest on fire.

The vehicles spontaneously stopped plying, the shops willingly downed shutters. Our school was declared closed, and we walked back home, saucer-eyed-apprehensive. A cousin who went by train to a school in Kolkata trudged back 25 kilometers on foot. She remembers the blisters on her feet. Our minds were blistered, too. The known, familiar social order had been overturned (we had grown up learning in our schoolbooks and from the newspapers – which we were just getting into the habit of reading daily – that the iron-willed Indira Gandhi the leader of our country, it felt that she had been so for ever) not by the ballot, but by a bullet.

What shocked my childish self most was the betrayal – the bullet which killed Indira Gandhi was shot by one of her own body-guards. As a ten-year old, loyalty came very very high on my priority list of values.

And then began the tearing apart of order and sanity. The anti-Sikh riots left us shaken. It was one thing to feel angry with the Khalistanis for trying to rip apart India, to feel enraged at the assassin’s betrayal in killing the hand that fed him. It was a totally different thing to see innocent Sikhs being pulled out of their homes and killed.

We had a Sikh family living in our para (locality); the husband was a strapping, jovial Sikh married to a Bengali Hindu wife. Of course, it was a love marriage, and of course, it seemed a very romantic and daring thing to elope with and marry a person from a different culture, defying your parents. Our young hearts were captivated by this love story. What fascinated me was the apparent ease with which this Bengali lady had adapted to her husband’s culture. She wore the salwar-kameez (not the then-ubiquitous Bengali saree), tied her hair in plaits instead of a bun and spoke in robust Punjabi to her family (switching to Bengali if she was talking to one). I remember peeping many times into their walled house which had a friendly, always-open narrow door, giving a view of the open courtyard which seemed full of bustle and people.

During the riots we were not allowed to go out-of-doors. After the bloodbath, when school re-opened, I remember gazing in grief at the disconsolate open door of their hastily-abandoned house, half-torn from its hinges. The empty courtyard, to which they never returned, spoke of another kind of betrayal – the betrayal of neighbours who had long pretended to be friends but who had nursed xenophobia in their hearts.


Friday, November 28, 2008


Mampi was my first friend, my fast-est friend, and is my firm friend still. She lived next door to my old Barrackpore home, and was a frequent visitor to my home, as I was to her’s. A few months younger than me, she and I met when I was two-years and she was a year-and-half. None of us, of course, remember that meeting, but we do remember hundreds of others, spread over three decades of playing and secrets-sharing, voluble speech and comfortable silence, growing up and growing apart, and then reconnecting through the Internet.

I don’t remember quarrelling with her at all. Which is quite strange, because being a hot-tempered, opinionated little person, I usually flared up at the slightest provocation. But she never provoked me, and her dainty, fair and docile presence (in complete contrast to my fierier nature) always had a calming effect.

We would play harmoniously for hours on end. On weekend mornings and rainy afternoons, we would invariably be with each other, either at my home or hers. None of us were too fond of dolls, but we loved make-believe games, and would often play out our versions of Rama-Laxman (from the epic Ramayana) and Krishna-Sudama (mythical exemplary frinedship between a divine and a mortal being), or cook elaborate meals with shredded leaves and vegetable peels in our little clay and aluminium pots and pans.

Out of doors, in the green field and cemented courtyards, we would gang up with our other pals, Soma and Sujata (and a whole pack of others), and play gully-cricket and net-less-badminton in winter, skipping and kitkit (hopscotch) in summer. We would run amok in the winding bylanes, playing chhoa-chhui (tag) and luko-churi (hide-and-seek) – simple games full of speed and sweat which we would sometimes complicate by accusations and counter-accusations of cheating and unfair practice.

But never against each other.

We went to separate schools. She studied in a Bengali school, I went to an English-medium school (the language of instruction was English). Maybe the seeds of divergence were sown there.

When I grew up, I moved to Kolkata to stay in hostels and guesthouses and study in colleges and universities in the metropolis. Mampi remained rooted to our small town, studying in the local college, and even getting married to a local guy (whose house could be seen across the pond bordering our – and her – backyard). She quickly became the stay-at-home mother of two boisterous boys, reveling in her domesticity. I got married much later, shifted out of Kolkata, and till date am playing the balancing game between work and home.

Our interests and destinies may have diverged, but when we did meet this year (after a gap of over seven years, courtesy e-mails and cellphones), I was hurtled back into my childhood for an hour of giddy, catching-up, packing-years-into-minutes conversation. Sharing similar memories, I realised how different we had become from each other.


Saturday, November 22, 2008


No, that wasn't a typing error. I'm thinking of the sewing machines of yore which would occupy pride of place in many households, including ours. They would be symbols of thrift and creativity, and my grandmother and mother would spend hours with them, lovingly sowing hand-sewn labours which we would reap.

My dida (father's mother) had an antiquated black hand-turned sewing machine, which, I think, travelled across the border during the Partition of Bengal, but arriving none the worse for wear. It was a sturdy little thing, not too fancy but it did its job well. Since dida had the usual eyesight-handicaps of the elderly, I would be called upon to thread the needle. I also loved to turn the wheel-handle which would make the needle race in and out of the cloth, leaving behing a trail of thread. I was allowed to do this only because the most menial of stitching jobs would be done at dida's machine, like stitching together old saris to make the softest and most comfortable blankets, or hemming the borders of bedsheets or dhotis (a rectangular piece of cloth worn by men around their waists - the cloth is simple enough, though it is tied in intricate ways).

The more fancy sewing jobs were done at my ma's more advanced sewing machine. It was a Singer sewing machine, with a foot pedal as well as the hand-turned wheel, and I would watch my maa pedalling away furiously during the long afternoons, stopping now and then to turn the under-construction garment this way and that, or to change the colour of the thread. Then she would add finishing touches to her creations by hand, stitching on buttons and appliquing patches, or embroidering little patterns on the garments. She always loved creating things, and the house was filled both with pattern-books and garments made according to these patterns, embellished with original touches.

And of course, we were the happy receivers of her creations. Thr process began with us importantly posturing as she took measurements with a threadbare measuring tape (which we often used as a multipurpose toy - skipping rope/prisoner's chain, etc on the sly)and wrote them down (I remember only that my waist was 18" once upon a time - those were the days).

