Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Global Warming has perhaps affected us in strange ways.

One of them being the disappearance of the "lep" from Bengali lives and households.

The "lep" is a warm blanket made of thin red cotton (called ''shalu") with cotton stuffing inside. Which makes it the softest, cuddliest, cosy-est, snuggliest coverlet possible.

The North Indians had their 'kambals' (woollen blankets). Scratchy and dark, they were too heavy and too warm for Kolkata winters.

The Marwaris had their 'rajais' (soft cotton blankets with silk coverings). Light and pretty, they lacked the weighty gravitas of the lep.

The fashionable had their colourful pastel duvets. The lep was a red Plain Jane in comparison.

For us in winter, the lep was just right.

Every December, after Kalipujo, the leps would be dragged out from trunks and under beds (where they sometimes did double-duty as soft mattresses) and would be solemnly aired and sunned before they were deemed fit to be used.

And when they had absorbed all the warmth and affection of the bright winter sun, the leps would be folded and put at the foot of the bed and declared ready for use.

We had three leps. One small baby lep, which I outgrew pretty fast and handed-me-down to Bhai (my brother), who also outgrew it pretty fast. One ordinary single lep (fit for a single-size bed), which was rather worn out with faded red on both sides. My Maa, being a really good housewife, had stitched a white cotton cover for it to hide its shabbiness.

And one really B-I-G double lep with a coldish, slippery, gold-brown printed satin cover on one side and a warm red cotton cover on the other. Just the right kind of lep for some honeymoon fun (which is presumably why my parents had under it, although such matters were strictly taboo and never-ever discussed). Just the kind of lep that invited you to dive right in, right after dinner and the customary before-bed bathroom visit. This bathroom visit left our feet really cold and cuddling up inside the lep (alone) was the right remedy for cold feet. And little cold persons like us, with only our nose-tips and head-tops showing.

The best thing about leps was, that once you got in, you never, never, never wanted to come out from that warm cocoon.


Thursday, November 25, 2010


Sarbhaja is my favourite sweet. If only because it is too sinfully calorific to be good for my - or anybody's - health.

'Sar' means 'malai' or 'the creamy part that congeals and floats on top of boiled milk as it cools'.

'Bhaja' or 'fry' refers to the process of making the sweet. Which is quite elaborate, actually. (Almost like a piling up of health horrors)

Lovingly skim the 'sar' off the boiled and cooled milk. Add layer upon layer of 'sar'. (Can you feel the inches bulging on your tummy?)

Deep-fry the whole thing in rich 'ghee'. (Shudder!!! Murder in the larder!)

Put it in sugar syrup and soak, soak, soak. (Calorie crime dripping with blood-sugar)

Bite into one of these caramel-coloured, usually-square-shaped, texturised/burnt/milky sweets, let the syrup ooze out, and swoon. (And then die of cholesterol/diabetes/obesity)

This year on our annual Diwali Holiday to Kolkata, the spouse and I discovered a shop near Dhakuria Station that sells the best Sarbhajas ever. Instead of the usual squares, their sarbhajas were like long rectangular ribbons folded over a big, oozy blob of 'khoa', which is 'sweetened, condensed, dried milk'. (Words fail to describe the magnitude of this most heinous horror)

This year, after three years of resisting the temptations of the Sarbhaja, I finally succumbed to its charm, and shamelessly gorged on a Sarbhaja a day, for four consecutive days. (How could you, you diet-deserter, you calorie-criminal, you health-hijacker?)

This happened just a week back. So, why am I writing about the Sarbhaja in PAST CONTINUOUS?

Because the Sarbhaja with its carefree piling of calories, its insouciant sweetness and its uninhibited invitation to indulgence, is a delight from my past. A past when I could co-habit with the Sarbhaja without any excess baggage around my waist.

Not like the present with the 'Sarbhajas-on-the-sly' and the undigested, lingering guilt (and unshed, persistent calories).


Friday, October 15, 2010


The other day, travelling via Chembur, I saw an Amul ice-cream parlour and could not resist going in and trying out their orangey SANTRA MANTRA and LITCHI flavours. Just for the sake of nostalgia, you see, because I'm trying to stay off icecreams. TRYING...

