My heart goes out to my young cousins and their generation of children who were born and brought up in big, noisy cities. They are frighteningly precocious, growing up at a pace and picking up stuff that is hard to monitor. Their talents and skills are superior to us; they can multitask and are far more articulate and self-assured than we ever were. But their childhood had been deprived of certain joys and cramped with unhealthy stress for no fault of theirs. Space is precious; apartments are cropping up everywhere and playgrounds are disappearing. Pollution and deforestation paints their world a dull grey. There is neither the space nor the time to devote to pets even if they wanted to. Families are nuclear. Parents have to work long hours, and children are raised by a host of servants. Or after school they come home to empty apartments, heat up meals on the microwave, and gobble them while surfing the countless channels on TV. They spend their afternoons playing video games or surfing the internet, constantly distracted by a beeping mobile phone, ordering take-outs, and looking haggard after a long day of school, dance recitals, swimming, guitar classes, football, study tutorials etc. There is always some upcoming competition or exam looming in the horizon. Their playground is the empty concrete car parking in their building.
There are barely any trees, ponds, large green grounds or pure, unadulterated fun in their lives. Their minds are too cramped with exam questions to have a healthy curiosity for anything else, and are too tired to develop a reading habit. Holidays are hurried and spent in hotels and touristy sites. They cook pastas and fancy omelettes by watching You Tube videos and turn up their noses at the simple, home-made fare. Derogatory slang words pepper their vocabulary. The lack of respect for teachers and the aversion for school is alarming. They are always unsatisfied, and demand new gadgets and expensive objects ever so often. Neither the parents nor the children could do much about adapting these lifestyle changes. Urbanization demands that you keep pace with it, it can’t be helped. Things are changing, and rapidly. Even my hometown barely has any traces of the old world charm that it held. I don’t hate the busy life in a city; I like its chaos and dizzying pulse. But it leads to a somewhat deprived, stressful and precocious childhood. I am lucky to have been one of the last few generations to have experienced the joy of a childhood in a relatively unsullied and small town of Assam.
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.
Winters were for badminton, and summers were for cricket. Children and adults teamed up together to play these sports; it was one of the major advantages of growing up in a large, joint family. What we lacked in talent, we made up for in enthusiasm and energy, and played for long hours. My cousins and I interspersed these real sports with self-invented games and the ones we learnt at school. They were weird and highly entertaining, like ‘ghariyal pani’, ‘gold spot’ and the meat and potatoes of children games, ‘hide-and-seek’, whose difficulty level was greatly enhanced by the sheer vastness of our home and the adjoining grounds. Our flexible limbs and reed thin bodies enabled us to hide in the tiniest of nooks and not be found for a good hour. There were treasure hunts and the whole neighbourhood, including an abandoned house, was our territory; people didn’t mind if a group of kids barged into their homes to hide a treasure hunt clue. The ambience was such that children could walk unannounced into nearly any house in our neighbourhood to demand a piece of cake, orange-cream biscuits, or even a yummy plate of ‘lushi-aloo bhaji’. Now I know nothing but the surnames of our next-door neighbours in the apartment complex I had been living in for a decade.
There was also no dearth of imagination, we wrote and enacted entire plays. The dressing up for the parts was half the fun, and improvisation was the keyword. Large cardboard boxes had the potential of turning into anything from a class room to a castle. An empty barrel was the perfect underground tunnel during the fierce battle scenes. Come Sunday mornings and all the children took their positions in front of the TV to watch Rangoli on Doordarshan; and tried to copy the dance steps in the songs that were aired. There was a lot of jostling around, faces got accidentally slapped, feet were stepped on, borrowed dupattas that we tied on our heads to substitute for long hair swished around. That was all the dance training we got, and often we would end up on the floor, doubling up with laughter. Indoor games ruled too; carom, ludo, chess, and even table tennis in a long, narrow corridor of our home. It didn’t bother us that we didn’t have a proper table, the tiny orange ball bounced back well enough off the floor. We flouted all rules, and made up new ones, but it was such fun.
Some of us constructed a swing too, that hung from the branch of an old tree in the backyard. It was so much fun to let our hair sweep the ground and the very next moment get pushed towards the skies. I played ‘doctor-doctor’ a lot, lugging around a tin box filled with tiny bottles with dubious concoctions from the kitchen and plastic stethoscope, and caught any unsuspecting victim as my patient. I didn’t even spare first-time guests to our home, plying them with orders and questions like “Stick out your tongue”, “Do you have worms?” much to the embarrassment of my family. But the people were generally very pleasant and playful, because they always complied with the orders of the six year old doctor and allowed me to check their temperature with a plastic thermometer and displayed appropriate concern on their faces when informed that they had a fever of 1000 degrees Celsius, and once I had even diagnosed an uncle with a fat belly as pregnant.