Then she would go about her work with pursed lips and furrowed brows, and we were shooed away if we bothered her too much. The agonies and ecstacies of CREATION were shared only with my cousin, Didia, who was the resident fashion designer and consultant.

And then, finally, on D-day, we would be called upon for the fitting ceremony. The garment would be pinned to our shoulders at the back, to check the variuos esoteric aspects. There would be a lot of tch-tch-ing, and mumbled conversations between ma and didia (because of assorted pins and needles and tapes in their mouths). A few nips and tucks later, the product would be declared finished.

And then the preening and twirling in front of the mirrors and the happy uplift and thrill of wearing a new dress.


Friday, November 14, 2008


In our old higgledy-piggledy house in Barrackpore, there was a chileykotha (attic), built atop the bathroom on the first-floor landing. Unlike today’s lofts, which are prosaic tiny spaces atop bathrooms/kitchens where every manner of rubbish is hidden behind closed doors, our chileykotha was a full-fledged room (in length and breadth, if not in height) of wonderful secrets accessible only to us children (because adults had to crane their heads very uncomfortably to stand in that low-ceilinged chamber).

And there were no doors barring our entry, either. We had to climb on to the huge black bookcase-bureau in the drawing room and lift ourselves behind rose-patterned curtains to enter the attic (the unplanned rooms of our house would horrify any architect).

And what an attic it was! Full of stuff that spelt history, wove magic to us as we poked and pried, discovering treasures abandoned by matter-of-fact adults.

There was an old sofa with its cover torn and springs broken, a perfect place for a secret meeting (of us cousins pretending to be detectives, referencing Enid Blyton – that stirrer of fantasies) or a solitary cry-my-heart-out (emerging with tell-tale eyes as red as the roses on the attic-curtain).

There was a stack of framed pictures with broken glasses, each a testimonial to the artistic talents of my father, uncles, grand-uncles and other cousins, each relegated to the attic as better (and newer) pictures were painted and framed and hung up on more-viewed walls.

There were many many rusted iron trunks, full of dusty delights. Moth-eaten velvet bags holding mystery-histories, tattered silk clothes to dress up our fancies, bent-and-chipped utensils for our make-believe kitchen…

…and, most excitingly, there was a whole trunk-full of handwritten family-magazines. These magazines had been written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by members of my father’s huge joint-family in Naogaon in what-was-then East Bengal (now Bangladesh); each poem, essay, witticism neatly calligraphed (is that the right verb?) between bound covers. There were contributions by my uncles, granduncles and other hoary ancestors who I never knew except by our common surname. This treasure-trove of family history and familiar literature had travelled all the way to Barrackpore, surviving the toss-and-turn-and-trauma of the Partition and had found its way into our chileykotha. Not all the editions were there, of course, some must have travelled with other members of the family when they parted ways after the Partition of Bengal.

I spent hours and hours poring over the fading ink on the sepia pages, not caring about the uneven literary merit of the writings, thrilled only to be able to literally touch my family’s past.


Saturday, October 25, 2008


Every little girl has a Cinderella dress. Something which transforms her into the prettiest princess that ever lived, at least in her own mirror.

The other day, the copy-kitten (my younger daughter) went to a Diwali party at her playschool wearing a white satin-and-chiffon full-skirted dress with silver-and-yellow flowers scattered all over the bodice and skirt. She twirled and pirouetted, as enchanting a little Cinderella as her elder sister, the Lil Cat, to whom the dress had originally belonged (It is actually a gift from a favourite cousin, Didia, who picks up the most delicious dresses from Dubai each time she visits us).

I remembered my own infinitely-humbler-but-equally-cherished Cinderella dress. The material was a coarse khadi (handspun) silk from the local Khadi Gramudyog Bhavan, patterned in beige with maroon roses. There were no thorns, as befitted a princess’s party-attire. It was stitched with a plain round neck, a skirt which swirled a little when I spun around, and a sash which needed Ma to tie it behind my back. And when I wore it, I left all the thorns of awkwardness and shyness behind and could hold my head high and match steps confidently with my other friends and cousins, clad as they were in their soft-and-satiny boutique-bought expensive dresses.

I had only one, my precious Cinderella-dress, but that dress transformed me whenever I wore it. That’s the magic of a Cinderella-dress.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008


My daughters have grown up with three grandparents. They have their dadu and thamma (my husband’s father and mother) in Kolkata. And then they have their dida (my mother) in Bangalore. If they’ve ever wondered at the lopsidedness of the grand-parental-equation, they’ve never let me know about it. But then, children seem to have their own logic of working out these things.

Some time back, I was cleaning my clothes-cupboard when the two nosey-parkers poked their way in. Fiddling and flopping about on the clothes lying scattered all over the room, the lil cat (my elder daughter) dug out a framed photograph of my father from under a pile of sarees.

It was a twinkly-eyed photo of my father, taken during my uncle’s wedding, a huge happy celebration on a hot and happy day. Somehow, the photo always made me cry in remembrance.

“Who’s this, ma?”

“That’s my father, your chhobi-dadu (picture-grandfather)”.

“Where’s he now?”

“He died long back, long before you were born.”

“Is he a ghost then?” asked my elder one. “Is this a photo of a bhoot (ghost)?” echoed the copy-kitten, my younger daughter.

Bhoot in Bengali means both a ghost and the past. So I explained how my father was an inextricable part of my past, how I had grown up with him, all the little-big things we had done together, and how he was no more a part of our present lives, how he had gone away to a far, far place, away from all of us.

“But, ma, look, he has not gone away,” said my elder daughter, perhaps to console me because the happy-sad tears were flowing unchecked, “he’s there in the picture.”

“Yes, ma,” added the copy-kitten, “he’s the ghost caught in the picture.”

P.S: Thank you Scribbit, for your wonderful write-away contest which unlocked this ghost from the cupboard.

Friday, October 10, 2008


Bijoya Dashami is the tenth day of the auspicious fortnight, the day when the ten-armed Goddess bids goodbye to her earthly paternal home and returns to her husband in the Himalayas.

