No, I was not, repeat, not born in Payogrām, my family’s ancestral village — insignificant at that — in Khulna by river Bhairab. It was decided by my parents that the Joint Services Hospital in Kohat, now in Pakistan, where my father was posted then, would be my birthplace, but that too was not to be, for my father — an air-force officer in the short-service commission — was asked to decide whether (a) he would join the force with a permanent commission, (b) take up a Government of India appointment chosen for him by the powers-that-were, or (c) opt out of both. He refused the permanent commission, bought some time by shifting to Pataudi House in Delhi, and dumped my pregnant mother to his parents’ flat in Calcutta. That gave him breathing space to weigh the government job-offers and greener pastures in the open job market.
Rejecting the better of the two options for obvious reasons—a station director’s post in All India Radio in Dacca, of all places, he finally took up an industrial assignment in the private sector, far below his erudition and abilities, some 40 miles off Calcutta. He joined on the first day of November in 1946; I saw the light of day on the eighteenth, delivered in my mother’s bedroom by my physician grandfather himself.
For some reasons, not very clear to me, both my mother and I shortly landed up in her grandparents’ Śripallī house at Śāntiniketan. Though I have no memory, we weren’t to see my father’s residence at Sahaganj till I was two and one half. No, there was no rancour, none at least to my knowledge.
This is not a stab at an autobiography but an effort to record a few strange reminiscences for my own sake.
The End of Innocence
AS A CHILD I was often called precocious, perhaps, because I seldom smiled at puerile jokes cracked by some elders, or those who deigned to baby-talk with me, or, perhaps, because I had a way with new and obscure words which I collected like most boys of my age gathered marbles or tin soldiers or Dinky cars. The Bangla-medium school, to which I was admitted in Class V in February 1955, after nine months at home due to a severe bout of virulent hepatitis, followed a three-language formula then current in Bengal. Bangla, naturally, was my first; English the second; for the third my father chose Saṃskṛta (Hindi was the only other option at the company-run school ) on my behalf. That Hindi too was added to the curriculum later in the same year and withdrawn the next was another story, and symptomatic of the Nehru era hesitation with linguistic issues. Before the illness, and shortly after my fourth birthday, I went to Mrs. D’Cruz’s nursery between January, 1951, and May 1954.
I can’t recall with certainty whether it was in the Class V Saṃskṛta text or Class VI, but there was a story about a huge silk-cotton tree by the Godāvarī where lived a veritable force of avian tenants; asti Godāvarītīre viśāla śālmalī taru (অস্তি গোদাবরিতীরে বিশাল শাল্মলী তরু). Another detail that I can’t recall is whether it was the same or a different Hitopadeśa story that talked of a rogue crow, intelligent no doubt, who had the most incredible aerial aim when it dropped its intestinal missile on unsuspecting bystanders and flew out of reach: kākena pûrishotsargaṃ kṛtvā palāyamāsa (কাকেন পুরীষোৎসর্গং কৃত্বা পলায়মাস).
I had heard and couldn’t help memorising the lines, long before I began school though, when one of my older cousins used to mug the very same fables over and over again under a soot-encrusted, naked bulb at their Barrackpur (or was it Bowbajar?) residence, newly acquired in exchange of the spacious one that they had in Payogrām—a passport and visa distance away after partition. I saw the Godāvarī in my mind’s eye, untainted yet by impedimenta of knowledge—fair, foul and unwarranted—in the burra nullah (বড় নালা), the big drain that ran along the factory-side boundary of the Indian Officers’ Quarters (IOQ), carrying effluents to Hooghly.
The IOQ was where my father lived—his second residence since joining—in the company premises. I, along with my very young and extremely good-looking mother, was eventually shifted from Śāntiniketan to Sahaganj. My not-so-young father’s (he was 14 years her senior and she was 20 years mine; yet it was a marriage of love, one-way perhaps to start with) residence was the last of twelve quaint, two-bedroom, single-storey buildings—each complete with a backyard garden overlooking the municipal waterworks beyond and to the north of the boundary wall—that stood in a single line, not very straight. If memory isn’t playing tricks with me, there was a gap between quarters number five and six; the clearing had several trees: শিউলি, বকুল, হাস্নুহানা, অশোক and a lone কদম. Each was the abode of many birds, awfully querulous early in the morning, when my parents were trying to extend their Sunday-morning-sleep, and again at dusk. And they all seemingly had loose bowels. Except, may be, a month at the height of monsoon, when heavy clouds hosed down everything underfoot, the tarred lane thereabout looked as if it was laid in chalk.
My fantasy equating the burra nullah with Godāvarī was none too illogical, for on its copse-side stood a silk-cotton (শিমুল), huge enough to qualify, and resplendent in red in the flowering season which, I think, was spring. On the southern end of the tarred lane that ran south to north, from the eastern gate to the garages, was the field. It had several more isolated copses and quite a few tall evergreens. Further north too, beyond our residence, was a field of sorts where we played blind man’s bluff sometimes, and in its north-east corner stood the corrugated-tin garage that housed the only two cars in the IOQ—none ours. Nevertheless, we climbed the jāmrul and the guava trees that stood by it to make good use of the fruits before they ripened.