Now, there are so many competitors for my ice-cream affections - so many flavours, so many colours, so many calories. I especially love Natural's Kaju Kismis, the Yogurt Wildberry gelatto, and Honey Nut Crunch by Baskins Robbins.

Just writing about it makes my mouth water. But...with a High Blood Sugar scare and the temptation to lose weight, there are so many restrictions.

When we were young, neither there were so many flavours nor so many restrictions. So we pigged out on vanilla, butterscotch, and chocolate (Bhai's fave, not mine) and that hybrid mish-mash, TWO-IN-ONE. I always, but always, finished off the too-sweet, fake-pink, supposedly-strawberry goop first before starting on the white vanilla portion.

And now, there are so many flavours, but I've fallen out-of-favour with the God of Icecreams. My cheat treat is the bittersweet fat-free jaundice-yellow Limoncello ICE gelatto. No substitute for creamy, sinful, luscious ice-CREAMS.

Sometimes, sadly, the past is not continuous.


Thursday, September 9, 2010


A very familiar sound of my childhood, especially in the evenings, when we would all return home after a few hours of brisk and boisterous play, was the equally brisk and boisterous sound of young voices confidently, if rather unmelodiously, belting out Rabindrasangeet, all the while briskly and boisterously fanning the bellows of their harmonium.

The rather whining and petulant bellowing sound of the harmonium was considered an essential support to train fresh young voices when they learnt their musical basics (Sa-re-ga-ma) and the harmonium would also be an inevitable accompaniment when the singer, having mastered the scales, graduated to Rabindrasangeet... the highest-possible pinnacle of melody (according to all Bengalis).

We had a heirloom harmonium, an ebony rectangular contraption that belonged to my Barama (aunt). After her exertions, the harmonium had been vigorously flapped by both my cousins (Didia and Didibhai). Both of them sang rather well, and the harmonium was happy in their hands.

Unfortunately, I was/am a very pathetic singer, and I can well-imagine the venerable harmonium being absolutely horrified when I would bawl out "Aakash-bhara shurjo tara" (A sky ful of stars and suns - one of the first - and few - Rabindrasangeet I was forced to learn), all the while torturing the harmonium (and the ears of Kanudi - my suffering singing-teacher).

It was a rather painful phase of my growing up, but I (and the harmonium) was forced to undergo the tuneless indignity because of the misguided notion that all good and cultured Bengali girls must learn at least a dozen Rabindrasangeet if they wanted to impress prospective in-laws and marry a rich and handsome husband.

Fortunately however, better sense prevailed. And both the harmonium and I were spared further torture when, after a bout of chicken-pox, nobody suggested I resume my interrupted music classes. I sighed with relief and returned to my books and my badminton. And the grand and indignant harmonium returned to its heavy wooden box and rested for a few years till my Didia took it away, and put it to better and more melodious use.


Friday, August 20, 2010


I was eleven years old, and studying in Class VI, when I took a daring decision.

I decided that it was time I grew from a girl to a woman, with all the accompanying wiles and guiles that went with womanhood. And one of the indispensable weapons in a woman's formidable armoury, was her undisputed skill in attracting men with the mesmeric power of her eyes.

To cut a long story short, I decided to pick up the art of winking.

Because to wink successfully, delicately, without scrunching up your eyes, or squeezing your eyelids tortuously, or hamming up the whole thing like a lascivious Johnny Walker (the comedian, not the whiskey), seemed to my 11-year-old mind the epitome of the femme fatale.

But the mirror was not enough, I needed a guinea pig to practise upon.

Being essentially timid by nature, I chose a safe venue. The top deck of the red double-decker bus - L20 - that took us from safe, suburban Barrackpore to big-city Calcutta and all its dangerous fascinations. A window-seat gave me a good view of the people down below.

I chose a safe victim. I decided to bestow my virgin wink at any old man who would look up at my window, but would not be strong enough or fast enough to follow it up with any other action.

