Thursday, May 28, 2009


This summer vacation, my elder daughter and I have been reading a lot of Bengali poems (in our annual attempt to teach her to read her mother-tongue). Many of the poems mention alta (a red liquid used to paint the borders of the soles/feet):

Elo chuley beney bou
Alta diye paye
Nolok naake, kolshi kanke
Jol aantey jaye

(The gold-smith’s wife is open-tressed
Her feet have an alta-border
Gold nose-ring flashing, the pot at her waist,
She goes to get water

Sukumar Ray, that inimitable genius of nonsense, of course turns everything familiar upside-down, and writes about Kumropotash (a fantastistical fierce pumpkin-shaped creature):

Jadi Kumropotash chhotey –
Shabai jeno torboriye jaanla beye othey;
Hunkor jaley alta guley lagaye gaaley thontey,
Bhuleo jeno aakaash paaney takaye na keo motey

(If the Kumropotash runs fast –
Everybody must climb up their windows in a hurry
Mix alta with hookah-water and put it on the cheeks and lips
And never look up at the sky, or you’ll be sorry

The hilarity of these nonsensical instructions lie partly in their sheer implausibility alta is never applied to the face, only to the feet. But my daughters, never having heard about alta, let alone seen it, did not know that.

When we were young, there was always a bottle of alta somewhere in the house. These glass-bottles full of deep blood-red liquid used to come with a tiny aluminium bowl and a long stiff wire ending in a small piece of sponge/cottonwool. The alta would be poured out in careful measure into the bowl, the wire would be dipped into it, and then a line would be drawn all around the foot, circling the heel and dipping in and out of the toes.

This was done during all religious ceremonies. And alta had a pride of place in Bengali marriage rituals – along with sindoor (the red vermilion powder applied in a dot on the forehead and in the parting of the hair), it symbolized the married-status of a woman.

My Dida (grandmother) used to say that alta would be regularly used when she was a young bride; apparently it helped to prevent/cure cracked heels. But during our childhood, my mother and aunts would use alta only on special days, although they used to put sindoor on their foreheads everyday after bathing. For cracked feet, they used Boroline.

Though we were not allowed to play with sindoor (being the exclusive preserve of married women), we were allowed to fiddle about with the alta bottle, maybe because it was no longer part of the daily routine of married women.

And all of us young cousins would sit down sometimes and inexpertly apply uneven alta-lines around our feet, painting all over our toes and leaving red footprints all over the place. Alta-paint would wash off after a few days, so the damage (to the floor and to the feet) was never too much.

When we entered our teens, we began to regard alta as terribly old-fashioned. With cheerful disregard for tradition, we neglected it totally in favour of the more permanent and more modern nail-polish to decorate our toes.


Thursday, May 21, 2009


Like every other child, I was irresistibly drawn to ‘bad words’ whenever I came across them. Unfortunately, these occasions were not plentiful, as my father and jethun (uncle) never really let rip. At the most they would use cuss-words like ‘shaala (‘saala’ in Hindi, meaning ‘wife’s brother’, presumably indicating that the swearer has enjoyed illicit relations with the sister of the sworn-at). Or, ‘shuorer bachcha’ (son of a pig). These relatively harmless convoluted-relational cuss-words were used only in heated discussions, usually about politicians and their ilk.

The ladies of the house, interestingly, never used swear-words at all. I wonder what channels they used to give vent to pent-up anger.

When I was in Class VIII, I celebrated my entry into teenage by asking my rent-a-book stall-owner to give me a ‘grown-up’ book to read. Being the precocious sort, I had already sampled a few tepid Mills-and-Boon romances, which are basically an eye-wash as far as the real birds-and-bees stuff is concerned. I was ready, or so I felt, for stronger stuff.

My friendly book-seller (unknowingly, perhaps, because I have never seen him reading any of his books) handed me a thick tome by the juicy Jackie Collins. It was called LOVERS AND GAMBLERS’ and had a pair of luscious red lips pouting on the glossy cover. Very promising, indeed. My thirteen-year soul thrilled at the promise of exciting disclosures.

Carrying home my contraband treasure, I immediately covered it in an old inconspicuous sheet of newspaper. Then, at the first possible opportunity, in a quiet and undisturbed corner, I opened the book and dived into an unplumbed sea of naughty ‘adult’ adventures.

Only to be foxed by the first four (rather five)–letter word I met. Collins had succinctly introduced her gutsy heroine as a ‘lady with balls’. Flummoxed by this physiologically-impossible metaphor, I tried to figure out the meaning of this exciting new word. The staid dictionary did not help.

After a lot of deep thought and detailed re-reading, I decided that ‘balls’ meant the round knee-caps in the said lady’s legs (Collins had said something like, “The way she strode through the airport lounge, you knew straightaway that she was a lady with balls”.) I was rather disappointed with my inference, because everybody I knew, lady or not, had ‘patella’ (kneecap, or ‘balls’ as I felt). And there was nothing naughty or exciting or grown-up about it, really.

P.S: But Jackie Collins, when fully read and gradually correctly understood, proved to be a rather thrilling introduction to the bold and bawdy, glamorous and grown-up world of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. And a very good treasury of explosive-sounding four-letter words. My horizons and vocabulary were considerably expanded.


Friday, May 15, 2009


Nowadays, we take pains to camouflage electrical switches. Small and insignificant, they are usually set in a white plastic panel which blends right in with the pastel wall paint. And the wires and stuff are all hidden out of sight, under the plaster, as if they are something to be ashamed of.

Not so earlier. When we were children, our home in Barrackpore proudly displayed its electrical connections. The switches were round-bold-black-on-a-white-ceramic-base, and they were set in a wooden box-board which arrogantly jutted out of the whitewashed walls. There were eye-catching lines of wires from each and every light and fan and socket, proudly criss-crossing the walls to meet at the switch-board. Electrical wiring of yore was like networking of today – the mantra being “Flaunt your connections”.

