My childhood was wondrously laid-back and my parents were blissfully unaware of the need to enroll their children in extra classes that taught any new skills or sports. I had free rein over my leisure hours. I learnt swimming, or rather how not to drown, in the huge pond in our backyard. There were all sorts of fishes and creepy crawlies lurking beneath the murky surface, including a huge tortoise and once my foot had accidentally grazed its rough, scaly back. My father had brought home that tortoise when I was three and it had slid out of his palm onto the dinner table, slowly crawled across the whole expanse, and would have fallen off the other end if I hadn’t held it back. Not much brains to speak of. My cousins and I never contracted any illness even after months of splashing around in the pond that had never been chlorinated. I also learnt how to fish sans any expensive equipment. All it took was a long and thin bamboo pole, a thick string and a fishing hook. I got flour balls from the kitchen, dragged a small moorha to the edge of the pond, and sat down to fling the bait into the water. My youngest uncle accompanied us and solemnly whispered fishing tricks to all the wide-eyed children surrounding him, basking in the attention that we showered him with.
When I was a child I sat at the study desk every evening for a few hours, opening slim volumes of brown notebooks with a serenely smiling Don Bosco on the front cover, to draw maps, solve quadratic equations, summarize a poem or memorize the years of famous battles. I grew up in a modest locality of a small town in Assam, where the residents were thankful for a few hours of electricity every night. And till the time my father brought home a noisy power generator, a candle and a match box were as essential on my study table as a pen. Every time there was a power cut, it was the perfect excuse to plead to my mother that my eyes hurt reading the tiny print in the faint light of the candle. She knew me well, and after confirming with an ophthalmologist that I had excellent vision, she started bringing home newer sets of large candles with thicker wicks.
In retrospective the incident is hilarious but in that moment I wished I was anywhere on earth but there. To my dismay and the pharmacist’s delight, the word spread among the circle of old men in the village and Dr.X’s sales sky-rocketed.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Of all things I didn’t expect my ’20s’ to resemble the opening line of “A Tale of Two Cities“.
Everything overlaps in my memory. I can’t pinpoint what happened when.
My 20s has been a blur: the years, the events, experiences, people who drifted in and out, people who lingered, the hard-earned and the surprise successes, the vicious cycles of failure, the ennui of adulthood, the simple or extravagant joys, deceptions and lies, the foolish heart that refuses to learn lessons, the heart that has learnt to be and even accept indifference, journeys of self-discovery, the indirect search for the meaning of it all, nights of fervent prayers, indulging in frivolities, still reading books with the same love and worship for the written word, still being the pampered daughter and doting sister, paranoid driving, learning compassion and responsibilities, healing others and not just because it is a job, learning the hard way to follow the advice of my parents, waiting for I know not what, laughing at how far I’ve come along yet how long I have stood still, sometimes mourning an untarnished memory, kicking myself often for wavering in the most important thing in the world-discipline, uncertain steps into writing, accepting deficiencies and along the way accepting myself, wondering what my ten year old self would say when my dreams of a settled career and being happily married and traveling the world by the time I turned twenty seven seems impossible now, telling my ten year old self that it’s okay the way things are now and meaning it, still skeptical about most of the people I meet, creating my own happiness, and not even close to learning how to cook.
When I was sixteen, a person who was over twenty-five was OLD, a fossil. Today I have turned 26. I don’t feel like a fossil. I have yet to embark on many journeys. I have yet to find the utopian true love. I have yet to get kicked in the guts by life and learn few more lessons. I have yet to find contentment. I have yet to make my parents proud. I have yet to travel to places I’ve read about in books and compare my mind’s imagery with the real beauty. I have yet to do something meaningful for the causes I believe in and support.
Miles to go…
(Photo Courtesy: kikimatters)
“The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called ‘truth’.”
You might remember me only as a face in your classroom. But I will always be grateful for your support, belief in me and guidance at crucial points of my life. I feel blessed to be your student.
This is for you:~
Ma’am Deepti Singh: For that encouraging smile, a pat on the back, and developing a healthy competitive streak in me. And it touches me that you remember me even though it has been fifteen years since I last sat in your classroom. You were, are and will always be my favorite teacher in the whole wide world.
Sir Bijoy Handique: You were a lot of firsts for me. You were the first person to notice the ‘biggest introvert’ (me) in the classroom, the first to appreciate my work, the first to believe that I could achieve something big, the first to create a genuine interest to learn something instead of mugging up for exams and what do you know, you were even my first crush! I will always like history 🙂 And the fact that you still remember me as the little girl in a grey skirt, wearing tiny, hoop earrings and traveling to school in the old fiat…delights me no end.
Ma’am Manjula: Your smile comforted me on the first day of kindergarten. You taught me the alphabet. You didn’t laugh when I said that I sent my sports shoes to the ‘barber’ for cleaning!
Ma’am Ruprekha: I still remember the first thought that crossed my mind when I first saw you, “If my grandmother dressed up in chiffon sarees and wore lipstick, she too would look as beautiful as Ruprekha Ma’am”. I think your maternal aura made it impossible for anyone not to like you. How you patiently listened to my fanciful imaginations about ETs, doppelgangers and the ghosts in the school church!
Ma’am Anita: You were the woman of 2011 in 1994! You made learning such fun. You brought beautifully crafted jewellery boxes to class when teaching about indigenous craftsmanship of Jammu and Kashmir, you taught us to appreciate the beauty of a song’s lyrics (the example was ‘ek ladki ko dekha toh aisa laga‘), you striked the perfect balance between being amiable yet someone we didn’t dare anger!
Sir Joseph: You introduced me to the world of books…novels, poems, short stories, essays, and even limericks. You let me borrow 4 library books every month when the rule was a limit of maximum 2 books. You played chess with me and didn’t make a big fuss when I bunked PT class. You also bought me pastries in the school canteen, when the queue was long. You are awesome 🙂
Ma’am Srivastav: You always saw through my trick of feigning stomach ache when it was my turn to read a passage from the Hindi textbook, but you didn’t scold and embarrass me in front of the class. You gradually let the love for the language grow on me, even though it never reached substantial heights. But you managed to hold my hand and walk with me through my living hell of writing Hindi essays!