So, in one of the innumerable bus-stops on the way to Esplanade, I winked at a doddery old man who was gazing bemusedly up at the bus. Most probably he had cataract, or short-sight, but I fondly imagined him to be gazing straight at me when I WINKED - not a sly, barely-there wink, BUT A BOLD, LASTING-FOR-QUITE-SOME-TIME, EYE-PROPERLY-SHUT, MAKE-NO-MISTAKE-ABOUT-IT WINK.

The poor man hardly noticed a thing.

Now that was a wink gone with the wind.


Thursday, July 15, 2010


So, the World Cup is finally over! The stylish Spaniards won deservedly over the obdurate Oranje team, and we got our share of thrills, spills and ills.

But being a true-blue-and-yellow fan of Samba soccer, my personal passions ended when Brazil lost in the quarterfinals. Never mind the fact that they were hardly playing the beautiful game, being a total and staunch Brazil fanatic, I just wanted them to win. And I love Dunga! He (and Romario, and Bebeto, and Roberto Carlos and Cafu and of course, Taffarel the goalie, and the rest of the 1994 team) gave me one of my best and most stomach-clenching, nail-chewing sporting memory, when Brazil lifted the coveted cup after a penalty shoot-out win over Italy.

My tryst with Brazil and football started in 1986. It was a long summer, and vacation-time, and my brother and I were staying at my Pishir Bari (aunt's house) in Kolkata. Pishimoshai (my aunt's husband) took us all along to the electronics shop to buy a new colour TV in honour of the World Cup.

And so I met the Brazilian team in all its blue and gold glory on the EC TV screen, playing the French Les Blues, who had the curly-haired Platinni. But it was the Brazilians who mesmerized my young teenage mind. With their sinuous moves and fluent passing and masterful dribbling Brazil easily scored a goal in my heart. I had never seen this kind of scintillating football before, so full of motion and flow and art and grace and joy. Pele was a hoary name in black-and-white record books whose wizardry I saw and learnt of later. The 1986 Brazil boys made me fall in love with their brand of football flair and made me a convert forever!

Never mind the fact that their defence and goalkeeping was so atrocious as to be non-existent. Never mind the sad, sad fact that the dashing Zico and the sagacious Socrates both missed penalties. Never mind the fact that Brazil lost, again in the quarterfinals. Never mind the fact that 1986 was the year of Maradona, his magic, miracles and mischievous Hand of God.

For me, my heart began to beat and will always beat for Brazil.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


Blame this on the sun!

But switch on the T.V and you'll find a long long line of ads for deos. All of which will have in-your-face, cringe-inducing shots of pretty/hunky movie stars flashing their underams as they spray on the deodorant that'll apparently keep them smelling of roses 24 x 7.

There's the dishy John Abraham and his Garnier. There's the svelte Asin and the effervescent Genelia. And...you get the point?

I guess raising you arms above your head and flashing your underarms with abandonment is perfectly acceptable nowadays. I'm sure to be labelled old-fashioned if I crib too much about this.

But I grew up in a time when underarms were called armpits. Not without reason. They were meant to be hidden, like all pits. Or at least lowered. Of course we saw lots of men and women wearing sleeveless clothing, including almost all of my family members. But that did not mean they jumped about raising their arms all the time.

In fact, when my brother started going to school, he was so enamoured of his Kindergarten teacher, Miss Joshi, who always wore dainty sleeveless blouses (with saris, that is), that he cried and cried and finally persuaded my Maa to switch over to sleeveless blouses, just like "Aunty Joshi". And my Maa was converted for life.

So you see, I'm not ethically anti-underarms. In fact, I wear a fair amount of sleeveless stuff myself - although my fat upper-arms demoralise my endeavours quite often.

My objection is aesthtic. Male or female, sweaty or fragrant, toned or not, polished or not (beauty parlours often have a service called UNDERARM POLISHING that I'm rather curious about), depilated or not, I still believe underarms are best lowered if they are uncovered.

Of course, if they are covered, you can merrily go about raising them and doing your own thing - like shouting slogans and picketing. I'm a Bengali from the land of the Red Comrades and the Red-faced-because-she's-mostly-shouting Mamata Banerjee, so I've met millions of raised and angry and protesting underarms. But they are covered.