After spending four mornings and evenings giddy with Pujo-excitement, Bijoya Dashami made us very, very sad. In the mornings we would pretend as if this was just another Puja day, donning yet another new dress and rushing to the parar pandal (festival tent in the neighbourhood). I would spend hours just gazing at the face of the Durga idol in our pandal (Jagruti Sangha), at her divinely angry face as she pierced the demon Mahishasura with the trishul (trident).

Most Durga idols had a calm face full of grace and mercy; our pujo had an angry Durga. My father explained that our neighbourhood Durga was depicted at the moment of killing the demon, full of righteous rage and power, whereas the other Durgas were frozen in time after the demon was slayed, whereupon the goddess calmed down and blessed the rest of the world.

But when we returned to the pandal in the afternoon, the sad fact of Durga’s imminent departure could no longer be avoided. The idols, of Durga and her children, had already been taken down from the dais and were standing on the open ground. They looked so forlorn and powerless, especially because we could go behind them and see the backs of the idols. Whereas the fronts were bedecked in silk costumes and shiny tinsel jewellery, at the back the clay and straw under-structure could be clearly seen.

Then Maa, Barama and all the other married women would arrive with trays full of dhaan (rice-with-the-husk), dubbo (grass tridents), paan-supari (betel-leaf and betelnut), sindur (vermilion – the must-wear-on-the-hair-parting symbol of married women) and mishti (sweets). They would climb on ladders to put sindur on the gods’ and goddesses’ foreheads and feet, and would put some paan and sweet in their mouth - bidding farewell and asking for blessings at the same time. Then there would be the sindurkhela ritual, where the married ladies would put sindur on each other’s foreheads and faces. We would also take some of our books (I always took my Mathematics book – it was the demon I wanted to slay in every examination) and touch the idols’ feet with these, hoping for divine help in studies.

There would be a red haze of sindur blowing about as the idols were lifted and put into two big trucks. Huge yellow lights would fight the gathering darkness, as the crowds thronged for a last look at Maa Durga. Many would follow the trucks in a brightly-lit and noisy procession (my father among them) to the Ganga-ghaat (riverside), where the idols would be immersed in the water to the shouts of Durga Maa Ki Joy (Victory to Mother Durga) and Aschhe Bochhor Aabaar Habey (Come Back Next Year).

But we (my mother-brother-aunt-cousins) would always go to Dahlia Aunty’s house to gorge on Dashami delicacies, after a token pranam (touching of all elders’ feet). She would invariably make mutton-ghugni (mutton with chickpeas) and jam-cake (unusual anglicized choice). Then, we would troop over to my Barapishi’s house (my father’s elder sister) to gorge on more traditional Bijoya Dashami fare like narkol-naaru (coconut-jaggery balls) and nimki (savoury made of flour). We would stand on their roof-terrace and watch all the pujo processions on the way to the Ganga (river) – their house was advantageously located along the procession-route – munching on naaru and nimki, thinking ahead of all the other houses (including our own) we would visit in the coming week and all the lovely food waiting for us in return for the customary pranam.

A heavy stomach was the best cure for a heavy heart.


Sunday, October 5, 2008


Mahalaya marks the beginning of the festive-fortnight leading to Durga Puja. If I remember correctly, it is also the day when the Goddess Durga, accompanied by her four children – Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartik and Ganesh – leaves her mountain-home (alaya) to begin her journey down to her parents’ place on earth. If the rains have ebbed, she comes by elephant, if the monsoon spills over into autumn, she prefers the boat. Whatever the route, it’s a week-long journey, and she always manages to reach her baaper baari (father’s home) by Shasthi (the sixth day of the new moon). She’s a brave lady, making this long journey unaccompanied by her spouse (Lord Shiva – presumably glad to be rid of his militant wife and squabbling brood of children for a while, and enjoying his annual break spaced out on ganja and bhang, his usual intoxicants). Apart from her children, she is accompanied by her faithful vahana (pet), the lion and by her children’s vahanas, the owl, the swan, the peacock and the mouse. She is pestered by the evil demon Mahishasura (Buffalo-headed-demon), but the ten-armed and ten-weapon-ed Goddess is more than a match for him, and, at Shasthi we always see the demon lying vanquished at her feet.

For us Mahalaya was the official beginning of the festive season. Unofficially speaking, it was the sweet smell of the white-petalled-orange-stemmed shiuli which would remind us every morning that Pujo was round-the-corner and we would drink in the happy fragrance with uplifted noses and hearts.

The night-before-Mahalaya was one of anticipation and preparation. The alarm clocks would be set at four o’ clock or some such unearthly pre-dawn hour, and the radios and transistor sets would be set at the precise stations. Autumn chill made us curl tight under our bedclothes(I somehow remember blankets, but everybody else has laughed at the idea of blankets in September/October).

We would wake up to the sonorous, legendary voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra emanating full blast from the radio, retelling the heard-so-many-times tale of Durga and Mahishasura, dramatically taking us to the eternal battlefield of good-vs-evil. He recited in Sanskrit and in Bengali, and as Baba and Jethun (father and uncle), Maa and Barama (mother and aunt), Dadu and Didu (my grandparents), and my older cousins all sipped tea and listened and commented, Bhai and I drifted in and out of sleep on the rise and fall of the narrator’s voice, munching on Britannia Thin Arrowroot biscuits as the dawn broke over the pond-bank.

As the sun rose, Birendra Krishna Bhadra neared the end of his pre-recorded tale. With Durga slaying the demon, his stormy, martial voice calmed down to offer lyrical prayers to the peace-restoring deity. And as we opened our windows to let the sun in, the voice on our radio would mingle with the echoes of a hundred similar voices from other homes, and we would get up at this unaccustomedly early hour with a sense of newness, enjoying Mahalaya for what it was and what it heralded. Maa Durga was on her way and all was right with the world.

P.S: It is customary for all Bengali families to listen to Birendra Krishna Bhadra on Mahalaya – then on radio, thereafter on cassette, now on CDs, or is it I-pods?


Wednesday, October 1, 2008


As I said in the previous post, a little money sure went a long way those days.