Fr. Philip: I am yet to see a person as dashing and as charismatic as you. I doubt whether I’ll ever see one. The way you spoke, the way you walked, the way you taught us the values of life was awe inspiring. But during tiffin break you patiently answered the questions of two enthusiastic little girls, my best friend and me, ranging from the contents of your lunch box to ‘why bad things happen to good people’. You let us rummage through your personal library every day. And when I left my hometown and joined a new school, you uncomplainingly passed on my long letters, addressed to the school principal, to my eagerly waiting friends in that old classroom. Yes, I will never meet anyone like you again.
Sir Angelus: You were aggressive, and you never missed the target when you threw a chalk piece at an errant student. You scared me when you threatened to clip my long nails in front of the whole class. Yet, when I came to know you better, I thought you were the most gentle person I had ever met! Your razor sharp wit, your quirky assignments, your exciting tales, and the fact that you were the lone inhabitant of the school at night (as your living quarters were on the spooky top floor of the school) made you quite the interesting character. You disciplined us when we needed it the most.
Rafida Ma’am: You taught the most boring subject on earth. Social Studies. Yet, I never dozed off in your class. You helped me adjust to a new school. You handed me important responsibilities, so that I felt more involved in the alien environment. You advised in hushed tones to each of the girls individually when it was their time to start wearing a bra. I anticipated the dreaded moment and it lived up to the most awkward conversation (or was it just nodding my head) of my life. You left us all bereaved early this year, but I would always remember you fondly. RIP, Rafida Ma’am.
Sir Ratul Rajkhowa: You instilled in me a love for life sciences and consequently medicine. Your tuition classes were so much fun. You showed us the bottled gall bladder stones of your wife while solving genetics problems, you showed us your Bihu music cassette while classifying bacteria, and told us about your stint with the Indian Navy when we discussed ecological hazards! I so enjoyed those two hours of biology tuitions every morning.
Sir Balwant: I excelled in mathematics in school because of you. I was a dunce when it came to numbers, but your teaching showed me how mathematics could be fun. Your black diary with the toughest mathematical problems, invoked in me such a competitive streak to solve all of them before anyone else, that it scared me. You are such a down-to-earth and humble person. I will always appreciate your confidence in my abilities.
Sujata Ma’am: English seemed more than substance writing and grammar. Poetry awakened dreams instead of being monotonously mugged up for exams. I loved that you understood and took care of the individual needs of each of your students. You are such a witty, and for a lack of a better word ‘spunky’ woman. I liked your ideas, and everything you had done in life. You will always remain my idol.
Sir Jnanendra Sharma: I can’t picture Gauhati Medical College without you. You are a great teacher and one of the most tirelessly hard working person I’ve ever met. During undergraduate days, you always encouraged this “Jorhat’or suwali” to work hard, and I really did during Pediatrics, which still is my favorite subject. Even when I was going through a bad phase of severe anxiety and cut myself off from the whole world, you were the only teacher who was supportive and gave me hope. You are a busy man and you didn’t have to care if your past pupil was having a problem, but you did. And I will always be thankful for it. You didn’t even make me feel awkward by questioning about my past problems, when I resumed my normal life. You made it very comfortable for me. I hope someday this “jorhat’or suwali” will be able to make you proud in her own small way.
Sir Sahid Ali: You are knowledge personified. And you are genuinely interested in sharing your knowledge with all your students. You care. A lot. And that’s why I respect you so much.
Ma’am Gayatri: You are an epitome of intelligence, hard work and positive attitude. I always wanted to work hard in your classes. Especially pediatric ward classes. You are one of the finest women I have ever met.
Sir Suresh Chakraborty: I always looked forward to your questions about Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Satyajit Ray at the end of the psychiatry class. You made psychiatry come alive. I loved when you encouraged us to make diagnosis, validate it with strong arguments, and supported it with that happy smile of yours. You had always encouraged me to write during my undergraduate days in GMC, and I’d always be thankful for that.
Probodh Da: I hated it when you cut short the evenings, meant for having fun with my cousins, with boring homework assignments. But you never missed a class for 8 years, and made sure I stick to the books. I enjoyed the chat sessions at the end of the class, and playing scrabble with you.<
There’s something about opening an old diary with its moth-eaten faded brown jacket; leafing through the smooth yellowed pages and breathing in the faint odor of memories cocooned over years. The writing is familiar but the words seem to tell about long-forgotten stories, and I feel guilty about prying into my own thoughts, as if delving into the mind of another person.
Memory can be a tricky thing and we modify, glorify or amplify it over the years. But the old diary quietly holds onto our real memories, good and bad, unchanged over the years. Few instances seem so new I wonder whether it actually happened to me. And some feelings are so out of sync with what I feel now I am left wondering whether I had actually imagined those feelings! It its like reading fiction.
Sometimes I feel sad reading the innermost child-like thoughts of a younger version of me; unsullied by grief or mistakes, blissfully ignorant of the harsher lessons of life awaiting her. I feel elated at her joys, want to comfort her when she had a bad day, encourage her, warn her about wrong judgments and protect her.
To get to the end is exhausting; it’s like living many lives. There’s a sense of wonder that it’s me all along; all those experiences, all those thoughts shaped by what life had to offer and how I tackled it. It’s still me who had loved so passionately, laughed so heartily, worked so hard, wept so quietly and felt so much over the years. That’s how I came into being.
Now new pages await to be filled up and in a few years from now I’d again marvel and even laugh at my twenty-five year old self’s thoughts and wondering, ‘seriously, what were you thinking?!’
That’s the thing about opening an old diary; going through petals pressed against the days of first love, tear streaked pages of loss and smiley doodles signing off happy days; it’s like coming home.
My father’s childhood tales were an integral part of my growing up years. Every weekend after lunch I would lie on his tummy, and listen to these tales which were occasionally filled with funny Bhaona anecdotes. Growing up in a village, my father’s family was intimately involved with Bhaona (a play based on mythological events and staged in villages usually). All my uncles and aunts took part in it during their childhood, with the exception of my youngest uncle who continued to act in it till he was thirty-five.