Thursday, May 13, 2010


When we were kids, jeans were not the ubiquitous youth-gear they are now. The only jeans brand that I can recall was AVIS (a spin-off from LEVI'S???), which sold out of a glass-fronted shop in the centre of Kolkata's iconic New Market. On the rare occasions that we stepped into the hallowed portals of New Market, I would gaze awestruck at the Avis Shop-window, so engrossed that I would nearly bump into the old canon that stood in the middle of the market courtyard. My cousin brother, Dadabhai, then studying to become an engineer at Jadavpur University, had a couple of pairs of stylishly faded indigo Avis-es. But he was a rare creature, orbiting our ordinary existence from his distant hostel life; so jeans were also something like Halley's comet, rarely seen, but never worn.

My first jeans was a hand-me-down from my cousin Tinnididi (who thankfully grew at a faster pace than me for all of twelve years, so I got lots of coveted second-handstuff. Unfortunately, she resolutely stopped growing after twelve, and my chief source of clothes ended there and then.). It was indigo at its indigo-est, with brown cord piping around the pockets. My legs being considerably longer than Tinnididi's, it was never really a comfortable fit, but I mulishly insisted on getting as much mileage out of it as I could, although I could barely sit down in it.

My first very-own, true-blue, first hand pair of jeans was gifted to me when I was twelve or so, by another cousin, Didia (who was my fashion inspiration for a long long time). It was a 'foreign' jeans - Didia stayed abroad with her husband and returned home once a year laden with goodies for all of us - so its NRI-status upped its fashion-quotient considerably.

It was hideously stone-washed in the fashion of the day, and horribly baggy, also in the fashion of the day.But baggy had its advantages - I could sit/lie/run/stretch in it comfortably. However, it was too precious for me to treat it like a second skin. I wore it only on special occasions - like on visits to cosmopolitan Calcutta and to birthday parties and suchlike. T-shirts were not good enough for my only pair of jeans. I wore it with pintuck tops and lace-embellished shirts. I even remember wearing it to my Mama's wedding (mother's brother), with a shot-grey full-sleeved pearl-embellished favourite top.

I might have looked like an awkward fashion disaster, but I sure felt awesome in my jeans.


Thursday, April 29, 2010


...and we are young. Not afraid of sweat. Not bothered about tanning and wrinkles. Not aware of UVA and UVB and UVC and UVD (just kidding).

When we were young, the sun meant...

...squinting our eyes up at the blue-gold dazzle of the sky to test who could look at the sun without squinting.

...frolicking about the house and garden wearing only a thin white 'penny' or 'tepjama' (a white cotton camisole with - inevitably - birds and flowers shadow-embroidered around the hemline and torso).

...trying to catch and intensify the sun-rays through Baba's magnifying glass and make a piece of paper catch fire (just as the Enid Blyton kids seemed to do so easily do when they were lost in islands or mountains or valleys).

...watching impatiently as Ma and Barama (aunt) made circles of boiled and spice-added sabudana-dough (tapoica) on a large piece of cloth (usually an old saree) and put it out in the sun to dry. These would become Sabudana Papads in a few days, and we would crunch-munch them down after they were crisply fried in a kadai (wok) full of oil.

...endless rounds of splashing around and swimming about in our neighbour's pond, all in the name of 'cooling off'.

...waiting for Dida (grandmother) to doze off in the afternoon so that we could go up on the chhaad (roof-terrace) and steal our fill of mango, lemon and tamarind pickles left out to mature in the sunlight. The trick was to remove the thin white cloth covering the boyam (china jar), take out the pickles, eat, wash your hands and then to put back the cloth. If you tied the cloth back before washing your hands, it would leave tell-tale oil stains on the cloth. We even found out how to remove the oil-residue from our palms. Although there was no soap on the roof-terrace, we dug out soil from the flower pots and rubbed them all over our palms. That got rid of the oil pretty effectively.

Yes, sun was fun, once upon a time.


Monday, April 12, 2010


With summer on at full blast, memories naturally seem to turn towards cooler things.