Among all the cousins and neighbourhood kids, I was the only one who was mesmerized by the world of books. I practically devoured them. The school librarian had to issue me multiple library cards, because they got filled up so soon. I splurged during book fairs; clothes and toys had never interested me much. One summer I brought home a book about dollhouses, and spent weeks making one that was four feet tall out of empty shoeboxes, match boxes, scraps of clothes, and fitted it with a tiny kitchenette and bathroom set. That was a glorious summer. We helped in gardening too, planting marigolds, roses and dahlias; and helped my grandmother in digging for sweet potatoes and carrots. I measured my height against the tall pine tree in our garden. It overshot and dwarfed me within a couple of years. We climbed and hung upside down from the trees; picked the tiny, white Sewali flowers during spring and made fragrant garlands; ran through fields of ripe golden crops on the visits to our native village; slept on warm and somewhat itchy haystacks and played in tree-houses. Evenings were meant for long walks and buying a toffee at a small stall at the end of the road. The road seemed so long that sometimes all the cousins hitched a ride in the mini van of a neighbor. When I visited home after a few years, the same road seemed so short; the road hadn’t shrunk, but then what had changed? It baffled me.
My parents struggled to curb my restlessness and get me to sit at the study desk for more than an hour. I hated these forced study hours that cut into my play time, but the effort paid off by putting me among the top three students in class, and subsequently mollified my parents. Then I had to face a nightmarish demon: Hindi. With no disrespect to it, I prayed every night that by some miracle Assamese or English was declared the national language of India. It wasn’t long before my total percentage suffered due to my Hindi marks. I tried to divert my parents’ attention to my excellent grades in the rest of the subjects, but to no avail. And to my horror a tutor was arranged. I vehemently rebelled but soon my new tutor became one of my best friends. Unknown to my ignorant parents, we barely studied for ten minutes of the assigned hour. The rest of the time was spent playing Scrabble, telling each other stories, reading Archie comics, and going through photo albums where I painstakingly explained to him the story behind every photograph. We even listened to new songs that on my cute yellow Sony Walkman, with the earphones on obviously. He didn’t treat me as a kid, and I loved that. He had an amazing sense of humour and we often convulsed with laughter, trying to drown it behind palms. Surprisingly my Hindi grades improved out of proportion to the amount of effort we put in; maybe the laughter and fun made me more receptive to the little I studied. I still struggle with Hindi, my vocabulary and grammar is laconic and I speak it worse than the driver James in that old movie ‘Chupke Chupke’; yet thereafter I managed to get through school without unfortunate Hindi grades.
After the ordeal of homework was over, the television beckoned. In the evenings we were allowed to watch it for an hour to catch old American sitcoms like I dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, Silver Spoons, Who’s The Boss? etc. On Sundays we were allowed an extra hour of cartoons or the Famous Five series, and once a month we indulged in a movie, never in the theatre though, but on the now defunct VCR. We didn’t demand any extra hours of television; there were abundant sources of entertainment: funfairs, book fairs, parks, libraries, theatrical plays, Bhaonas, the circus (seriously, where had they disappeared?), picnics, and umpteen birthday parties given the number of kids in our neighbourhood. Then there were all the festivals. Pandal-hopping during Durga Puja, the rowdy Holi, the even rowdier Diwali night when we lighted the bagfuls of firecrackers my father and uncles bought home at a time when noise pollution and child labour were alien concepts to us, Magh Bihu and Meji mornings, Bohag Bihu and the husori groups that performed at our home; and much to the alarm and despair of my grandmother, who was convinced that her grandkids had been converted at their convent school, we even celebrated Christmas with a puny plastic tree and gifts for everyone.