One of my aunts played ‘Raja Harishchandra’ and her moustache fell off during the act; a student playing ‘Rama’ took full advantage of the chance to beat up a mathematics tutor, who played the ‘Ravana’; and many more. My father once played ‘Krishna’ and his elder brother played ‘Balaram’. When the time of their entry into stage came, ‘Balaram’ was missing and even after a frantic search backstage they couldn’t find him. Without further delay, only ‘Krishna’ entered the stage and while mouthing the dialogues his eyes suddenly fell on his mother (my grandmother) sitting in the audience. My eldest uncle, who was playing ‘Balaram’, was sitting in my grandmother’s lap and nonchalantly chewing ‘chanaa’ while still wearing ‘Balaram’s costume!! He evidently felt bored and decided not to act at the last minute! Such goof-ups, wrong or forgotten dialogues, and funny wardrobe malfunctions made these locally staged plays totally entertaining.
My father’s native village is in Teok, and every year we would make it a point to attend the Bhaonas held there. My youngest uncle was very much into acting in theatrical plays and every Bhaona season he was flooded with offers to act in it. He was always happy to oblige. He often ended up enacting roles of ‘Asuras’ or demons, owing to his 6’2” height and bulging muscles! He played ‘Kansa’ (during Raas Leela), ‘Hiranyakashipur’ (in ‘Bhakt Prahlad’), ‘Ravana’ (in ‘Ramayan’), ‘Duryodhan’ (in ‘Mahabharat’) etc. How he relished portraying these evil characters! Creating terror in the audience, nearly making the kids pee out of fright!
As the Bhaona night drew near, my excitement knew no bounds. Every night I would sit with my uncle while he rehearsed his lines in that deep baritone voice of his; looking smug at having such an enthusiastic supporter near! My mother dreaded the approach of the Bhaona season because it would mean the sacrifice of an expensive sari from her wardrobe. My uncle would ‘borrow’ a sari to wear it as a dhoti, as Bhaonas are famous for gaudy attire. He would sheepishly return it the next day with tears and cuts that were usually beyond repair, much to my mother’s dismay.
And then the day of the Bhaona arrives. I would see off my uncle in the evening with a thousand “All the best” wishes. At around 7pm the whole extended family would miraculously fit into two cars and drive off to the Bhaona venue. We would endure a two hour drive sitting in the most awkward poses to free up space to squeeze as many individuals in the car! There would be a stop over at a road side Dhaba (a food stall) to eat delicious ‘tandoori’ food. Post dinner we would pile into the car again and indulged in a mellow conversation; the effect of a tummy filled with delicious food.
A huge tent would be erected at the Bhaona venue; a central stage around which the crowd, seating on the ground, happily jostled for space. The atmosphere was replete with laughter and conversation, and the anticipation was palpable. The lights would dim; artificial smoke filled the stage; sound of drums (Dhol) announced the entry of the ‘sutradhaar’, welcomed with hearty applause. Then for the next hour or two the audience remained mesmerized as the drama enfolded. Collective shouts of joy greeted the entry of the ‘hero’ (Rama, Krishna, and Prahlad etc; depending on the play) and collective gasps of fear marked my uncle’s entry! It was indeed a fearful sight; the painted face, the long-haired wig, the huge moustache, the heavy costume, the weapons he carried (even though fake), the careful lighting and the dramatic sounds of ‘Dhol’ and ‘Taal’ made my uncle look scarier beyond belief. His entry was cue for the little kids, including my sister, to hide their faces in their mothers’ laps. The fights were funny with psychedelic red light portraying flow of blood and the costumes were amateur; but the dialogues were riveting, and the acting good. The audience was thrown into laughing fits when the ‘ladies‘ entered, because very few females participated in Bhaona and the ‘heroines’ were mostly reed-thin, slightly effeminate men dressed as females.
During the intermission I had special access to the actors green room backstage because my uncle always kept the Bhaona organizers informed that his family might visit. A family friend once went to visit my uncle backstage. The organizers inquired his identity and he replied, “I’m Kansa’s brother, let me go” (“Moi Kansa’r bhaiyek, muk jaabo diyok”); and the organizers burst out laughing at this weird identification!! My initial euphoria of a peep into the Bhaona backstage died when I saw the actors, in their frightening costumes, towering over me. The actors with heavily painted faces, wearing ladies costume and leisurely puffing a cigarette looked more frightening than those playing the demons. Surrounded by ‘Hanuman’, ‘Sita’ and ‘Surpanakha’ sharing a smoke; ‘Ravana’ and ‘Rama’ in an animated discussion, backslapping each other; ‘Vibhisana’ quietly eating pakoras at a corner; it was one surreal experience to go backstage in a Bhaona. The Bhaona would go into the wee hours of morning, and the sleepy but happy audience would give the actors a standing ovation at the end. And then it was dozing back in the car for us on the way back home, and waking up at noon the next day.
Gradually things that had been an integral part of my growing up years and had brought me so much happiness are slipping away. It’s been nearly a decade since I last saw a Bhaona. My uncle doesn’t act any more; the families that happily piled into the car have scattered all over India; and things just aren’t the same any more. But the memories of Bhaona are still in vivid in my mind with its endearing eccentricities.
Photos: Of my uncle during his Bhaona performances.
I ate wild plums today.
Bon Bogori, for my Assamese readers. Red, juicy, salted ones.
Food can be a source of comfort and often trigger nostalgia. I think ‘wild plums’ and I am transported back to my school days. The ride back home from school, shirt sleeves finally rolled back, tie knot loosened, slouching on the backseat of the car (a white Fiat), listening to the same cassette of Kishore Kumar songs and eating wild plums I had bought during lunch break from the vendor outside school. This routine rarely varied during the half an hour ride. Except on Thursdays when my sister and I got pocket money to buy an ice-cream. I would keep reminding her from the previous evening onwards that we had to collect the ice-cream money before leaving for school the next day. Because there was a high probability of forgetting it in the early morning rush of bathroom queues, last minute homework, reading my favorite Archie comics while having breakfast, jostling for space in front of the mirror while combing our hair, tying shoelaces (a pain even now), packing my school bag and lunch box; and I used to wake up just an hour before school started!