Like refrigerators. Now we have monstrous 300/400/God-only-knows-how-many-hundred litre refrigerators, but when we were young, we had a small 100 litre single-door 'fridge' which sufficed for all the needs of our family of six (plus my uncle's family of five - as they did not have any fridge of their own, they would often put their leftovers in 'our' fridge - a matter that sometimes led to frissions of domestic tension over S-P-A-C-E).

But for us, that small fridge was an Alibaba's cave of goodies which we were strictly prohibited to touch without permission. From the outside, it was like any other white (fridges in the 1970s seemed to come in only one colour) Allwyn (where is that company now???) fridge, rather yellowed with age and use, rather rusty at the edges.

But once the doors swung open and the chilly foggy blast hit our faces like a blizzard, we could see a lot of goodies that made our mouths water. [The leftover rice or dal or curry never interested us. Neither did the dekchi (pan) of milk.]

We lusted after the slab of Amul butter (100 gms, if you please, not the large 500 gms that I buy for the family nowadays). Red sugar-syrup-dipped cherries and crinkly kismis (raisins) reserved for cake-baking days. Slabs of aamsatto (sweetened mango preserves) for making chutneys. A screw-topped bottle of Kissan Mixed Fruit Jam, which went on bread-slices every day for our school-tiffin-boxes. Ripe mangoes lending their gorgeous smell to the cloistered cold air, red watermelons with a chunk scooped out and sugar put in. Bottles of Rasna (an orange drink) severely rationed to greet guests. Sometimes, exotic stuff like caramel puddings or sponge cake-mixes that Maa and Didia would painstakingly cook from recipes in Chic (a women's magazine that tried to make us more Anglified and, presumably, 'chic').

And, when we opened the small door of the deep-freezer and poked about the powdery ice and boxes full of slices of raw fish, we would be sure to find trays of home-made (Maa-made) ice-cream. Milky and mango-flavoured with real, squeezy mangoes for Bhai (brother). Full of peanut-crunch and thickened milk for me. Maa often had to serve us ice-cream slabs that had clear (and deep) finger-poking marks on them.

Going by the sheer amount of food that it could hold, that fridge was a magic box!


Monday, March 22, 2010


I am working on some communication for a fairness cream for men. And the research team has just unpacked a huge carton full of various cosmetic products solely dedicated to men's skinare. Face-washes, scrubs, anti-tanning lotions, post-sun-exposure gels, face-packs and, of course, fairness creams, all dedicated to the male peacocks of the species. A fascinating and bewildering plethora of pseudo-scientific-sounding stuff!

Back in the old days, I remember that my Baba (father) and Jethun (uncle) used to feel that a shave by the naapit (barber) when he came to out house every Sunday was the very epitome of luxury. And when he used to wipe their faces with water in which a piece of fatkiri (alum) had been soaked (for its antiseptic/astringent qualities), my Father's generation used to regard that as 'intensive, personalised skincare for men'. Quite the equivalent to a male-facial at a spa, probably.

And then when my Dadabhai (cousin brother) and Mama (mother's brother, who's younger by a decade) grew up, got jobs and got married, the ultimate in male luxury was to splash/spray on some aftershave after their daily bout with the razor. And the in-vogue stuff was OLD SPICE, with its distinctive red or white bottle and its special woody smell. For my teenage romantic dreams, the knight on a white charger always had to smell of Old Spice. And he would usually come, not riding an antiquated horse, but riding the waves on a surfboard like the rough-n-tough guy in the Old Spice TV-commercial that tugged at our hearts and hormones for years!

And then came Old Spice Fresh Lime, and Old Spice Musk. Things began to get complicated. And then arrived Brut and Denim and Aramis and a whole lot of other names. And a whole lot of other stuff to put on male faces. And goop for hair. And manicures and pedicures. A whole deluge of products and services and websites and salons and even magazines dedicated to promoting and maintaining male vanity. The metrosexual man is sure spoilt for choice.

Maybe men got clear skin. But they lost clear-mindedness. And got completely mind-boggled. Cosmetic-confusion, which was once the prerogative of women bombarded by over-information about beauty products, became the man's lot also. That's what gender-equality is all about, right?


