CHILDREN ARE GIVEN far less credit than is their due for understanding and adjusting to the adult world they grow up in. They are built that way, to fend for themselves when necessary, demand attention when distressed or bored with life, and are resilient to boot when the storm blows hard. I began growing in a dichotomous world: one that was appreciative but often unreasonable; the other that never tried to touch my mind, let alone my heart.
Most of my early memories, as I have said before, were IOQ-centric.
There were these varicoloured patabahar trees across the road. Early one bright morning I had discovered there the first real bird’s nest that I had ever seen, complete with three tiny eggs, bluish with brown streaks. My follow-up quest took me through the various stages from the hatching, the dirty yellow nestlings being fed mouth to mouth by the parents, the process of their growing up at a pace far greater than my own (not that I knew it then), their training flights and unaided foraging endeavours. Then, one fine morning, the nest was abandoned. Memory of the empty nest is etched in my mind as a symbol of sadness. It was also a symbol of death, for I found the abandoned carcase of one of the nestlings in a nearby bush.
I had witnessed human deaths too.
A glass-covered hearse came one day, all the way from Calcutta, to carry Mr. Jones away. Mrs. Jones, red- and rheumy-eyed, followed it in a chauffeured company car, chaperoned by Mrs. Castellari and Mrs. Wallington, to a cemetery in Calcutta. Other cars followed. But, unlike the birds’ nest, their house didn’t remain vacant for long.
Then, barely a few months after the গৃহপ্রবেশ to his new house at Jadavpur, my grandfather (maternal) had a stroke. (The memory of the গৃহপ্রবেশ is still fresh in my mind. All of us were circumambulating the perimeter of the property. I enjoyed the ritual, like only a child could, favouring the hyacinth-covered pond-side stretch, for the concrete lid on the septic tank there didn’t sit properly and would see-saw noisily every time I stepped on its corner). My mother rushed by train to his house with me, all the way from the mofussil town 40 odd miles away from Calcutta, as soon as she got the word. Never gaining consciousness, he died early in the morning the next day. Standing on the window-sill that grey morning what I felt was a sense of emptiness. Grandfather used to go out of his way to pamper me with books. An olive-green school satchel (with a wood ruler, a box of Reeves crayons and a few Venus pencils and an eraser, a Rana Pratap drawing book and several books — Bengali and English) was his last ever gift to me. One of the books, “No-Good, the Dancing Donkey” by Dorothea Johnston Snow, remained my special favourite, and adorned my bedside till puberty, when my brother, over nine years my junior, took it apart.
I was struck with hepatitis within a few days of that, and was confined to bed for months.
Somehow, the memories of the fireflies, the avian death near the patabahar tree, Mr. Jones’s (whom I didn’t know well or miss at all) last journey in the glass hearse, বামন দাদু’s serene face in death, my debilitating illness that had restricted my diet to the blandest of boiled fare and confined me first to bed and then within home, and finally our leaving the IOQ forever in favour of the newly built residential complex, the Estate, were all tangled up in my memory as an inseparable unit, despite the fairly wide passage of time between the first and the final, as symbols of loss. Well into my working life, perhaps in the early seventies, another was added, unbeknownst, to that tangle: I saw it inscribed on a pillar of the riverside gazebo at the Triveni crematorium: নিদয় হরি, কি নিলে!
THERE WAS NO dearth of companionship for me those days. I had many friends within the IOQ, and at the Staff Quarters beyond the factory proper and also the sports ground, some more at Mrs. D’Cruz’s, and a veritable army of cousins of all sorts in Calcutta, where we dutifully went almost every weekend in a dusty inter-class of a local train from Bandel at 13:20. Some urban attractions were available at the IOQ too.