I remember a very comical situation I got into (and I have an innate talent for such kinds) during that 7am ride to school once. There was this girl in my class, PKY, whom we used to call tubelight owing to her much delayed understanding of what was being said. Once on the way to school, I saw PKY waiting for the school bus. I told her that I’d give her a lift but she smiled and replied that she doesn’t want to bother me. But I was insistent and she agreed to travel the remaining three kilometers to school in my car. I had to buy a notebook on the way and stopped at a stationery shop. While waiting for the shopkeeper to find the two-lined notebook, we saw PKY’s bus go by and we smiled and waved to our friends in the school bus. But when it was time to pay for the notebook, I realized I had forgotten to bring my purse. And my purse was in my school bag! I panicked. I had no option but to send our driver back home to get my school bag while PKY and I walked two kilometers to school and reached quite late. She never took a ride with me to school again! I still remember the look on her face that day, trying hard to suppress her anger and mumbling curses against me while I was trying very hard not to giggle. I’m still not able to suppress my giggles every time I’m reminded of PKY.
1. “I am absent”
(In response to the query why I’d not submitted my homework the day before)
2. “Miss, she took my copy and (longest pause of my life as I’d the sudden realization that I didn’t knew about the existence of the word ‘tore’) fali dile.”
(‘Fali dile’ is the Assamese translation of ‘tore it’)
3. “My mother is blind”.
(Because I couldn’t explain to the teacher that my mother is myopic and had difficulty helping me with the school project at night)
4.“Pride has a fall.”
(Because the two guys sitting immediately in front of me were making a huge racket and I wanted to say something to quieten them!)
5. “Sir, I can’t attend the sports drill today.”
“Personal problem of a girl, Sir.”
(And worse…I used the ‘personal problem’ excuse nearly three times a month and felt smug about conning the PT teacher!)
6. Teacher: “How come you failed on the spelling test?”
Me: “Because I was trying to fail the guy who sat next to me!”
(Once there was a spelling test, and the guy sitting next to me didn’t know anything and was trying to copy from me. I thought I would mislead him, and deliberately wrote the wrong spellings which he copied while I was sniggering all the time. Then the teacher announced we have only two minutes left to submit our papers. I panicked. I erased all the wrong answers and she took the copy from me before I could write down even a single spelling. The guy who sat next to me and I, both of us scored ‘zero’ on the spelling test. But the teacher said at least he attempted to write the spellings, while I submitted a blank sheet! My parents were called to school the next day!)
7. “I couldn’t wear the sports shoes today because my mother gave them to the barber.”
8. Teacher to me: “Nice Haircut. Who cut it?”
(I was seven, and my father used to take me along with him to the local saloon, where the barber was called ‘Mistry’ by everyone as is the habit in India to call the common workmen so. I hadn’t learned the word ‘barber’ yet!)
9. My friend: “He called me names. He called me a cow.”
Me: (in all seriousness) “Don’t feel bad. At least he didn’t call you a lizard or crow. Cow is a useful animal. You can give milk and dung to everyone!”
(Our friendship wasn’t as strong as earlier after that pep up talk I gave my friend)
10. “Avoidable reasons” on my absent note.
(I missed school one day because I overslept. I vaguely recalled a friend once writing “avoidable” or something on her absent note. She had written‘Unavoidable reasons’. It was a big word for me and I could only recall it entirely. Thankfully, the teacher had a sense of humor and didn’t scold me)
I went after lunch to two of the few book stores in Guwahati which can boast of a good collection of books, from the latest bestsellers to the classics, covering a varied and interesting range of books. “Western Book Depot” and “Papyrus”, situated at Panbazar. If you happen to spot a fat female browsing through books at these two bookstores often, oblivious to the world around her…well, that most probably is me. I had spent many happy hours browsing at these bookstores every month, and save money all year round to splurge on visits to these shops. By the way, I bought three books today…Milan Kundera’s “Slowness” and “Ignorance”, and “Recess: A Penguin Book of Schooldays”. Reviews are due next month after I complete reading them.
Anyways, this post is not about the pleasures of endless hours of browsing at bookstores. I had already written about my fascination for book stores. Today I want to share a very memorable incident in my life that occurred at the “Western Book Depot”. My first date. Or my first date turned disaster. You must be thinking what’s wrong with me to have chosen a bookstore as the location for my first date. Read on to know why.
I fell in love for the first time four years back when I was 19. I was never interested in the guys I had grown up with, or studied together. And the whole concept of casual dating and testing the waters for a few months is something I can’t identify with at all. Add to that my introvert nature …and I would’ve remained single till I was 50 if I hadn’t met him! He was 5 years elder to me. Completely different backgrounds…he was an MBA student at IIT, Kharagpur, while I was a second year medical student in Assam. We met online. And I liked him instantly. He was witty, intelligent, caring and I absolutely loved talking to him. Friends first…and then in a year became a little more than friends. But we had never talked about meeting; and were quite happy with our conversations online. I admit I was scared that the comfort level in our relationship might change when we meet in person…scared of awkward silences in conversations, or that we might not have anything to talk about. When he got his MBA degree, and was about to leave for his new job…one night I received a phone call from him, saying that he’s on his way to meet me and arriving in Guwahati the next day.