Thursday, March 4, 2010


My two teddy-bear-cubs (my daughters) go to school in a big yellow school-bus. In fact, when the younger one went to play-school, which was just around the corner, she refused to accept that it was a PROPER SCHOOL. Because there was no sunny yellow school bus full of bright, chattering children to take her there.

Neither had we. We went to school in a rickety cycle-rickshaw. Our school-special rickshaw was value-added with a narrow wooden bench tied carefully to the back of the driver's seat. This way, it could carry many more children than it would have done unadorned! The rickshaw can carry two people in relative - if rather bumpy - comfort. With the added bench, it was made to carry 7-8 children. I've tried to re-create the engineering in my mind, but the mind BOGGLES (I'm currently immersed in the world of Jeeves, so I just had to put in that word) at the effort.

Our rickshaw-driver an affable gent called, for some unfathomable reason, Jamaibabu (son-in-law). Every morning, at around eight, the punctual Jamaibabu would come ponk-ponking the rickshaw horn at our gate. Rushing out, my brother and I would hop on to the coir-cushioned back-rest-ed seats. As our house was the first place Jamaibabu halted at, it was rather easy for us to get the best seats, which we ruthlessly refused to move away from, even if the others requested.

Jamaibabu pulled the rickshaw - with the familiar kaanch-konch sound of the three wheels turning - along the winding lanes, halting at other houses and picking up...Dipto and Rumni from their mansion with the flower-fragrant garden, Bapi from the dilapidated rented house, another very formal-looking child (whom we called Mr Gon, because he carried a tin suitcase with MR. S. GON printed on it; he was always late as his mother pleaded and pestered him to finish his glass of milk), and my cousin J and her brother.

The seats filled up fast and we sat face-to-face, three in the original rickshaw seat and five clinging like limpets to the narrow wooden bench. Knees knocked together and bags knocked over others' as Jamaibabu hit the pedal hard (we always blamed the tardy Mr Gon and his hapless mother for this). Fights sometimes erupted, but even without arguing, our decibel level was pretty high. The genial Jamaibabu would sometimes turn his head to admonish us, making the rickshaw wobble scarily. The kaanch-konch of the wheels increased as the rickshaw bumped and bounced its way to Modern School like an overloaded ark full of chattering, chirpy children. Although Jamaibabu had probably never heard of time-management, we were almost never late.

And in the afternoon, the rickshaw would return, bursting at the seams with rather exhausted but still noisy children. Bagging seats was a free-for-all, and getting a good seat (which somehow was more important on the return journey, maybe our tender bottoms were sore after all that sitting around) meant making a dash from the school-gate to the waiting rickshaw. As Jamaibabu shooed us on and hustle-pedalled his way home, the discomfort became negligible in the delight of chatter-boxing!


Monday, February 15, 2010


Staying in Barrackpore and having lots of relations in Calcutta meant that short train journeys (about an hour and a half) were a regular part of our holidays. Trains meant a mix of excitement and apprehension, clutching tightly to Baba's hands on the crowded platform, the pleasure of standing in front of the window with the wind whipping my hair into my eyes, seeing the fields and houses tush by, getting warned every now and then not to put our hands out of the window, buying candies or fruits from the hawkers on the trains. And getting the yellowish cardboard ticket as a keepsake after the journey.

But my first really l-o-o-o-n-g overnight journey on Indian Railways was when I was seven years old, and we (Maa, Bhai and I - Baba had to go to 'office') accompanied my Dadu (mother's father) to Bhopal to visit my Mashi (mother's sister). Bhopal is 1356 kilometers away from Kolkata and we went the distance in an ordinary (not air-conditioned) second-class compartment, in the summer vacation when the temperature outside was often more than 40 degree celsius, in a train that had a coal-engine (which multiplied the heat-factor considerably) and which took two nights (if I remember correctly) to reach Itarsi (the station where we alighted, 77 kilometers away from Bhopal city). But being children, being middle-class, and being part of the frugal-seventies-generation, we never felt the heat or the discomfort. We didn't know any better. Maybe that is a good thing.