I loved my school. It had large grounds, quaint church, tiny ponds, a basketball court, and even an orphanage where we had fun playing with the babies and toddlers during the lunch hour break. The teachers were more of friends to us. My best friend and I didn’t even hesitate to putter around the Principal’s (Fr. Philip) office; our restless hands fiddling through the contents of the drawers and cupboards, opening fat encyclopedias in his bookshelf, and asking him innumerable questions. He smilingly indulged our curiosity and never complained. When we were in the fifth standard, we had a teacher (Angelus Sir) who didn’t hesitate to grab and throw any object within reach, including the chalkboard duster, at disobedient kids. We were petrified by his mere sight. Once during the lunch break, my friend and I strayed into the empty fourth floor of our school, exploring the cobwebbed rooms that echoed our voices, and came upon a closed door at the end of the corridor. We pushed it open to the see Angelus Sir sitting cross-legged on a small bed, slurping down noodles and watching an Amitabh Bachchan (I guess the angry young man act was adapted from it) movie. We froze in horror, but he just flashed a bright smile and invited us in. Turned out he lived there, and soon we were served steaming bowls of noodles too. Few minutes of conversation dispelled all fear from our hearts. He told us interesting trivia about any country we pointed to on the large world map pinned on his wall. He played a tune on his guitar. We spread the word about the newfound knowledge of his gentleness, and soon his room was filled with dozens of kids, eager to hear his stories and listen to his lovely songs. I don’t know if students share such a rapport with teachers anymore. They nurtured in us a healthy curiosity to know things beyond the constricted and rigid curriculum of school.
Vacations were spent in whichever town my father was posted in. My parents took us to the hills, picnicked at the riverside and explored every nook and corner of these towns. My sister and I made new friends and played long hours in the sun. She learnt to cook at a very young age, but wild horses couldn’t drag me into the kitchen. It was a period of my life when I could just eat and eat and not a single ounce of fat accumulated due to my excellent metabolism and the tireless running around during the day. Pizzas and burgers weren’t available, and lemonade was preferred over colas. Eating out was reserved for special occasions, but we never got bored of the simple but tasty home-made food. My father occasionally took us to a restaurant that served authentic South-Indian fare; because my mother never managed to cook a dosa that didn’t resemble an amoeba. Later, the kilos quickly piled up with the advent of fast food and a sedentary life.
One summer I had enrolled in the art school. Even there I displayed more enthusiasm than talent, but the art teacher never curbed my imagination and let me paint people with disproportionately long limbs, living in the hollows of gigantic trees and flying in chariots drawn by colossal eagles. My drawing pad was a riot of colours and I even learnt to sculpt clay figurines. Most of all, I loved sketching unusual trees; they seemed to me the most beautiful things on earth.
My grandmother crowded our household with all sorts of birds and animals. There were separate coops for ducks and chicken; the pond was filled with a variety of fishes and that tortoise; there was a lazy, cud-chewing cow and its calf, the birthing spectacle of which gave me nightmares for a long time; a fierce but extremely loyal dog that stayed with us for sixteen years; few docile goats; a cat that came and went according to its will; a parrot; and a pet squirrel too. There weren’t any leashes and the gates were always open; there were no visits to the vet and no fancy pet food; but these birds and animals flourished in this freedom and provided delightful hours of companionship.
There are many reasons I had so much fun growing up. It was a small and unpretentious town, without many distractions. The parents were happy to let children enjoy different experiences and didn’t impose any undue pressure or restrictions. There was also the joy of a common childhood shared with my sister and a dozen cousins, learning the value of sharing in a joint family. There was always someone we can go to in times of need, always someone to listen to us. Neighbours were akin to extended families. Most importantly, the general instinct was of an unquestioned trust and goodwill that is rapidly vanishing. The grounds were green and large, the imagination was sharp; and trees, flowers, dogs, and fishes grew alongside with us, were nurtured by us. School was a second home and teachers were extra-ordinarily encouraging and friendly.
But these wonder years were limited, and on my thirteenth year I was pushed into a world of traffic jams, a school with a dusty ground and no trees, teachers that were ridiculed by students, few classmates whose life consisted of ugly sneers, curse words and unhealthy obsession with all things adult, a tiny apartment in an apartment complex that housed two hundred other families and had a playground where kids jostled for elbow space, honking cars at all hours of the day, ready-to-eat meals replacing dal-chawal, chlorinated swimming pools where strangers kicked each other during laps, goldfishes as pets, dull hours in front of the television, a competition so fierce that tuitions classes and exam guides ate up all leisure hours, dusty roads, smog filled sky that blocked stars, and neighbours that were too busy or too nosy.
Nowadays the children lead a life that is in stark contrast to the one we led; and the only things that had survived from my childhood are my books, and a brat of a little sister to share the memories of those wonder years.