May 14, 2005: To say I was petrified would be a huge understatement. My father is way too protective of me and my sister, and we weren’t allowed to go anywhere alone. I had no other way but to seek permission and go. That day I told my mother about him…the most awkward conversation of my life! She was OK with it but forbid me to meet him alone. Back to square one! He called up on reaching Guwahati, and I told him of the dilemma I faced. He was quite supportive and didn’t sulk. But I so wanted to meet him, I was ready to do anything just to see him once. I told my mother I had to buy a new book and have to urgently go to “Western Book Depot”. My mother, who was already suspicious after I mentioned him to her, was adamant on accompanying me to the bookstore and worse insisted on taking my sister and aunt along too! I was on the verge of tears. But this was my only chance to see him. I frantically texted him to meet me at the bookstore and warned him that my mother would be with me. He said he didn’t know the way around Guwahati and would accompany a friend to find the store. I was in such a hurry…I forgot to even comb my hair on the way out! That too the first time he saw me! The last thing I cared was how I looked; all I wanted was to see him once. We reached the store at 6pm. My mother got down along with me, while my aunt and sister waited in the car. I pretended to search for medical books. After about fifteen minutes, my mother said she would wait for me in the car. I was so relieved. As I waited for him, I decided to gift him a book. He had mentioned a few days earlier that he wanted to read “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel. I got the last copy of the book available in the shop for him. At around 6:25pm, I heard two loud, excited voices in the shop. My back was turned towards the entrance and when I turned around; I saw him and his friend. I smiled at him. But he didn’t reciprocate. I was taken aback. Didn’t he recognize me? After a moment’s confusion, I realized he was deliberately trying to feign that he didn’t know me. The reason: there was a lady in the book store who he thought was my mother!! He came and stood beside me but carried on the little act of being strangers, and instead turned to a man behind the bookstore counter, and asked whether “Life of pi” was available. The man answered, “Life of ‘Pee’ toh nahin hain. Last copy inhone (pointing at me) purchase kar liya.” (“Life of ‘Pee’ is not available, she purchased the last copy”).We were all trying hard not to laugh at the man’s pronunciation of the book title. I then turned and gave him my gift, the same book. He smiled at me, and by now had realized that my mother wasn’t in the shop as he had earlier thought. As he took the book from me, the bookstore owner went, “How kind of you, ma’am! Giving him your book. And that too free of cost!” They hadn’t yet realized that we knew each other and I turned the kind, helpful girl in their eyes. I had already spent a lot of time in the bookstore, and was worried that my Ma would come in and find him near me. I asked him to leave, quite reluctantly though. It was hardly for ten minutes that we saw each other that day…the first time…and he had to leave. As I walked out of the shop five minutes after him, I saw that his bike was parked right next to my car!!! Of all the places available, he had to park near my car, with my mother sitting in the car! I hoped that she hadn’t realized who he was. And I drove off, without daring to even look at him a second time in my mother’s presence. After few minutes, my mother remarked, “So you met him? He seemed nice.” I nearly had a cardiac arrest, when I realized that my mother had recognized him. How on earth did she know? Turned out that when my guy had parked his bike right next to our car, she overheard him tell his friend that I had asked him to meet me in the bookstore. And after all the trouble we both went through to keep the meeting discreet!!
That relationship ended long back, and he is happily married now. But I still can’t stop smiling thinking about my funny first date-turned-disaster, the nervous look on his face that day, my hawk-eyed Ma on the lookout for a tricky Romeo out to trap her daughter and instead finding a bumbling fool, and me savoring each second of those ten minutes of my first meeting with my first love. Short and sweet, a memory so special that it would last a lifetime. And, the bookstore will always remain special too.
2.My little “dramebaaz”(her histrionics has earned her the nickname) cousin, Pooja, feels her social life is ruined. She lost her front teeth! It makes me sad that she’s growing up so fast. Just the other day she was born…
Pooja, a few days back:
Pooja now: (The kid has every reason to get scared!)
3.A trip to my hometown, Jorhat (in Assam) is due next week. Superrrrrrrr excited. The best-est place in the whole world.
Now back to the original blog post. At the risk of earning the wrath of all the people who read this blog (there are few, right??), I want to confess that I am not overly fond of animals. I don’t hate animals but not an enthusiastic animal lover even. I love dogs. And I absolutely detest birds. I’m terrified of birds and my allergies start acting up even if I see a stray feather. The goldfishes are the first pets we have after ten long years.
My father had brought home a pup in 1980, five years before I was born. His name was Tipu (after The Tipu Sultan); don’t ask what made my father name it so. After I was born, Tipu had been my constant companion for eleven years. He used to follow me around everywhere and was very protective of me. Once when I was around five years old, I was playing in the neighborhood park and accidentally fell down and bruised my knee. A man sitting nearby came rushing to help me get up from the ground, but he was in for a shock! He had to be rushed to the doctor for anti-rabies shots in the next few minutes. Tipu didn’t let anyone apart from family to even come near me. He used to sense my arrival even before I reached home after school. I never took special care of him. Apart from the regular baths and half-yearly visits to the vet, there were no fancy pet treatments, no regular walks and no special dog food in our pet care routine back then. He used to accompany us on walks, play with us in the evenings after school, ate whatever was cooked at home; complete fuss free pet. And he lived for sixteen years and was healthy till the last couple of months of his life. He died when I was 11 years old. It was the first time I saw my father cry. Their bond was the most special. My father had brought him home and took care of him for 16 years. The loss of a pet can be very distressing. It took me a long time to get used to the fact that Tipu won’t come running to greet me each time I came home. I lost the first friend I had, my constant companion. I sulked for days. My parents began to worry. They got another dog, named him Tipu too; but I was even more hurt and angry that they were trying to replace our first pet. I avoided the new pet for few days but he was way too cute to be ignored. But he was killed two years later by some miscreants, when he had wandered out of home one night. No one in the family could bear the loss of another pet and resolved not to bring in anymore.
Our house back then was full of birds and cows and goats at the farm in our backyard that was run by my grandmother. And still is. But bringing home a proper pet, like a dog or a cat was out of question. And now our family has shifted to a new city, new apartment, which lacks the adequate space to rear a pet; and the lack of dog lovers in the neighborhood doesn’t help either. But as of now, I’m happily watching the antics of Phoebe, Rachael, Monica, Joey, Ross, and Chandler (our new goldfishes)!
Yesterday was Bhogali Bihu, an Assamese festival to celebrate the harvesting of crops. I missed going to my hometown to attend the celebrations this year. Exams are knocking on the door. Waking up yesterday morning, and knowing that I won’t be able to see the “Meji” fire (a bonfire lit on occasion of Bhogali Bihu), catch up with my cousins, have the whole family around me…I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness. My parents and my sister were also going through the same emotions. And then the calls started coming in from all my relatives; the distance barriers were overcame and the families were united again. Catching up with all the people stretched the phone calls for more than three hours. It felt awesome talking to everyone. In the evening my youngest uncle’s family came over to our home. And as we sat down for lunch, we missed being with the rest of the family but comforted by the thought that no matter where life takes us…the bonds are too strong to be weakened by distance. And festivals like these are a constant reminder of these bonds of love.