The cake-man, with his ware neatly arranged in a black-japanned steel trunk on his head, came every Wednesday, usually around four in the afternoon. All the children would get to know instantly and make a beeline, no matter where they were, despite the consternation of their red-faced mothers. The সরভাজা-সরপুরিয়া vendor would come as often as he could; so did the জয়নগর man with date palm treacle and jaggery and মোয়া in winter. The banjo-strumming, accordion-playing Anglo-Indian singers from Bow Barracks, usually two in a team, would come once a week in the darkness of evenings, and sing treacly Sinatra and Eartha Kitt songs, and merry numbers for children sometimes. I fondly remember one that went “She’ll be coming ’round the mountains,/ when she comes, when she comes,/ singing aye aye yippee yippee aye”. (I should confess that I am somewhat confused about this song. Somewhere in my memory-bank the jingle “She’ll be wearing silk pyjamas when she comes” got stuck; I thought it was part of the same song, though Google tells me that it was from a different, bawdry song of World War II vintage). Friday was the bookman’s day: paperback thrillers and crime stories, Mills and Boon for aunties, an occasional Bengali novel or two for কাকিমাs, and loads of magazines, pattern books and comics — Dell, Looney Tunes, Superman and Classics (Disney, somehow, was absent but one called the Super-Duck was very much there, though it wasn’t of Disney origin). I had cut my teeth on father’s science fiction pulp novels bought mostly from the bookman. For Bengali books we preferred the Ideal Book Stall near my grandfather’s flat at Gariahat; Jijnasa, diagonally on the opposite pavement going towards Triangular Park and not too far; and, for a short while, the nearest of the three, ToBCo (hope I’ve got the upper cases right), only a few houses off. The last named was a tobacconist where my father got his shag; it also sold books. I was given Lalitmohan Bandyopadhyaya’s পঞ্চরঙ্গ and Bimal Datta’s সিংখুড়োর গল্প bought from that shop in the early stage of my jaundice. I still have the latter, sans the cover, though the stitches are in a state of near disintegration.
The company auditorium was multifunctional before it was given over to cinemas only. In the mornings it housed the Bengali school till a new building came up (I joined the school in 1955 in its spanking new building close by); five days a week it was the club house between four and nine in the evening, boasting of several card tables and a table tennis board, two outdoor Badminton and a concreted tennis court somewhat away; on Fridays (English movies in the night show) and Saturdays it was converted into a cinema hall for all three shows, when the ubiquitous pea-nut and মশলা মুড়ি vendors gathered around. I can’t remember seeing any ফুচকাওয়ালা though; guess the vendors didn’t find the town market-worthy in those days.
When my other grandfather (paternal) died a year or two later, the family was prepared for it, for he had cancer of the pancreas, leading to uncontrollable diabetes and, eventually, multiple organ failure. It wasn’t possible for my father or his Delhiite elder brother to leave their jobs for an indefinite period. My mother’s service was called for. I was still convalescing from jaundice and so accompanied her, and was put under a lady tutor. I witnessed my দাদু’s growing agony first hand but was not scarred in the process to the great disappointment of a few nosey relatives of mine. And, from Mr. Bhowmik, the paramedic, I quickly learned the cumbrous titrative process of determining the sugar level in দাদু’s urine. The paramedic was not needed to come every day after I became a veritable adept. Later, my জ্যেঠি and পিসি too were commandeered to tide over the crisis that got too big for my mother and grandmother. ওগো দাদু, I called him that for grandma used to address him obliquely as ওগো (are-you-listening is the nearest translation), was not demonstrative in his affection.
Whenever in Calcutta, I used to accompany him to the lakes in his evening constitutionals, before he fell ill. Every few yards he would stop to speak to acquaintances (he had far too many), discuss their prognosis with his non-paying patients — usually bhistiwallahs (they supplied water to his flat in buffalo-skin bags for the supply line was unreliable; already a vanishing breed at that time, like those who walked miles to light the gas-fired street lamps on Ramani Chatterjee Street seen clearly from grandfather’s bedroom window) and homebound maidservants — and also making his presence known to several of his friends, young and old, who happened to be looking on from their balconies. He narrated the stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey to me in between, and tales of the Arabian nights, and explained some finer points of diagnosis or medicine. “Never be a doctor when you grow up”, he told me once, though he was one and belonged to the vaidya caste of medicos. “Not one of my relatives has ever earned much, for they were too soft to ask for what was their due; মহাশয় হইলে মহত বিষয়-আশয় হয়না“. I remember that my father, জ্যেঠা and my elder cousin from Delhi were there too when his end came. After his death (which must have been a great relief for him and his dear ones), grandmother refused to leave the house for our one-horse town with all its সাহেবি amenities available at least once a week.
That was when The Ten Commandments was running in the New Empire. Father, with his fresh-tonsured head (not that that made too much of a difference to his advancing baldness), took all of us cousins to see it, so as to relieve us from what he saw as “an unhealthy, oppressive air”. All the spectators in the hall would stare rudely at my his pate, for Yule Brynner, with a shinier one, played Rameses II in the Cecil B. DeMille blockbuster.
I vividly remember the smallest details of his illness and death but his death, for some reason, never got enmeshed in the tangled cluster of my firefly grief. May be I was a bit grown up, a little wiser by then.
The small town that was my home for many more years to come was great to grow up in for all its positive attributes, if you didn’t count the frog-in-the-well existence as too bad, but, for me, the miasma of sadness refused to clear up ever, though leaving the IOQ for the Estate was very much a part of that.
That wasn’t the end of my growth pangs.
(To be continued to other episodes)