I am currently sheltering in my childhood home, where I arrived at the end of February 2020, for what I thought was to be a three weeks stay. It’s August and I’m still here and counting.
Sitting in my room with a diary and pen, I pause to look out the window. There is a garden marked by a boundary wall draped with greenery and bougainvillea. The serene beauty of a garden with summer flowers soothes my tired eyes. Beyond the wall is the world, strange, different and quiet.
Be that as it may, many blessings have surfaced through the soil. One precious blessing is the extended time gifted to be with my mother, who has touched a spry 90!
The others are a garden to stroll in, a verandah to lounge in, flowers and trees to gaze upon, a tabby cat to befriend, (always been a dog person), an open sky to avail of every morning and evening – in restricted quarantine times. This bounty of air, sky and space would have not been remotely possible in my apartment home in Mumbai. Apart from this, there is another unexpected boon…the extended time to dwell upon the memories associated with the house.
After marriage, children of the house disperse to their new married homes, and their childhood homes become mere places of visit. So this time is unique in as much as I am literally settled here with no fixed date of leaving. It’s almost as if I’ve traveled back to my earlier self, the pre-married one that was a resident of this house for 27 years, and for whom this was her only home, till she got married.
In every room, some significant memory of childhood and growing up pops up. There is the corner in the dining room, where a small triangular wooden table sat forever, perched atop which the black beauty called the phone reigned supreme. It had a round dial and that curly wurly wire which would inevitably get tangled some time or the other. One person at a time could be on it, and if any one hogged this space gluttonously one hovered around in an overt manner, making the impatience more than clear. Ah, the magic of those conversations!
On earlier shorter trips there was no time to reflect or dwell upon these stories from our past. As life moves on, we gather fresh experiences and the pile-up pushes the older ones further back. We get engaged with stuff like marriage, kids, career and this takes a lot of space – and energy – in our day to day life. There is nary the time to reflect on our earlier original selves, free and unencumbered with the accretions and responsibilities of later life.
In fact, I always rue the fact of baggage growing heavier over advancing years, even as the weariness creeps in.
Also, which is our true self? The 16 year old, the 27 year old, the 40 or 50 year old? Surely there’s something that doesn’t change through all the years? A question, I suspect of a spiritual nature, to ponder.
The gardener is mowing the lawn.The loud whirr of the lawn mower makes me look up.The sight of a lawnmower is in itself highly pleasing, to a resident of Mumbai, where gardens are a luxury of space, few can afford. I watch riveted. The lawnmower is spraying mounds of swirling grass into the air, which pirouette and then fall back into the trough.This scene takes me back to childhood when this was an occasion to play. As kids we picked up clumps of mowed grass and showered it all around in glee. This fun had no logic, but it gave immense joy. Though I as an adult wouldn’t do this today, did it in some way define the ethos of childhood? Do all children throw up grass- clumps in a shower around them and feel gleeful? Is adulthood hampered by its constraints of logic? Also does the state of being happy come from inside out or outside in? I think it’s the former. As children, being happy is easier because an inner predisposition is there for it. A child is innately unencumbered by adult worries and concerns. So, it expresses the happiness within by external gestures like spraying grass or tripping and hopping instead of walking or other small acts of mischief and playfulness all for their own sake.
As adults we cramp our insides with worldly worries and the innate predisposition to happiness is suppressed. Spiritual wisdom dictates, ‘Be happy’ first, and then see it manifesting outside. So true.
There is an impressive ‘angan’ or inner courtyard in my childhood home. It is open to the sky but enclosed within the house. Memories of summer nights surface. Canvas beds were laid out here, with cool cotton sheets and it was sheer delight to fall asleep, staring at the star embedded night sky. Today it is unthinkable to do this, from the security point of view. Also, stranger still, is the fact that in those bygone days, our main gate was a low wooden one with no extra security measures. Today we have a heavy iron gate with steel spikes on the top…
Then there is the Pink Room with its infamous spot where my first radical act of parental defiance took place. There is this old- fashioned wooden dresser with a long mirror, still around in the room, from those days. Here it was, that I chopped off my hair, without prior intimation to my mother. As a 15 year old schoolgirl I plonked myself on a stool in front of the mirror and looking keenly into it, gave my sister a scissor to chop off my long tresses from hip length to shoulder length! Now, long hair is a matter of pride and beauty in Indian households. I vividly remember that look on my mother’s face. Her jaw dropped and it took all my resources to calm her.
