Every afternoon as the July sun blazed down empty streets, when elders napped, their bellies full with watery rice and fried fish, we friends sneaked out to UNIT 4 park in Bhubaneswar and ran towards the boggy, wet section to a makeshift pond. The waterbody was a shallow pit in the mud filled with rainwater. And there they were in hordes. Numerous dragonflies flitting around, their two -inch linear bodies defined by transparent wings and a long tail. Siru and Nata caught and trapped them inside glass jars. Others quickly snapped thin blades of long grass with ends like blurry feather. Then one by one we inserted the grass stem along the long tail of the dragonflies and set the insects free to watch our masterpieces in flight. In minutes, the area was filled with miniscule flying broomsticks. My husband paused while retelling his childhood memory.
“Baba that’s cruel,” cried our elementary school going daughter. “Did you never learn empathy?”
“Don’t know about empathy but we learnt to pluck our toys from nature’s lap to create play as our parents couldn’t afford to buy toys from the market,” replied Baba amusedly.
“But why are you insisting we tell you our childhood stories?” I asked our moppet as the three of us walked the trail on a September evening in New Jersey far from the place of our childhood memories in India. The golden sun slanted its last rays on treetops and the crooning of grey titmouse and chickadees mingled with the wistful stories to fill the evening air.
“Oh, I don’t know, “she voiced her favorite repeat then launched into a precise explanation of why she wanted us to narrate our childhood stories.
“I want to know how you looked, whether you ate by yourself and if you ever got into trouble for not doing your homework or holding your breath? “
“Absolutely not” we chorused in unison.
“We were obedient kids”, I answered lamely.
“I don’t know”, continued our precious tormentor “but bou once mentioned baba got into trouble for shaving off his eyebrows while trying to mimic his elder sister ………”
Childhood stories come knocking in our home
During the pandemic we decided to eat lunch as a family together. Since our daughter is not too much of a foodie, she believes mealtimes are for entertainment and thus her request went one day.
“Tell me about your childhood baba.”
“How about I tell you tales of Krishna?” I attempted.
“No, I want to listen to baba’s childhood story or yours.”
Krishna was a distant, mythological character far and godly, she would rather reach for the fun, sweaty days of her hero in flesh and blood. And so, my husband began to recollect and narrate.
Our teachers were not as groomed as yours. We were six siblings and when I was in fourth grade my teacher was Mr Gunanidhi sir. His real profession was making paan. He owned a paan shop and came to teach me twice a week in a chequered lungi, undershirt, his unrefined features instantly forgetful with cracked lips stained a motley brown and ugly feet in plastic sandals peddling a rickety cycle. His capability in imparting education was decided on the fact that he bought two neatly folded paan for bou (my mother) on every visit. To my chagrin he would drop in anytime depending on his nephew’s availability to man his shop.
Often, he arrived during play time and one such day I began running around the home in circles to desperately avoid him. Mr G alighted from his cycle and chased me-----in circles. I soon ran out of breath and cried out thukul thukul (time out) and he too panted and cried out thukul thukul forgetting the intent of his visit. Then as the breath reached his tobacco fogged brain, he scooped me and carried me indoors. I don’t remember what he taught but my excellence in maths could perhaps be accorded to the precise counting of times his spit landed on my face.
“I think I prefer my class teacher Mrs. L. Today she had applied an aqua nail color so pretty it was difficult for me to focus,’’ voiced our daughter.
Now she persuaded me for a tale eating her rice and lentils unhurriedly.
And so I narrated……..
Well I was the youngest with two elder brothers and one cousin. My father worked in Delhi and we resided in Lucknow in a cozy colony alight with red gulmohars and yellow laburnum blossoms during summers. Everyone knew everyone and everything about everyone. My mother worked herself to the bone taking care of us and holding her teaching job. Our babysitter was my seventy-five, year old paternal grandpa who spent much of his time napping. The four of us basically looked out for each other. If we completed homework grandpa took us to railway tracks around 3:30 pm when the Mathura bound express thundered down the tracks. How we loved those speeding lifelines roaring by in streaks of blue and grey. We were in absolute awe of the crossing guard as he waved his green flag to let trains roar past, red to indicate a delay in the train.
One day my mom returned from her teaching shift to find the front door open and grandpa dozing on the cane chair beneath the gooseberry tree that resembled an inverted horseshoe on account of us swinging from its stringy branches. The home was too quiet.
“Behenji,“ shouted the milkman passing by “your kids are on the railway track.”
My mom ran like the wind, our neighbors following her. Grandpa now roused from his nap began to run in his mind. Imagine mom’s relief when she saw all four of us scooting down near the tracks. There was no one in sight save a bull chewing cud on the sidelines, most thankfully not a train. Well we desired to see the tracks expand under heat and whether the joints would give away. Needless to add we didn’t get to see the trains for a month. Instead grandpa regaled us with tales of maneater of Kumaon, a crazed tiger that went on a rampage in the Himalayan hills and devoured kids and cattle Tale over we were each rationed two spoonfuls of grandpa’s Bournvita, then took turns to press his aching calves, licking the stuck, brittle chocolate inside our mouth.
