If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Saturday, 11 July 2009

A journey called childhood

Not many outside Bengal know that filmmaker Satyajit Ray also wrote exquisite prose, particularly for children and young adults. In the preface to his memoir Jakhan chhoto chhilam (When I was a child) he says: “No one can say beforehand what among their childhood experiences will be retained, and what will be erased from memory forever. There is no rule that tells us what we will remember and what we won’t. That is the magic about memory.” (The translation is mine.)

In my early childhood, our family happened to visit Agra and Bombay, but trips to these famous / happening places are just faded sepia pictures in my mind. On the other hand, vacations to an ordinary, nothing-special-about-it village near my hometown fill a large space of my childhood memories. I have written about our first visit to the village in my previous post. But one cannot slight Agra or Mumbai. They should find a place in my memoir, even if as an afterthought, a postscript.

Cousins are referred to as brothers / sisters in Bangla, as we don’t have a synonym for the word. So is it in many other Indian languages. This simple linguistic fact says much about our relationships. Shyamal Kaku was more than a brother to my father in many ways and although he never said so, while we were at his house in Agra, his message was clear and unambiguous: Mi casa es tu casa. (My home is your home.)

He was the manager of a government art and craft emporium located in the Taj complex. And his house was just a few blocks away. The compound of his house was hidden behind a high, rampart-like wall. The building must have been a few hundred years old. It was a circular structure with a dome as the roof, with hardly any windows. But it didn’t matter, the family spent most of the time in the open courtyard, which offered privacy thanks to the boundary wall.

We almost lived in the Taj Mahal for a week. We walked down to the place immediately after brushing our teeth. My sister and me ran along the fountains, lost ourselves in the halls and chambers of the mausoleum, and jumped off its stairs. If subsequent memory hasn’t turned it into a palimpsest, the Yamuna was dry even in those days.

In my childhood, there were clear indications that I would grow into the unrefined and unsophisticated person that I am. I didn’t have a jot of appreciation for the architecture of the Taj, its aesthetics, or its maker’s love for his wife. Its compound was nothing more than a lovely park to me. The only thing that impressed me about the Taj Mahal was the calligraphy on its walls. (Possibly because I was struggling with handwriting at the time.)

What I found most interesting in Agra was the making of malai. There were several dimly lit sweetmeat shops nearby, where huge flaccid bare-bodied men would fan boiling milk on enormous woks upon equally big open ovens. I would watch with fascination as thick layers of cream formed on the surface of the milk.

The Taj might have failed to impress me, but the Arabian Sea didn’t.

We were staying with an uncle of my mother at Dadar. A colleague of hers too was with us. One morning, we took a bus to Juhu. We got off at the Juhu terminus and started walking towards the sea. We went for quite some time and were wondering if we were on the right path: the roads were empty; there were neither vehicles nor pedestrians whom we could ask for directions.

Suddenly, as we turned at a corner, I saw a vast endless something that was also making a guttural growl. I hadn’t seen a sea before and before I knew what it was, it attracted me just as a powerful magnet draws iron filings. I forgot everything and ran, leaving my mother, her friend and my sister far behind.

For some time, I stood awestruck before the sea. It was one of those rare moments when we are face to face with the enormity of Nature, and when our utter insignificance becomes obvious through our futile attempts to contemplate the unknowable.

My mind, which had gone numb, was woken up when my mother’s colleague boxed my ear with all her might. She was a teacher and an NCC instructress to boot. The tetchy lady brooked no indiscipline.

The public humiliation hurt, but it didn’t dampen my spirit. For many years since that morning, I often closed my eyes and tried to recreate that sense of awe and wonder of my first tête-à-tête with the sea.

Besides the sea, what I remember of that trip are the BEST buses. They were clean, red, and efficient, just like the CSTC buses back home in Calcutta. But the people were much more disciplined. They would stand in a queue to get onto buses and bought tickets before sitting down. On a trip to Mumbai in 2007, I found that neither the Arabian Sea, nor the BEST bus has changed. I wish I could say the same thing about the public transport system in Kolkata.

The day before we were to leave Bombay, I went out to buy something from a shop at the corner, and lost my way. As I wandered around in Dadar, each of the thousands of buildings looked the same. In my efforts to get back, I only managed to move farther away. If my memory isn’t playing me false, I was not scared. After some time, my cousin, Budi-di rescued me from a place almost half a mile away.

Later, while I was reading Shankar lose his way in the South African veldt in Chander Pahad (The Mountain of the Moon), it reminded me of my experience in Dadar.

[Photo courtesy The Wikipedia]

Saturday, 11 July 2009


  1. Many of us have a Shankar hidden in us, don't we?

    Taj Mahal did not appeal to me much either, ever. I don't know the reason why.

    However, very much like you the Arabian Sea and BEST buses did capture my imagination. I am happy to hear that you as a child ran around the beach, even we did. These days, I don't think many children would do that. They would be too busy to play with their cellphone if not anything else.

    Thanks by the way, for the website about Khmer Rouge jail in Cambodia. It is a coincidence I was reading about the conflict just yesterday on Time.

  2. Taj has never impressed me, I was too horrified by the stories of the cruelty on the workers who actually built that vision. I think it will always remind me of the tortures rather than of the love. A beautiful post, and the BEST buses and the queues of mumbai definitely need applause.

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  4. Isn't it telling that children are always more impressed by natural wonders than by man-made monuments?

    Loved your post as usual. But sadly, while the BEST buses of Mumbai are still going strong, the red govt buses of Kolkata are much more dilapidated and badly-run. Are they not?


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