I remember (and I know my brother does, too) one special occasion, when my magnanimous barama (aunt) had given both of us a princely sum of one rupee each, I forget for what reason. As 1 rupee really equaled 100 paise in those days (unlike nowadays, when it languishes at the bottom of the monetary scale), we were both overjoyed and decided to spend our king’s ransom at the local sweet shop.

There the unanimity and amity ended. My brother, eager and reckless, splurged his sum on a huge sweet, appropriately called Atom-bomb, and gobbled it down, OD-ing on the sugary-syrupy-monstrosity.

I, being way more bearish (in stock-market terms), decided (after a lot of observation and consideration – and to the irritation of the man at the sweet-shop counter) to put my eggs in many baskets. I bought a 1001 thingies – 20 paise worth of angti-sondesh (a ring-shaped milk-made sweet, 5 paise each), a danadar for 20 paise (full of yummy crunchy sugar granules), a soft-milky kalakand (30 paise) and a hard-milky barfi (25 paise). A headcount of 7 sweets, with 5 paise still in my pocket.

Bhai (my beloved and bickering brother), with his tummy full and pocket empty at one go, glared and pleaded alternately as I cruelly sat in front of him, tasting and taking my own sweet time to finish my hoard, refusing to share the tiniest grain of sugar with him. He had had his 1-rupee-worth-of-sweet, so he should not ask for more, that was my unshakeable argument.

Bhai often quotes this incident to rib me about my heartlessness and stinginess and miserliness as a child, I prefer to call myself a thrifty and careful spender, even though I am a little shamefaced about the ‘heartless’ jibe.


Thursday, September 25, 2008


We had two types of pocket-money when we were young, none of them regular, and both of them depending on the whim and will (and wallet) of the donor.

The first type was the money we “earned”, inspired by sundry Enid Blyton characters like Betsy May, who, whenever they coveted something, would work hard at chores and get paid in pennies which they saved up in shillings. To achieve this in our decidedly un-British Barrackpore, we would pester various reluctant and unbelieving elders, who would give us some errand (usually involving running to the nearby shop/market) and the money (usually the now-obsolete 10 paise, some-couldn’t-believe-our-luck-times 25 paise), more a ‘good-riddance’ money than a ‘good-you’re-wanting-to-stand-on-your-own-feet’ money.

In this, our favourite donor was undoubtedly my barama (aunt – my father’s elder brother’s wife), who would pay us 10 paise for every 10 grey hairs we would pluck off her head. As she had a full head of hair, mostly grey, this was an easy task. The only hitch was that each hair had to be fully white/grey from root to tip. So we would painstakingly separate the hair from its mates, raise it to check its greyness, and then give it a sharp tug. She got her scalp massaged, and we got our pockets filled. We loved the deal and, if it were left to us, would have plucked off her hair in hundreds in order to earn the elusive rupee. It’s a wonder that she didn’t become bald with all that pulling and tugging!

The other type of pocket money was the purely donated one. This was given only on special occasions like fairs and festivals. Durga Pujo, for example, was a five-day financial extravaganza for us, because we got at least 2 (at most 10) rupees every morning. Some of it would be used to buy the daily round of ‘caps’ (tiny pink rolls of firecrackers) that we would put in our toy guns which, irrespective of gender, we would strut about with in the parar pujo pandal (festival tent in the locality). The rest of my pocket money would go straight to my tummy, as I splurged on dalimer hajmi (a tangy-sweet eatable) and tetuler-achar-on-a-stick (tamarind pickle).

A little money sure went a long way those days.


Saturday, September 20, 2008


I am not a ghost-story-fan. The pleasure of reading or listening to ghost stories has a distinctly masochistic edge which gives me no joy.

But as a newbie in the hostel (Lady Brabourne College Hostel, where I spent two rocking-and rollicking years in the new-born nineties) my friends and I were the spellbound and open-mouthed listeners to the traditional resident ghost story, part of the myth-making integral to any institution, which is passed down through generations.

The story was about the next door Medical College Hostel, where the would-be doctors and surgeons had access to corpses and corpse-parts. In a fantastic regulation-flouting (and completely fabricated, I guess) incident, a plan was supposedly hatched to scare the wits out of a rather belligerent, 'over-smart' girl. Her irate seniors put a human arm (detached from the body, or so we were told) under her pillow. The poor girl was literally frightened to death when she fumbled under her pillow in the dark and found the nasty surprise.

In hindsight, the story seems ludicrous. But told in the dimly lit staircase of our hostel, with suitably suspenseful exaggerations and pauses, it scared us to immobility and irrationality . This effect was accentuated by the additional information that the room under the staircase where we were sitting had once witnessed a suicide (which is why it had no ceiling fans - this was the logical grounding to this gothic rumour).

All of us were scared. There is a shivery thrill in getting scared if you are in group which is completely lacking if you are alone. Round-eyed and goose-pimpled, we sheltered each other as we crept up the stairs to our (thankfully) two-seater rooms, but I at least had a nasty night tossing and turning, imagining the decaying slimy-grey coldness of the no-longer-human dismembered arm under the poor girl's pillow (in my nightmare, of course, it was transferred to my pillow and, supernaturally, it creeped out to clammily and gruesomely touch me).


Sunday, September 14, 2008


The first baby I remember holding in my arms was my nephew, Chimpu. I was around eight years old when his mummy, my cousin, came to stay for six months with her parents in our joint-family home.
My brother and I had excitedly decorated the bed in the room where the baby was about to stay with flowers (perhaps confusing the arrival of the new-born from the nursing home with the traditional arrival of a new-bride, when the marital bed is decorated with garlands). Sadly, our efforts were wasted because the hygiene-factor took precedence over the aesthetic-factor. The flowers were summarily removed, the bedspread changed, and then all was forgotten in the excitement of the arrival of the mint-fresh miracle.
Everything about the baby fascinated me – the oh-so-soft-skin, the bright-eyed gaze, the piercing yells, the tiny clenched fists, the paper-thin nails. I would visit him first thing in the morning, rush home from school - carefully washing my hands and feet before entering the sanctum sanctorum - to watch him sleep, or feed, or wave his limbs, or even do his surprisingly-yellow poop. To gaze, to sigh, perchance to touch (with a hand as gentle as a sigh), but I was happy just being near the baby - a living doll.
I especially loved to see him bathe, in his bright blue tub, splashing in the tepid soapy water, surrounded by all the Johnson & Johnson's paraphernalia and enveloped in the softest towels and sweetest smells.
As he was born in winter, my jethun (uncle) made a makeshift cradle from some tied to the then-unused ceiling-fan. As an extra precaution, the fan-switch was disconnected. And the baby would peacefully sleep or play in his rock-a-bye shelter.
When the baby was a few months old and his neck became steady and self-held, I was given the proud privilege of holding him for a few minutes, stiff and straight as a board, too conscious of my precious burden to really enjoy its warmth and wonder, till my nephew wailed loudly to make his (and my) discomfort known.