In this same room, there is a huge steel almirah, most un-stylish, but which, for me, had the mystique of Aladdin’s cave.This was my father’s treasure alcove of cutesy things stacked away for future use. There were decorative gifts like musical boxes, and exotic perfumes (my mother’s stuff too!) and after-shave lotions, (Brut, his favorite) “imported” Lavender talcs, stylish pens, silk scarves, ties and cufflinks, and fancy things, accumulated over the years, never meant to be used, only to be seen and coveted!
Seeing this cupboard, which hasn’t been opened in years now, I stare at the empty space where my father stood umpteen times, mischievously shielding the tucked-away stuff from our prying eyes. My eyes tear up.The cupboard there, my father gone…
Another spot in my house deserves mention.This is a very tiny room which we called the “chota kamra”…(the tiny room). It has blue walls, a soft woollen carpet on the floor, a comfy cushioned double-seat sofa with flowery Victorian upholstery, mellow reading lamps, and the most distinguishing feature – books, books and more books, lining the walls on all sides… Our love for books was birthed here for sure – our erudite corner! As children we had the pleasure of leafing through the Children’s Encyclopedias which my father had stacked for our use. As we kept growing we kept finding the very books we needed for the different stages in our lives. Literary books, philosophy, science, art, astronomy, everything under the sun. Naturally I became an avid reader.
Every spot in my childhood home revives a forgotten past when life was simply a saga of fun and games. The jackfruit tree in the garden is still there, solid as ever, but without the tree house which my father built for us. The wooden planks didn’t hold up with the ravage of time and it had to be dismantled when we married and moved away. The old wheelbarrow is still around in which I plonked myself and told the gardener to give me a ride in. The thrill of being ferried thus! The slope of the garage reminds me of my first taste of the thrill of speed…Roller skating down this slope was an absolute high.
There is a small side-gate to the big main one in our house, which was always a special focus of interest. Through the day there was movement in and out through it, by random visitors, vendors etc. One of the first entries of the day was by the newspaperman, an event much awaited by the inmates of the house.
This gate also saw the entry of the kind of people one can’t imagine today. A milkman, with a mammoth aluminum milk container, full of fresh milk, (milked from cows tethered at a spot, down the lane from our house) from which a meticulously measured amount would be poured into waiting steel containers for our use.
And the balloon man! These guys had the most enticing wares for little kids. They would go down lanes making sufficient noise with their toy rattles to alert kids of the neighborhood. Additionally, you saw their fluttering balloons held by strings to a tall pole, very visible over the low boundary walls of homes. This pole had attached to it many plastic colorful knick knacks to catch the attention of kids!
Then there was the Bhalu wala (Bear man!) and the Monkey man! The former had a ferocious looking, but tamed black bear on a leash trained to perform antics to entertain kids! I remember seeing the ‘bhalu act’ numerous times in my house here. The monkey man did very much the same – make his monkeys perform all kinds of funny feats much to the delight and hilarity of little kids. Both the guys had this noisy rattle kind of contraption to which the animals responded with their acts. Of course, as grown ups we realize the inhumanity of this but as kids we had no idea..
In the later growing up years, the small side-gate of our bungalow, assumed greater significance as it brought the postman, with his exciting brown satchel of letters into the house. Of all things, there was nothing more thrilling than getting a crisp white thickish envelope in the mail, addressed to you! (I don’t think there must be anyone in the whole world who would debate the pleasure of this)…
Sitting here now in isolation, I try to assess my happiness of those unencumbered days, before marriage took me away to a new home, and compare it to the “quality of my happiness” of later years…
There is a popular song where the poet avers that to him nothing compares to the simple joys of childhood. He poignantly states that given a choice he would forego even the intoxications of youth for the innocent thrills of childhood, like climbing trees with friends, floating paper boats and splashing about in puddles on the street…
The ecstasies of adult life are in their own place, but they are nefariously double-edged, unlike those pristine childhood ones!
So here I am, reliving my past again, piecing together the jigsaw of memories into my present mould of personality and wondering, am I the same person?
The strange takeaway is that “doing nothing” and being parked here for months, has been one of the most edifying experiences of recent times, a doorway to lost memories, that would never have opened but for this crazy lockdown.