Since my childhood, I’d been a great enthusiast of festivals…and Bhogali Bihu was no exception. Some of my fondest memories are of the Bihu celebrations in my hometown, the huge gathering of all the members of our extended family (at least 60 people) at the “Bhoj” (a feast) the night before Bihu. Since the evening before Bihu…preparations for it would start on a grand scale. A huge tent would be erected on our front yard. Carpets and mattresses would be laid on the floor. Firewood is purchased. Pithas (different varieties of sweets prepared during Bihu) would be cooked. Everyone in our joint family would gather in the tent by eight pm. There was a distinct fervor and excitement in the air. There was so much to do. A meal for sixty people was no small feat. The women of the household, my mother and my aunts, would gather at one corner of the tent and busy themselves with the meal preparation. Their duty was to chop the vegetables, marinate the chicken and fish, and gather the required spices. Their duties ended there. The food was always cooked by the men folk. And since they rarely ventured into the kitchen, these festivals were occasions they eagerly looked forward to flaunt their culinary skills. The fire would be lit after some time, and different items were cooked in turns. There were about five-six different dishes. As the food was being prepared, few of the people would gather around the fire to protect themselves from the cold January night. My grandmother was always one of them. She would quietly supervise everything from her cozy seat next to the fire giving occasional instructions. Since the fire wasn’t large enough to provide warmth to sixty people…there would be few small coal-lit stoves and the rest of the people would be huddled around these.
The older children would be sprawled lazily on the floor mattresses, chatting and listening to music. The music system would be brought out to the ground, and it’d be on full blast playing everything from the popular filmi music to traditional Assamese songs. Few of my uncles would go out for a smoke and stand outside the tent carefully shielded from the elder members of the family. Alcohol was consumed occasionally by a couple of people who would hide the glasses under the chair! But after some time it would become evident that they were drunk when they began to exhibit their dancing skills. It was more energy than style. A very amusing sight. There would be a constant chatter…Many conversations going on at the same time…and I loved the buzz. These were the occasions when everyone would catch up on the family news…news of births, deaths, weddings, new jobs, and even the gossip. Childhood stories would be related. My grandfather’s presence was missed all throughout the celebrations. Sometimes there were heated arguments and a long forgotten quarrel would be revived. The children would get all excited and even place bets on who would win the argument! And all of us would be sorely disappointed when someone would mediate peace between those on the war path. One of my cousins would bring out his guitar; few of the children would dance. New nicknames were generated, old ones were relished, and everyone would compare bits of their most embarrassing incidents and silly goof ups ensuing loud laughter.
What would I be doing? I would roam around the whole ground with my own group of followers. It consisted of nine of my younger cousins and since there was a good four to eight years difference between them and me, they would obediently follow me around everywhere. I would assign different duties to each one of them. A couple of them would assist my aunts in chopping vegetables. Sure, they were offering help but not without any ulterior motive. These “helping acts” would provide plenty of opportunities to sneak out salads and fish fry and snacks. Few of the cousins would be assigned the duty of guarding the wooden fence that formed the boundary wall on one side of our ground. It’s a tradition on the eve of Bihu to “steal” wooden fences for firewood. And given the huge number of family members, we always had enough enthusiastic little guards waiting fervently in anticipation to nab a thief that night. We never did. No one dared to approach our home on seeing the large number of people gathered. And by midnight…the food will be ready. As the dishes were laid out, the kids always created a huge ruckus over the seating arrangement. But soon everyone was seated and the food was served. It was always traditional Assamese cuisine. Non vegetarian dishes predominated. I always relished the prawns and the roasted sweet potatoes. I loved these long drawn out meals, full of animated conversations, laughter and the genial ambience. After the meal, those who were feeling drowsy would retire to bed. Few would lie on the floor mattresses and chat late into the night. And few of my uncles would have a friendly game of cards. Bets were made and money was won and lost within the family. My youngest uncle derived great pleasure from winning huge sums of money from his elder brothers that night. He is unusually lucky. And as he is my favorite uncle, sometimes I would help him by innocently peeking and using sign language to tell him the cards dealt to my other uncles. I always used to get a hundred bucks in reward. It was all done in a fun spirit. By two in the early morning, everyone would go off to sleep. Only to wake up after hardly two hours of sleep. It was the day of Bhogali Bihu. And the ceremonial bonfire “Meji” would be lit. The “Meji” would be constructed of a tall heap of wood stacked one over other and covered with a stack of hay on the top. Since the lit “Meji” fire is considered holy, one has to have bath before approaching it. This would lead to long bathroom queues, followed by the painful experience of taking a shower at 4am in the cold, cold January morning! By sunrise, everyone would be out in the grounds again, sitting in a huge circle around the “Meji”. We would all be shivering in the cold. And then the fire would be lit. As the flames rise, everyone would bow their heads in unison and pray, and the women would throw certain offerings into the fire. I loved this moment. There is this profound calm that prevailed at that very moment and the comfort of the whole family gathered together on this occasion. Soon after, the conversations from the night would be continued, few would sit quietly soaking in the warmth from the fire, the children would attach sweet potatoes to bamboo sticks and roast it in the fire, and all these would be followed by a sumptuous breakfast. The merriment, the joy, the comfort, the laughter, the whole family gathered together for the occasion…sitting around the “Meji”, engulfed by its warmth….I will always treasure these memories.
Years have passed since those days. The extended family has scattered all over India and abroad. The “Bihu” celebrations are still held at our home the same way. But the number of people attending it has considerably decreased. Every year someone or the other is prevented from attending it due to job responsibilities or because of a clash with exams at college and school. I don’t know when the whole family would re-unite to attend such an occasion again…and I long for those earlier days.
“Crush” sounds childish. “Puppy love” sounds even more childish. “Infatuation” seems dignified and blog worthy. But this is my personal blog, I’ve every right to write whatever I want and proudly display my lack of good vocabulary too.
I was 12 when I had my first crush. Year was 1997. I grew up in a small, laidback town in India. And at that age my world consisted of school in the morning, chatting with my best friend, playing with my cousins, quarrelling with my sister, painting in the afternoons and watching old American TV series’ that were aired on Indian television in the late nineties (think “I dream of Jeannie”, “Who’s the boss”, “Different Strokes” etc), and animatedly telling the events of my day to my parents during dinner. That’s my life back then summed up in one line. I hadn’t even known what romantic love was, I knew it existed when I saw these people mouthing “I love you” in movies and the all-knowing classmates who gave us the wisdom about the going ons of the adult world. But that was about it. That was the period when the girls who had considered the boys gross, rowdy, loud and extremely sweaty, suddenly found the very boys “cool” (whatever that meant!). And the boys too were more than enthusiastic to allow girls to be a part of their games. Territorial rights gave way to a new equation between the boys and girls of my class. There were occasional shy glances, the incessant giggling if a boy approached a group of girls and the most horrifying scenario…when a guy was caught “just talking” to a girl alone without any friends of his hanging around. The teasing that followed was cruel. There were no boyfriends or girlfriends at that time. The concept hadn’t caught up with our small town in the late nineties. Just the teasing. But even that seemed horrifying to me. And I never wanted to be the victim. So I carefully avoided being in such scenarios. That wasn’t too difficult considering the fact that I had always been a huge introvert. And I was least interested in the new thing that we had discovered, “love”. I was happy and content in my own world. I didn’t even find any of my classmates particularly good looking (that was the main criteria back then; shallowness ruled). Seniors and juniors were a no-no. So I knew I was safe.