Saturday, September 6, 2008


Looking back at the past
Is like shaking the coloured fragments
Of a kaleidoscope
Jewel-bright mirrored-myselves
Looking back at me.

The yellow toy-duck-on-wheels
Towing her brood of three
Waddle past my grubby infant-hands
Splash with me in my crayon-blue tub
My teether-tether orange-beaked soother.

The dark green water-hyacinth
With their delicate mauve blooms
Part – and I can see
My eight-year face rippling
In the paler green pond waters.

The sour-dark brown of tamarind
Sprinkled sharp with red chilli
Enjoyed sprawled on dappled fields
Under the benign-blue winter skies
Taste and tint rolled into a ball.

Then, the crimson-confusion of growing up
The secret pride of the red rite of passage
The even more secret ebony-agony of my skin
Wondering why “fair rules” and “dark rues”
Teenage bravado wiped away the pain.

Oh! I could paint on and on and on
Myriad-shaded memories
They swirl and shimmer and shift
And, as I refocus my eyes
To the sharper-outlined today
Fade and blur into sepia.

(This on-the-spur post was painted for display on the canvas on Scribbit’s September Write-in Contest).

Sunday, August 31, 2008


With the Ganpati Festival round the corner, Mumbai takes on a whole new festive aura.

But I also remember the Ganesha-stories from my childhood Durga Pujas. The elephant-god would stand, benignly smiling, at one corner of Durga's family (Durga, the mother, at the centre, flanked by the beauteous Lakshmi and Saraswati, and the group guarded be the handsome, though rather dandified, Kartik and the aforesaid Ganesh). Ganesh, with his potbellied imperfections, always seemed more accessible than the other remote residents of the Himalayas.

Ganesh, the lover of good food and good books (presumably, since he scripted The Mahabharata). Ganesh, who was wedded to the humble banana-tree (kala-bou) who would be dressed in ordinary handloom sarees offered by us devotees. Ganesh, who had a ludicrously undersized vahana (pet?) - the mouse. Contrasted with Kartik's dashing posture and exotic peacock, Ganesh seemed more domesticated, more lovable, more CUTE, if you know what I mean. At least, that's what I felt as a child, surreptitiously rubbing my hand on his smooth pink potbelly when the idols were brought down from the dais on Dashami-day before immersion.

And the wise omniscient God smiled into his elephant trunk, knowing very well the future where I would be blessed (and burdened) with a pot-belly of my own, which would no longer be cute but calamitious. Anyway...I still have a special fondness for the gourmet-god, altough my opinion of potbellies have changed quite a bit.


Monday, August 25, 2008


Not for us the ubiquitous circular Polo mints (the mint with the hole).

When we were children, whenever we would get a little spare money (say, 10 paise) we would run down the lane to the nearby hole-in-the-wall shop where the thick glass jars held tiny coloured peppermint lozenges, which we simply called peppermint. They came in lovely pastel shades - lemony yellow, candy pink, mint green and moon white - and an array of shapes - crescent, star and the four shapes from card-games: hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades. The old, be-spectacled shop-keeper would scoop up these treasures with a rounded spoon and, deftly wrapping and twisting the lot inside a piece of newspaper, would hand over our money's worth to us. And then the careful opening of the wrapped coolness and the first burst of ice-like sweetness on the tongue, the mint melting in the mouth in moments (not like POLO, which simply refuses to melt and has to be crunched into submission), and sliding-cooling down the throat. The pleasure was enhanced by having a glass of water immediately afterwards.

I also remember that there was another kind of mint - a regular-rectangular shaped one available in a pack of ten or so. I have forgotten its name (maybe it was called Parle mints) but its antiseptic, packaged coolness was not a patch on the wildburst, waterfall freshness of the multi-coloured, many-shaped variety sold loose in that dingy shop. That would be our commission whenever we would go on shopping-chores for my mother - that 10 paise worth of myriad-minty-refreshment.


Saturday, August 16, 2008


As school-children our Independence Days had a comforting, ritualistic sameness. We would tear out a page from a note-book (preferably white, but, at a crunch, even red-and-blue lined ones sufficed). Then we would draw the tri-banded Indian flag and colour it orange-white (no need to colour)-and-green (after much debate, I chose light green and my brother, dark green). In the middle of the white band would be the blue wheel (oblong rather than circular, and with decidedly worse-for-wear spokes).
This hand-decorated-with-much-concentration-and-tongues-out paper would be attached with gum (also often home-made, by mixing flour and hot water) to a thin stick. Even this thin stick was home-crafted, being the middle vein of a coconut leaf from one of the many such brooms made in our house from the coconut-palms in our garden.
This flag would then be hoisted, with much singing and clapping, at one corner of our chhad (roof). 100% Made in India. 100% celebrated by us. 100% satisfaction guaranteed and gained.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008


Durga Puja shopping was the highlight of our clothing-calendar when we were young. One new dress for birthdays, one for Poila Baisakh (Bengali New Year), but Durga Puja (the biggest religious/social/cultural event for Bengalis) meant many, many new clothes, gifted by various uncles, aunts and grandparents.

But the catch was, you often got stuck with stuff that you wore only once (in front of the said uncle/aunt/grandparent, so as to soothe his/her sensibilities). As we entered our teens, we became more style-conscious and praise from the said uncle/aunt/grandparent, “Baah, ki sundar manieyechhe tokey” (How nicely the outfit is suiting you!), was no longer enough.