Mr. Isaac Mohinimohan Daniel (his name, till this day, reminds me of the grand poet MM Dutt) was a highly competent chemist and the acclaimed community-eccentric. He invariably took his constitutional when he returned for the day from office shortly after 16:30, for his work hour began at 07:30—too early for a proper morning walk. He would pace several times up and down the tarred lane, no more than 200 yards, with his umbrella open-and-aloft in all seasons, mostly in defence against the defecating birds that outnumbered the human inmates by at least a hundred to one. Mr. Guillot’s (I’m not too sure of the spelling but Chester, the son, who went to the nursery school with me, pronounced it গিও) mother knitted something every afternoon, woolens for winter and laces for rest of the year, sitting on the front steps. Mr. CR Sen’s mother, about as old, whiled away her own afternoons shifting jars of pickle and rattan mats of আমসত্ত from shade to sun. They conversed conspiratorially, each in her own tongue and ignorant of the other’s, with perfect aplomb. There were three other Anglo-Indian (Eurasian would, perhaps, be a better term) families there: the Joneses, Castellaris and Wallingtons. Mr. Jones, I think, had died in harness before we left the IOQ and Khoka-da, a distant cousin of mine, moved into the vacated house. The Punjabi Naths and Venugopal and Vijaylakshmi’s (k-yel-yem-yen-o-p) parents—I forget their family name—from the south were the only other folks who had no facility with the Bengali tongue or Hindi. I think, ten out of the twelve families who dwelt there had children close to my age, and we got to grow up in a polyglot, mixed-culture backdrop that eventually made some of us shed our prejudices with relative ease.
EARLY MEMORIES ARE tricky, for you know not which ones are true and which are backlit in false details developed from repeated retelling by elders, or imagined from faded old photographs, or expanded upon from dimly recalled fragments. I can remember, without half trying, my very early childhood—lifting the barbell-like rear axle, wheels intact, of a ruined tricycle (my cousin’s?) that was kept on the shared rooftop of 202, Rashbehari Avenue, rear-side block of two on the busy Gariahat area of Calcutta that housed my grandparents in flat number 5 on the first floor, that was also literally my birthplace. I also think I remember being bathed at the well-side at KM Sen’s Śripallī house at Śāntiniketan, singing a popular song, কালিন্দী নদীর কুলে, of that period and swaying to its tune, oblivious of any onlookers eyeing my innocent privates laughingly. But then there were sepia photographs of both events in my mother’s collection, and endless repetitions of related tales that some elderly relatives found amusing.
My earliest real memory, I like to believe, belongs to the IOQ, quarter number 12. It was definitely before I was admitted to Mrs. D’Cruz’s nursery, and also before my fourth birthday, for it was discernibly monsoon—sometime in July (মন্থর, as one poet thought). The incessant rain had interrupted my solo game of catch-ball. It was only with the advent of dusk that the rain had ceased that day. I was allowed to play late, later than usual, in the backyard (উঠোন) where I saw the immense cluster of what could only have been fireflies—millions of them—arranged like a downward looking hibiscus, luminous, pulsating and quivering in the wind in an ethereal way, as it advanced from beyond the western copse, passed the back of our house and vanished at a leisurely pace, beyond the many arrays of iron soldiers, at its own free will.
At that age I didn’t have the articulation or vocabulary to describe it. There is no certainty that what I describe now is not a chimera, made up in my mind over many years from bits and pieces of knowledge learnt and experience gained. It certainly was immense, definitely taller than my tallish father by a yard at least, and seemed alive—quivering like moulded jelly, a common Anglo-Indian dessert at Sahaganj then. It wasn’t until much later that I saw pictures of luminous jelly fish; the feeling of déjà vu was instant.
Its lower end, about as wide as my father was tall, ran a foot or two above the ground but not at a fixed height. It seemed to bob up and down as it progressed from beyond the burra nullah towards the waterworks, working its way with great resolve through hedges, bushes and structures, parting three-dimensionally and coalescing again, seamlessly so, on its deliberate path. It couldn’t have been more than a minute or two within my sight but it felt like ages. It passed effortlessly through the boundary wall running along our backyards, past the many arrays of hollow, knee-level cast iron ventilators—properties of the waterworks—that looked like so many disciplined soldiers awaiting orders. Iron soldiers, I called them, and that was what they looked like from our backyard at dusk. As the evening breeze blew through their vertical slits, my soldiers would play a bass music in unison.
I know with hindsight that it was a gestalt being, quite intelligent in its collective whole, for it chose its path carefully like a sentient creature. Perhaps it also sized me up as a prospective obstacle or a fellow sentient to talk to. I do recall that the gestalt jelly was making a sort of humming noise with some kind of modulation—tonal and in luminosity—as if it was trying to communicate using a complex language. It might also have been talking to itself as I too was wont to do sometimes. Years later I heard a similar noise emanating from a roadside transformer, but the wonderful modulation was missing then.
When it vanished from sight, I ran to my mother to tell her all about it, but she kept on nodding smilingly in the way elders often do when they do not listen to, or believe in, what you are trying to communicate. I was equally unsuccessful in moving my omniscient and polymath father who, later when I was down with hepatitis, had told me all about wonderful creatures: long extinct but known to any present-day schoolboy as Jurassic Park dinosaurs, and also about mysterious creatures of the deep, such as the giant squid and the sea serpent (frill shark?), about the Loch Ness monster, and many others.
That, in a way, was the end of my age of innocence, about four months short of my fourth birthday, for I had learnt the lesson that adults were not as sympathetic or all-knowing as they seemed, and that, come what may, a child must fend for oneself.
(To be continued to other episodes)