Little did I know what lies ahead! I was an above average student. Study was a chore. I wasn’t the competitive sorts, nor was there any parental pressure as long as I got an A in all the subjects. I didn’t abhor books. I loved them. But not the ones in the curriculum. But still I completed my studies dutifully, and since I was good at math and science, the teachers liked me too. I hated the arts (social sciences, history, and geography). I prayed for the months to pass quickly so that I can get into eighth grade and toss the history and geography books for good and buy my copy of advanced math.
I prayed too soon. Because that was the year I fell from my history teacher! I was head over heels in ‘looooooooooooove’ with him. That was what I thought it was back then. He was a new teacher. He got in that year, ’97. He was just like any other teacher for the first six months but a good one though. He made the classes very interesting. He made us think and told us interesting trivia and held fun quizzes and I gradually found myself getting genuinely interested in the very subjects that I had hated so much up till then. And I enjoyed attending his classes and looked forward to learning rather than studying history. I went to the library to get books on history, researched for my assignments which was unheard of in our school back then. My parents too were shocked at this sudden transition.
Then came the half yearly exams. It was the first exam where I had actually enjoyed studying a subject instead of plain memorizing. So when the question papers were handed out, I noticed that few questions were wrongly published. I was very timid back then, standing in front of the whole class to say something was a big task for me. But I did get up and pointed out the mistake to my history teacher. He was surprised at my noticing the mistakes that even he had overlooked, and corrected them promptly. That was the first time he noticed this timid girl. And he smiled at me, patted my back and told me that he hoped I do the best in the class in his subject (and yes, I later did.). I was so happy. A sincere compliment from the first teacher I appreciated. And I can’t exactly pinpoint what, but something in me changed that day. I fell for him really bad. I suddenly had an attack of coyness when he looked my way or talked to me. After the exam was done, I remember it was raining outside, and taking the rain as the excuse I stood in the corridor next to the staff room stealing occasional glances at him. I didn’t know what came over me. It was a new emotion I was experiencing. And on that very day, summer holidays began for a month. I wouldn’t get to see him for a month! I came home and that afternoon drew a sketch of him. In the blue and black check shirt that he so frequently wore.
When school re-opened, everything was the same except that I had a heightened sense of awareness whenever he was around ,and whenever he talked to me I would be too shy to even look directly at him. I told no one about it. Not even my best friend. He was my secret. My first crush was way too special and personal to share with anyone. He was always appreciative about my work complimenting me always. Once I remember he held a quiz and our team won, but he had only one bar of chocolate in his hand. Everyone started shouting that they wanted it. And I was sitting at the extreme corner and was too self-conscious to act like the others when he was around. Maybe he saw how quiet I was from the rest of the kids, and when he threw the chocolate bar in the air, it fell on my lap. I still remember that moment, this small, insignificant gesture on his part felt so good. And once he punished the whole class, and kept us in during the entire recess period, but when there were only 15 minutes to go, he called me and let me go out because he felt I was always obedient and didn’t deserve any punishment. So I walked out happily leaving a bunch scowling and angry classmates.
Little gestures meant a lot. It wasn’t like I fantasized romantically about him, he was about fourteen years elder to me! And I was only 12! It was just that I admired him so much, and even a little appreciation on his part kept me smiling for days. I acted very awkward when he was around. My unusual coyness and few silly goof-ups made him know that I was infatuated with him for sure. He never told me that he knew, I would have been mortified. But I knew that he knew. I would remember those classes, those gestures, his words in my autograph book, the one time he bumped against me while hurriedly getting down the stairs,his left arm grazing my right arm, the confused scowl that he wore, the warm smile he had, the appreciation. I know I can’t get across my point clearly and there’s nothing special or extra-ordinary in what I wrote. But it was a very special phase of my life.
I transferred to a new school, new city the next year. And the last time I saw him, it was on the last day of my seventh grade. I told him I was transferring to a new school; he said he would miss one of his favorite students. And those were the simple parting words that I would remember my whole life
My first crush; the freshness and innocence of which still lives a lingering a feeling of happiness even 12 years later. The last time I visited my home town I visited his home; but he wasn’t in town. I got his phone number. I messaged him asking whether he remembered one of his favorite students, least expecting him to do so. But he did. He remembered me, and was happy to hear from me. He was married with a kid, and a new job in journalism. It felt good hearing from him. It felt even greater that he remembered me. I excitedly told my best friend and my family about it. For the first time, I shared the secret. So many years have passed since that day in December ’97, and still how vividly I remember the details. After all, a “first crush” is always special.
P.S: I forwarded this post to my history teacher, so that he knows about this confession too. I was a rather lost kid back then, going through the mundane school life without any significant memories, and thanks to him, I not only got a renewed interest in studies that year, but also have some really sweet memories. Hope I will always remain one of his favorite students.
