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.