Clothes had to be trendy, peer-friendly and, most importantly, self-chosen. Which is why we (my cousin-cum-close-friend J and I) decided to take matters into our own hands when we were all of fifteen and decided to ask for cash gifts from our relations for the Durga Puja shopping.
Armed with our stash of cash and loads of attitude, we intrepidly boarded the red L-20 bus which took us from suburban Barrackpore straight to New Market, the shopper’s paradise in the heart of urban Kolkata.

Tirelessly roaming the alleys and bylanes (giving the bigger shops a miss), searching for the trendiest and tiniest (it was our mini-skirt phase) export-rejects in the hole-in-the corner shops, powered by exhilaration and egg-rolls (chicken-roll for J, who is allergic to eggs), we spent a very happy afternoon snapping up clothes at clothes-pin-prices. I remember buying a denim slit-skirt for Rs. 40, rainbow peep-toes for Rs 35, and a bateau-neck, embroidered top for Rs. 10! Of course, it helped that we were both reed-thin, as teenagers are wont to be.

Laden with bags of merchandise and merriment (I had ten white plastic bags, one for each finger), we returned home, totally giddy with shopaholism.

It was a wonderful Puja, parading our new outfits to the admiration of the local guys and the envy of our gal-pals!


Tuesday, August 5, 2008


My first kiss was a stolen one in an empty room.

I was all of eight years old. The older members of the household had gone out for some family celebration. Only my younger brother was there, sleeping (his favourite pastime).

The room had a large mirror ideal for posing and preening, and a dressing-table full of rows of lipsticks and other rainbow-hued make-up stuff (all part of the armoury of my newly-wedded cousin's wife).

I was irresistably drawn to the luscious lipstick in their sleek shiny cases... Red She Said, Very Berry and Coco Loco. But it was Passionate Pink that I wanted...passionately.

The strawberry shade glided over my lips like smooth honey. Enchanted by taste and the texture, by the very grown-up appearance of my face (or so I thought, I'm almost sure I overdid the outlines), I puckered up and, leaning towards the mirror, gave a resounding kiss to myself.

Admiring the pink lipstick mark (on the mirror it looked so pouty, if you know what I mean), I spent a long and wonderfully narcissistic half-hour with myself. Wonder what Freud, Jung and co. would say about that.

So lost was I in self-passion that I came to myself at the sound of the garden-gate opening. Hurriedly rubbing off the lipstick off my lips, I forgot about the mark on the mirror.

Needless to say, I was caught (pink-lipped, if not red-handed), and became the butt of many a family joke for a long, long, time. Enough to turn my thoughts of love from myself to other worthier objects, like the boy-next-door.


P.S: I'm sending this post off with a flying kiss to Scribbit's August Write-Away contest. She's one of my must-read bloggers and I just love her write-away contests.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


When I was young, our food used to be cooked on a coal-oven or chullah, which is called unoon in Bengali. It was a bucket-like contraption of iron, with a door at the bottom where the fire was to be lit. The top had an iron grill surrounded by a clay mould on which you could place the handi (pot) or chatu (pan) or kadhai (wok).

Early every morning, my mother would take the unoon out in the courtyard, clean it of the ashes of the previous day, and light a fresh set of coals for the day’s cooking. This time-consuming process involved layering the grill with shiny black pieces of coal (from the coal-shed in the garden), breaking pieces of ghuntey (dried cowdung-cakes – also stored in that same coal-shed) and fitting them at the bottom through the door and then lighting rolls of old newspaper and pushing them through the door.

Maa (mother) would bend down and blow on the fire-lit paper so that the flames blew up. The recalcitrant cowdung-cakes would gradually start to smoke and catch a dull fire, which would, in turn, pass on to the coals on top, which would begin to glow orangey-red.

The first thing cooked was, inevitably, the big aluminium kettle of tea which would wake up the rest of the family. The coal fire would last till mid-day, and a steady succession of utensils cooking various dishes for breakfast and lunch would grace the top of the unoon. The dying mid-day embers would heat the last pot of hot water (for washing the kitchen-napkins) before expiring into charred grey ashes, which would disintegrate into powdery whispers when we blew hard on them.

At sundown, under the fiery-orange bank of clouds on the western sky and the lengthening shadows of the coconut trees bordering the courtyard, accompanied by the homecoming twitter of the birds, Maa would light the coal-stove again, this time for the evening meal.


Monday, July 21, 2008


They say that the olfactory sense is the strongest and most primal and sensitive.
So, here I am, trying to recall smells (favourite fragrances, odious odours, whatever) from my childhood. Not an easy job, because my nose knows not what to recall.

One smell I recall is of milk burning as Sabitadi (our daily help) patiently stirred the milk and sugar in a thick-bottomed pan to make ghano-doodh (condensed milk) for my dadu (grandfather) every evening for his supper (He would insist on his nightly quota of ghano-doodh, even if he had to mix it up with khichdi (spicy rice-lentil-vegetable-mash).

One of my favourite smells was (don't go yuck) the smell of cowdung cakes used to light fires in the clay-ovens used to cook food. I would save bits of these cakes and put them in a used tin of black Cherry-Blossom shoe-polish (another smell I just loved). What a weird combination that was!

Another more uncomplicated (but maybe equally weird) smell which I loved was the smell of raw kerosene. I would hang round my mother whenever she would sit down with all the lanterns and kerosene lamps (used during the inevitable daily powercuts) to clean the glass covers (which would get darkened with soot) and refill them with kerosene poured through a dark green plastic funnel.

There I go, though! My memory is definitely more visual than olfactory.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008


In my mamabari (mother’s father’s house), there was a large burnished wooden clock with a round face and emphatic, clear numbers written on it. It also had a large pendulum which had an ongoing disagreement with the hands of the clock – a disagreement as to what time it really was.

At each half-hour, the large hand would point to six (as it should), and the pendulum would give a subdued chime (as if grudgingly agreeing). But whenever the large hand would point to twelve, the pendulum would vigorously disagree with the small hand regarding the time of the day (or night) and would chime away with a will of its own. If the hands showed seven o’ clock, the pendulum would disobediently sound eleven gongs; if it was, say, four o’ clock on the face of the clock, the pendulum would reprovingly strike only once.