Dadu was a meticulous planner, and Maa was his able ally. So we got up on the train accompanied by, among other things, one kunjo of water (earthenware pot) in a wooden stand (to get deliciously cool water - beats refrigerated water any day), unlimited home-made cakes (to last the entire journey and beyond), limited luchi-mangsho (unleavened bread and mutton-curry, for the first night's supper, in such enormous quantities that it could feed an entire coupe of people), and one bedding-roll.

Why bedding-roll? At night, Dadu slept on the lower berth, taking an air-pillow and a two bed-sheets (one to lie upon, one to cover up), Maa and Bhai (then a three-year old enfant docile) slept similarly on the middle berth, and I was put inside the bedding roll with a pillow under my head and the straps tied over my body and bundled up onto the top berth. Despite being strait-jacketed to sleep, I loved the novelty of my high vantage point and spent a large part of the daytime sitting up on the top berth, reaching up to touch the ceiling every now and then.

Only the lure of the window got me down. Travelling through the vastness of India, with its changing terrains, soils, vegetation, cultivated and barren fields, villages, crowds and miles upon miles of empty spaces was an eye-opener. Except when the coal-engine belched extra-vigorously and the sooty smoke wafted into our eyes.

Faces black with soot, tummies full of a constant supply of food, mind replete with a multi-sensory experience of a lifetime, we got down at Itarsi station past midnight, the darkness adding to the mystery of the new place. Maasi (aunt) was waiting for us, and we travelled through the dark and long 77 kilometers to Bhopal clip-clopping in a tonga (horse-drawn carriage). But that's another journey, and another story.


Thursday, January 14, 2010


This is not my memory actually, because I can't fly kites at all. Even though I have gamely tried to, on several occasions, kites simply refuse to obey my cajolings to string them along, and they stubbornly nosedive to the ground with a thud.

It's about my Baba (father). He was a kite-enthusiast, having grown-up in the unimpeded spaces of his village Balubhara ('Sand-full') in innocent pre-partition Bangladesh, where the green of the open fields met the blue of the wide sky without too much of human interference in-between.

So, when he came over to Barrackpore in India, he carried in his heart that love for wide emptinesses that kite-flying symbolises and that expertise with strings and winds that kite-flying demands.

Yesterday was Makar-Sankranti, and the sky above Mumbai's million chawls (shanties) were potholed with quarelling and soaring kites. But in Bengal, kite-flying is a ritual associated with autumn and September's Vishwakarma Puja. So, around that time, Baba would eagerly go to the market and bring along a number of cheap and colourful thin paper kites. They had interesting names like petkatti (stomach-cut, which meant a half-and-half design in two colours). We (Bhai and I) would tag along, like two-tails twirling behind the kite.

Baba would tie the unravelled spool of un-treated, toothless string all around two supuri (betelnut) trees in our garden. Then he would make an edgy, dangerous manja (paste) which included powdered glass and apply this to the thread to give it the desired bite.

Because kite-flying on Vishwakarma puja was not just about feeling the wind in your upturned face and the pull of the string in your hands. It is a cut-throat competition where warring kites cross glass-sharp strings and the sharpest string wins. As the winning kite soars higher in ebullient victory, the defeated kite falls ignominously to earth. All the watchers of this sky-cast reality show cry 'Bhokkata' (It's cut) and rush out to catch the fallen kite as a prize, often climbing trees and bulidings when the kite gets stuck in branches or rooftop-antennas.

We would accompany Baba to our chhad (rooftop), or to the higher roof of our neighbour's house, along with a cheering group of friends. Baba, egged on by our admiring gang, would ask one of us to hold the
kite a little distance away and throw it up into the air (a job we would perform with wide-eyed reverence), while he expertly pulled the strings in the latai (string-holder). As Baba and the wind teamed up to raise the kite higher and higher, we would crane our necks to watch, squinting in the sunlight. At a sufficiently safe height, he would hand over the latai to us to hold. It was absolutely thrilling to feel the kite pulling away at the string as if it had a fierce life of its own, unchallenged master of the blue.

But when another kite came into our line of vision, we would hurriedly hand over the charge to Baba and go back to our cheer-leading roles.And the big fight for the sky would begin.