These switches had a life of their own, and could give you nasty surprises and shocks if you touched them with wet hands. They demanded respectful treatment, and we were taught to be very very careful and dry our hands and wear rubber slippers before touching them. As an extra precaution, the switch-boards were usually positioned almost impossibly high on the wall to avoid pesky children from fiddling with their dignity.

And the queen of the switch-board was the fan regulator. Not the piddly little white knobs of today, thank you. We had big, bold rectangular beauties with prominent knobs marked very clearly ON-1-2-3-4-5-OFF. They had a don’t-mess-with-me attitude, and required a certain amount of force to be, for want of a better word, regulated. They were also extremely temperamental, in true diva-fashion. Sometimes they would coyly refuse to move beyond 2 or 3 in the midst of sweaty summer heatwaves. Or stubbornly remain stuck at 5 even though the autumn breeze had turned chilly.

The only force which could subdue the arrogant switch-board and make it redundant was the LOAD-SHEDDING (powercuts). These were frequent whimsical occurrences (then, as now, some things don’t change) lasting from anything between one to six hours. During their duration, the switch-board lay in a neglected shadow, with only one switch left on to inform us of the return of electricity.

When the electricity did return, we were usually informed by the lone left-on light-bulb as well as by a general HURRAH of joy that echoed through the neighbourhood. And the primacy of the switch-board would be restored, with all the adults rushing to it in supplication and relief to put on the lights and fans and the fridge.


Friday, May 8, 2009


Actually, I learnt the proper pronunciation and meaning of the word ‘bagatelle’ much later in life, when I was studying literature.

When we were children, we used to call itbagaduli. Which was the ‘Bengalification’ of an old (going back to 1777) and regal (Louis XVI, if I am not wrong) indoor game.

Our ‘bagaduli’ was a small semi-oblong shaped flimsy board of wood with numerous pins stuck on it in intricate circular patterns. There were a few round metal globules which we had to push with sticks along these pinned alleyways in an attempt to get them trapped in the pinned circles, each of which had different points (10, 20, 25, 30, etc). Obviously, the player with the most points won.

I cannot remember ever getting the hang of this game, and cannot recall ever playing it competitively.

Oh, there were many indoor/board games which brought out our fiercest competitive instincts, with improvised tournaments and league-matches played during every vacation – summer, Puja or winter. We cousins would stay up half the night playing card games (hellbent on winning or cheating), and then challenge each other again in the morning across the carom board. Even ludo was competitive, before we graduated to Chinese chequers and then to chess (not for all of us, though).

But the ‘bagaduli’ usually languished in a corner of some be-curtained wooden shelf with the other outgrown stuff. Only to be taken out when I was alone and had nothing better to do. Only to be dusted, toyed with half-heartedly (I still remember the faint ‘ping’ sound of the metal balls hitting each other), and put back into shadowy obscurity.

Only to be remembered, in a half-forgotten way, when I came across the word ‘bagatelle’ in college, when I was struck by the irony of its meaning: ‘a trifle’. Of so many such trifles our past is made, and so many such trifles slip away forever through the memory-sieve. I felt so glad that I could retrieve and reconstruct this particular ‘bagatelle’…


Saturday, May 2, 2009


Feminists might crib about the ‘male gaze’ and how it reduces women into commodities to be consumed, possessed or bartered.

When I was a just-turned-teen, we cared two hoots for all that feminist rant. We were all too busy being ‘feminine. The ‘male gaze’ ruled our thoughts and dreams, in fact, the more males, the merrier.

‘How to attract the male (s) gaze (s)’ – was one of the most important problems of life. Elaborate strategies were planned and executed. We would spend hours hemming up our skirts to show more leg. My school-uniform-skirt had begun life as two-inches-below-the-knee, but when I passed out, it was an-inch-above, and all through strategic sewing. To achieve the same purpose, socks were compulsorily rolled down. Only the goody-two-shoes-type wore knee-length socks.

As visits to beauty parlours were supervised by strict mothers and were usually for haircuts only, we waxed our legs and tweezed our eyebrows at home, often with rather uneven results.

Resourcefulness was the key in our strategic preparation. One carefully purchased lipstick (after prudently saving on pocket money) would multifunction as eye-shadow and blusher. Shirts and T-shirts would be filched from fathers and brothers to give the fashionably appropriate ‘baggy’-effect on top of tight short skirts. Acrylic fabric paints were used to give old outfits a new zing. Hair-scrunchies would double-up as wrist-ornaments. And mismatched earrings (one dangler, one stud) were surefire eye-catchers.

Festivals would send us into flirting frenzies. The preparations were elaborate. Often, we would spend three hours dressing up for an half-hour jaunt. Much of the preliminary discussion would centre around who would be wearing what. Outfits were co-ordinated, but not duplicated. And it was all a friendly competition - we would help each other with the ‘getting ready’ businesss.

Armed to the teeth in an 'array of loveliness' (our natural loveliness considerably enhanced by the careful applocation of a whole lot of artificial aids), we would descend into the warzone of the battle-of-the-sexes. And then, the swagger in our strut and the covert, swift look back to see who noticed whom. The flutter of the eyelashes and the disdainful look away (if you wanted somebody to notice you, you ALWAYS looked AT and then AWAY).

Boys, hapless under the carefully-planned onslaught, would fall for our constructed charms like ninepins. We would sometimes do a tally on the number of scalps in our belts. Reverse feminism, in a way: we just regarded the poor fellows as so many notches on our victory registers.

It was all great fun, and completely frivolous. Serious relationships were few and far-between and would usually come much later in the day. For the rest of us, the ‘male gaze’ was enough.