I’ve always been a fussy eater. I am a vegetarian. But I hate green, leafy veggies. I avoid them like the plague. And I occasionally eat prawns. I hate dairy products except for butter and ice cream. If I set out to list the food items I can eat without wrinkling up my nose…the list won’t even cross the hundredth mark. I don’t eat stuff that I’ve already decided would taste “yuck” just by the look or smell of it. And refuse to even taste it. But I’m forced to do so at times by my father who would drive himself up the wall seeing me play around with the food (something I must have decided to be “yuck” earlier) and counting seconds till it’d be appropriate for me to leave the dining table. He has made it his mission in life to shovel nutritious, wholesome food down my throat even if that meant running around the house with a salad plate in hand, chasing me the whole day. It has become a game for us now. If he’s stubborn…I’m no less. I don’t do this to irritate him. I’ve a very narrow range of food items I prefer, and I’m happy eating that simple fare daily. But it’s a tough for everyone at home to accept that. They too have a reason apart from worrying about the lack of nutritious food in my diet. My fussy food habits create a lot of problem when we visit someone’s home. My relatives and close friends know by now what are the basic dishes I love eating…and I get them whenever I visit their homes. It’s the new acquaintances I dread visiting. I hardly stay for meal times…often bringing up some excuse or the other to go home. I still remember the day I visited a friend of mine whose mother served four different varieties of green, leafy veggies for lunch and a thick, creamy glass of ‘lassi’ as an after dinner drink. Time stood still that day for me as I painfully gulped down the food. The food was tasty for everyone present…I know. My friend’s mother is a good cook…I even know that. But how do I explain to them my eating habits? And now that I’ve grown up that has become a major issue in my life. If I find myself in a situation where the food I prefer is not available for a considerable amount of time and I risk starving myself…I eat whatever is available then. But I can’t continue it once I get back home.
It’s not that I ever regretted my lack of interest in tasting new dishes. I am happy with my choice of few simple dishes…everyday fare in most homes. They are way too simple…almost boring. But these items have etched very fond memories in my mind. And that’s what I want to share with you today.
1.My earliest food associated memory that I still fondly recall would be “orange ice-cubes”. My mother used to fill the ice-cube tray with orange juice…and by the time I’m home after hours of playing out in the sun…I would have those “orange ice cubes” waiting for me!
2.Coffee. I’ve a nagging doubt that I’ve more caffeine running in my veins than blood. The pleasure of waking up to a hot, steaming cup of coffee beats everything. Just the smell of it…that rich aroma…is so comforting for me. It makes the job a lot easier when I stay up late to study for exams. Just writing about it makes me crave for another cup of coffee now. A caffeine addict? Not yet. But on the verge of becoming one. Need desperate control measures soon.
3.Buttered toast dipped in dal. This had been my evening snack for years as far as I can remember. With a gap of two years in the middle…when I shifted to hostel where the rule was “maggi noodles” for lunch or dinner. Mostly out of laziness after a long day at the college hospital.
4.Come rainy days and there are a few things that I look forward to…Pakoras dipped in imli chutney, roasted corn, samosas, and hot jalebis.
5.POTATOES!! Bake them, roast them, fry them, mash them…cook them any way you want…And I’ll love them. That explains the extra flab around my tummy. Aloo(potato) parathas on Sunday mornings, roti and aloo ki sabzi a couple nights a week, mashed potatoes with chopped chilies and onions eaten along with rice…have been part of my every day diet always. And aloo chops. There was this shop in my hometown where I ate the best aloo chops ever. It was triangular in shape, about 2 inches thick, no stuffing, just plain boiled potato fried in little oil and few select spices and an amazing chutney go with it. Unfortunately the shop closed down a few years earlier…And I knew I’d never taste the chops that I was so fond of ever again. My mother knows these are the select few dishes I really love eating…So she prepares them without fail since so many years. Waking up on a Sunday morning and knowing what exactly would be laid on the breakfast table…two aloo parathas, mango pickle and chole…the taste rarely varying all these years. And that’s why I find it so comforting.
6.I love tea. No milk, no sugar. And the biscuits from the local bakery. Salty ones preferably. I love orange cream biscuits too…Licking off the orange cream in between first and then eating the biscuits.
7.Prawns. Only exception to my vegetarian diet. When I was about ten years old, I used to catch prawns for dinner myself. There’s a huge pond on the backyard of my home where I spent my childhood years. On Sundays and holidays…I used to carry a wide bamboo basket with some bread crumbs in it and kneeling down on the edge of the pond would dip the basket in the water. And wait. Without making the slightest movement. And soon enough I would see tiny prawns swimming into the trap to eat the bread crumbs. And I triumphantly ran into the kitchen with the catch of the day, handed it over to my mother to cook for dinner later that night and asking her to cook them as spicier and crispier as possible.
8.Ice creams. Love vanilla and chocolate flavors. Hate strawberry and butter-scotch flavors. During my school days, my mother used to hand me and my sister money to get one ice cream each on our way back from school. Once every week. Always on Thursdays. My sister would excitedly wake me up to remind me it’s Thursday and we would spend a good half an hour on the way to school debating which flavour of ice cream to buy that day. We weren’t allowed to have aerated colas. But we didn’t protest. For us the mango drink “Frooti” ruled! As it did for most of the kids growing up in the nineties.
9.There was this food stall run by an old man outside the primary school I attended. He used to sell a lot of snacks…paani puris, chole bhature, aloo chops etc. But it was the chole along with the spicy chutney that I was interested in. Some days I used to carry an extra tiffin box with me to school…a small round steel dabba. And bring back home the chole to eat for lunch.
10.And now onto what has been my staple diet all these years. It’s rice and masoor dal. Simple dal- chawal. I crave for nothing more. The other items to go with it vary…but not too much. It’s either stuffed capsicums, soybean curry or mashed potatoes. That’s it. I’ve ate this for lunch and dinner every single day since the past 20 years almost. Since the time I was capable of voicing my opinion about what I’d like to eat. Every single day. And I never got bored. I still look forward to it after a busy day in college or hospital, or after coming back from a trip. I associate it with “home”. I associate it with my ‘mother’, who by now has perfected the art of making these days just the way I like them.
Going through the list you must have guessed why parents panicked over the kind of foods I loved. My parents used to force me to eat spinach saying it’s good for the eyesight and I would end up with thick glasses by the time I’m 20 if I carried on with my unhealthy diet. But within a couple of years, everyone in my family started wearing glasses for poor eyesight. I still have perfect vision. That’s why I don’t fuss about my unhealthy diet. I know I don’t eat most of those healthy foods. But I was growing up well. So the nutritional requirements of my body had been met. I must be eating at least something right. If not everything! I recently turned 23…still staying with my parents because I attend college here. I know in a year from now…I’d have to leave home for further studies. And I would have leave behind my comfort foods. The sense of security I feel coming back home each day…knowing my mother would be at home…and has kept my favorite dishes ready to eat. I know once I leave home…my fussy eating habits would stand no chance in the hectic pace of life that I’d be thrown into. Maybe I’d be eating a spinach sandwich for breakfast a year from now! But as of now I savour these comfort foods…And I will always savour the memories.