There was no logic to the pendulum’s chimes, it was accurate for the half hours, but for each hour, it would swing any number of times. One may say that it suffered from mood swings.

This moody clock was called pagla ghari (mad clock) by us and it was hung on the wall behind my grandfather’s special easy-chair (wooden reclining chair) in the drawing room. The fact that the clock ticked away behind my grandfather when he was relaxing on the chair, coupled with the inaccurate pendulum, somehow robbed the clock of all the sense of hurry and urgency usually associated with clocks. Maybe, there was also the fact that we stayed at my mamabari during holidays, when there was no need to measure and frantically keep pace with time.

All this gave the eccentric clock a peculiar aura of timelessness and made the pursuit of time a guessing game (if one was lying in the bedrooms, where you could hear the pendulum chime but not see the clock-face), full of fun and surprise, and the accuracy of calculating the time ceased to matter all that much.


Wednesday, July 9, 2008


I mean 'tales written with animal characters'. Like Tuntuni, Peter Rabbit, or Winnie-the-Pooh, or Wind in the Willows. Or Aesop's fables and other such morality tales. What every child in the pre-television age (and hopefully many in the Post-TV age, too) grew up on.

But my favourite-st as a child was a tattered copy of LALKALO (Red-Black) by Girindrashekhar Basu. This book had originally belonged to some hoary ancestor and had, according to family legend, travelled across seven seas (the river Ganga, really) with the family when they shifted from what-would-soon-become-Bangladesh to Barrackpore (which was safely and securely in Indian territory). I don't know if this was true at all, but the book looked ancient enough. I could easily smell the fertile soil of Balubhara (Full of sand), our original village home, in its yellowing pages, and trace the waters traversed by my father and his family in the faint smudges between the lines.

The legend of the book fascinated me as much as the story it told. An epic battle between the aggresive red ants and the peace-loving black ants. Like so much of heroic literature, a woman (or wo-ant) is at the bottom of it all: the luscious-bottomed black beauty, the queen's hand-maiden, who is eve-teased by a rascally red ruffian. She cries to the black queen, who complains to the black king, who reluctantly declares war to save honour.

The reds are the fighter-ants, determined to win by force or guile. But many dramatic reversals and suspense-filled moments, the black ants win. Providence, good friends like the ant-swallowing toad and chameleon, and a timely interpretation of the scriptures (which says that the red ants will subvert the order of nature and grow wings, but this will bring death to them) save the lives and honour of the black ants. The epic battle suitably ends on the battlefield, with the conquering heroes and their loyal friends gathered together for the celebratory feast, merry-making and singing lustily (with a chorus of chirping crickets) of glory.

It's a delightful mock-heroic, wonderfully narrated. Recently I saw a reprint (the original being long lost), thanked my lucky stars, and bought it for my daughters. The new version has already travelled from Kolkata to Mumbai. Maybe that's the beginning of an epic odyssey, who knows?


Tuesday, July 1, 2008


The recent Vodafone ad featuring two schoolchildren with fountain pens is definitely anachronistic, since today’s children have never seen, let alone used, a fountain pen. But it brings a nostalgic smile to us thirty-somethings, because the fountain pen was such an important part of our growing-up years.

It marked a rite of passage. You passed out of Standard 4 (nearing the end of primary school) and you were handed a fountain pen to write with. No more pencils. No more sharpeners. No more erasers, and the dirty mark they would invariably leave despite ruthless scrubbing! (Now don’t be a spoilsport and remind me that we still needed pencils for science diagrams and maths graphs). We could all be grown-up and proudly clip our pens to our pockets.

I remember having two Artex fountain pens, one green and one maroon (I was an ardent fan of Mohunbagan – the football team in maroon and green). Every week, I would take a dropper and carefully fill them with royal blue ink from Camlin or Chelpark bottles. I can still smell the faint mouri/saunf/aniseed smell which seemed to emanate from Chelpark ink-bottles. ‘Carefully’ – is the operative word (though not always the ‘operational’ word), because we had to be wary of spills and smudges, while filling and while writing. It was this very carefulness which was supposed to have an improving effect on our haywire-handwriting, unlike the more modern, use-and-throw ball-point pens, which spoilt our cursive abilities (or so the fountains of wisdom said).

Being magpie-minded, I preferred gleaming-golden nibs to the staid-steel of my Artex pens. I had a maroon (the pre-neon gel pen manufacturers were rather colour-challenged, weren’t they?) Wilson pen, with a shiny golden cap and a shinier golden nib, ‘made in China’ (when that label still meant exclusivity). It had an in-built ink-filler, so I could just dip the nib and fill it, without any spilling. The precious-pen was gifted to me by a very dear friend and was used only on special occasions and only with extra-special black ink.

One of these special occasions was my tenth standard board exams. After that, in my higher secondary years in college, I switched to ball-point pens with indelible inks (we were pressed for time, and scared that ‘our answers might wash away if it rained and if we wrote with fountain pens, if the examiners left the answersripts out in the open’ – weird logic, but exams were a superstitious time!).

And so ended my association with fountain pens.


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.


Saturday, May 31, 2008


Not cigarettes…though my father was a heavy smoker. I am remembering the daily evening ritual performed in my childhood home to get rid of pesky mosquitoes.

In the late afternoon we would play outside in the parar math (neighbourhood playground); frantic games requiring a lot of running about. When we would sit down on the grass, panting, sticky with sweat, the mosquitoes would buzz above our heads in droves, looking like vertical quivering grey columns above our heads. Inexplicably, some of us would have hardly any mosquitoes chasing us, while others would have large fan-followings (We said that eating sweets made the blood sweet, which attracted mosquitoes).

The mosquitoes would follow us home, some intrepid ones settling on bare arms and legs to bite. Inside the house, they would lurk in dark corners and beneath tables and beds, stinging and biting whenever they could, especially when there were power-cuts.

To combat the mosquito-menace, my mother and baroma (aunt) would fill an earthen open-top funnel-shaped pot (with a handle to carry it) with narkoler chhobra (coconut-fibre), put dhuno (a sharp-but-pleasant-smelling incense: the smell is preserved in my olfactory memory) on it, and light it so that there was no fire, only smoke.

This homegrown smoking weapon would be taken to each room and solemnly brandished all around, especially in the nooks and crannies, to expel the demon-descendants (Hindu legends say that mosquitoes were born from the tiny bits a demon’s body when he was killed and cut to pieces by a god – I’ve forgotten the names – a gory birth explaining the bloodlust of mosquitoes).

We would also temporarily desert the hazy battleground, returning only when the air was clear enough to breathe. Only my dadu (grandad) would refuse to move from his bed, sitting like a coughing-Gulliver (with his nose covered with a napkin) amidst the struggling, reeling Lilliput-mosquitoes.

The smoke-chased and chastised mosquitoes would flee (coughing and choking like us, I presume) for the evening, only to return, emboldened, the next day. Much like their foolhardy demon-ancestors, they were defeated again and again (by the dhunuchi - the aforementioned earthen weapon).

Now, in these anti-smoking times, we use liquid mosquito-repellents plugged into electric sockets. No haze, no hassle, no thrill of battle.


Sunday, May 25, 2008


Near my childhood-home in Barrackpore, there was a run-down cinema-hall optimistically called Chitrabani (literally meaning ‘Picture and Sound’). The picture would jerk and shiver as if malaria-infected, and the sound was none-too-reliable, often petering out. The lungi-clad, betelnut-juice-spitting audience would roar their displeasure, disrupting the sudden, unexpected silence, and the man in the projection room would make frantic whirring noises, and the sound and the fury (on-screen) and the peace (off-screen) would be restored.

My dida (father’s mother) was an avid film-watcher, though she did not understand Hindi. My brother and I were allowed to accompany her whenever she visited Chitrabani, much to our wide-eyed (and cocked-eared) delight.

It was in the decrepit darkness of Chitrabani, perched on broken, bug-infested seats, desperately trying to get a full view of the screen between the oily heads of the people sitting in front of me (who would, invariably and infuriatingly, put their heads close to whisper at all the exciting moments), that I first met the tall and tragic Jai in the block-buster SHOLAY. I fell in love with the film (like the rest of India has for the last three decades: SHOLAY regularly tops the best-Hindi-movie-ever charts). And I fell in love with the actor playing Jai: AMITABH BACHCHAN (again, like the rest of India has for over thirty years).

On the huge, dirty-dynamic Chitrabani screen strode this intense-eyed, deep-voiced cynic-with-a-heart-of-gold, mesmerizing my seven-year-old-heart with his loyalty, wit, courage and sheer screen-presence. What clinched my captivation, I suppose, was his doomed-when-barely-blossomed love affair with the equally-reticent widow, Radha, and, of course, his death (sacrifice-to-save-his-buddy). Always a sucker for tragedy, I wept copiously and gloriously, returning home all wet with tears before the film ended because my brother had a high fever.

My dida thought I was upset because we hadn’t sat through till the end. So, next week, (SHOLAY is that rare film which runs for several weeks even in re-runs), the entire family went again for the ‘night show’; parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, all mellow and talkative after an early dinner.

Again the fast-paced SHOLAY-story cast its spell: the fascinating details of the lives of the villagers of Ramgarh, the drama of the good-evil conflict between the Thakur and Gabbar Singh, the Jai-Veeru friendship, the skirmishes in their battle with Gabbar Singh, their parallel-but-dissimilar romances, the many-mooded-songs-and-dances, the comic interludes, the swift, sudden strikes of tragedy.

Again I was caught up in the magic of Amitabh Bachchan, living (and loving, laughing, fighting, hurting) an intense-lifetime in those three hours. And again for me, the film ended when Amitabh (as Jai) dies, though I sat till the official end (when Gabbar Singh, the villain, is felled and Veeru, Jai’s buddy, reunites with Basanti, his belle), blankly gazing at the screen with sight-blurred-with-tears.

This was way back in 1980, much before the multiplex-experience. Till date, I must have watched SHOLAY over 25 times. Each time, I cry when Jai dies. Each time, for me, the film ends there.


Monday, May 19, 2008


My first trip to the sea was as an almost-eight year old. My parents, my brother and I went to stay for a few days at Digha, which perhaps is the beach-with-the-most-Bengali-footfalls. In the early 1980s, it was also the only beach-developed-as-a-tourist-destination in West Bengal. We boarded a WBTDC (West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation) bus in the morning, and, after a couple of stops (one for food, one for a breakdown, both accepted as ‘nothing out-of-the-ordinary’), reached Digha after sundown. Though my father took us to the beach and pointed out towards the sea, my journey-tired eyes saw only darkness and heard a muffled, equally-repeated roar – my first sea-sensation.

The next morning, after an impatient breakfast at the guest-house where we were staying, we went down to the sea, carrying towels and expectations. And though I think we lost the towel during our stay there, my expectations were more than met.

Digha is a very ordinary beach along the Bay of Bengal – brown waters, small waves, brown sands. Nowadays it is spoilt by erosion and by hordes of hooligans who go there to get always-drunk and sometimes-drowned.

But in the early eighties, there weren’t too many people around. The repeated roar of the sea was companioned by the ceaseless whispering of the casuarina and pine trees lining the beach. The middling brown waves thrilled my new-to-the-sea eyes and I loved jumping up along the wave’s curve in waist-deep water, before the foam broke some distance away and rush-rolled onto the sand. My brother was too young to enjoy the challenge of the waves, though, and started screaming when I went into the water, fearing maybe that I would drown.

The brown sands were prettified by thousands of tiny, pastel-patterned shells in pink, yellow, peach and green – all scattered here and there for me and bhai (brother) to find and hoard.

Mornings were for bathing and building sand-hills-and-caves. In the evenings, we would stroll on the beach, collecting shells, drinking coconut-water, watching the sun set slow-and-orange into the sea. And sit quietly, gazing out into the distance, wondering about the other shores that the water touched, feeling the cool-salty breeze, listening to the loud-faint-loud-faint rumble of the sea…till it became too dark to see the waves.

That sound stayed with me, captured in a large, orange, conch-shaped sea-shell (purchased, not collected). We did not have a camera, so there are no photographs of that trip, only seashells and memories.