To live is to tell a story, our story
Judith Jamison famous dance choreographer once mentioned, “You are put on this earth to tell that story, to share those stories.” I realized the truth behind these words as we shared our childhood stories with our kiddo. In so doing we got in touch with the most vulnerable, innocent and creative beings of ourselves, the self that was free and trusting, ever ready to prod the world. The stories became a roadmap as to how far or close am I to that little girl who played the willing accomplice to her two elder brothers and filled up the covered yard in our home with 2 inch water to swim- glide on our stomachs.
Undoubtedly our free and unsupervised play encouraged creative thinking that helped in later life to generate multiple approaches when at crossroads.
The tales winded through tunnels of long forgotten landscapes amusing our daughter as she rediscovered her parents as they bumbled through their snotty, grimy growing up years. In absence of television and ipads our play was hands on, observant and patient. She listened with wide eyed glee as my husband narrated about kite flying sport ------ how he and his band of friends begged a willing adult to donate a tube light. The light was then broken, and shards of glass carefully pounded into thin powder over a week’s afternoons, then glued around manja or thick thread used to fly kites. The glass coated thread rendered a jagged advantage to ruthlessly cut the opponents thread and thus a vagrant kite was looted. Soon we too looked forward to narrating our childhood stories. The tales connected us with our siblings, people and places no longer physically part of our daily lives now but were vital to our childhood emotional landscape. The people in these stories will always be adored ………sometimes more as kids than the adults they grew up to be.
Every occasion created opportunities for preparatory activities that held such pleasure of the anticipated outcomes. Collection of firecrackers during Deepawali augured retells in our home. My elder brother now a foremost architect in Uttarakhand was an expert at crafting the sutli bomb, a small bomb wrapped in thin ropes. This bomb was bought after all the neighborhood kids pooled in their paltry contribution. Then many afternoons were spent further wrapping this bomb with more thread to amplify its roar. Meanwhile, the assortment of firecrackers comprising of bullet crackers, pinwheels, dreaded whirling whistle and fountain bombs were subjected to scrutiny for length of wicks, leakages etc. A week before Deepawali all firecrackers were exposed to the sun’s heat in hope of further roasting their combustible entrails. Then careful targets were chosen ------- either a aunty protesting gully cricket or an uncle opposing play of hide and seek within the clubhouse. On Deepawali day bombs were stealthily planted in stairways of these unsuspecting people, the wick lit, an empty oil can inverted over the bomb and then everyone dashed for cover. BOOOOOOOMMMMM the deafening roar within the closed staircase reverberated down the years.
Over time although unknown to my daughter I could see these stories came to mean something to her. As an only child growing up in USA far from her paternal and maternal family she was absorbing the experiences of what it meant to have siblings , their cross fires, snarls over favorite place at the window and sticking out their necks for the other when confronted by a sneering bully. In so doing she discovered a deeper connection and wiggled into her own place in the family tree. Ofcourse she loved to hear childhood stories about herself too. A favorite retell was her annaprashan or grain tasting ceremony at Ram Mandir in Bhubaneswar where she was blessed and fed the lumpy, raisin ridden rice pudding so often by loving relatives she turned out to be the dreaded picky eater of our family. In retrospect even though our childhoods were defined by scarce resources whereas our kids are spoilt for choice much of themes of everyday life have remained the same like wanting to belong, fun during festivals, what we dreamed of becoming. The tales became a litmus test to see how far we had come in life without hopefully going too far away from the yearnings of our heart.
Our childhood stories stemmed from our curiosities about our surroundings ----odd tools at home, sights of a home being built on the street , eccentric behavior of our neighbors or larger than life happenings that lit up the commonplace like how my husband and his brother half pedaled to watch the only plane (Air India) descend like the roar of thunder at Bhubaneswar airport. They hid amongst bushes to watch the gigantic, pearly white airliner land on the ground, the fortunate passengers descend from the plane, food trollies rolled out, leaving only after the cleaners left and the gigantic air bird was wheeled to its hangar. The wingspan of those unfulfilled desires paved the way to my husband’s present days and have filled him with a quiet sense of accomplishment that would be another story for our princess to narrate to her kids.
Our stories indicate that perhaps our generation created more out of less. What will our children create with the more they have? Their childhood moments will provide the answers to how they shape as individuals, family folks and contributors to community and world at large. Hopefully, in retelling their childhood stories they will always find that special place somewhere that remains the same.
Deepti Paikray is a freelance writer residing in New Jersey. She teaches yoga and creative writing. Yoga requires taming the five senses and writing requires stimulation of senses. And so, between the two limits she leads a happy life. She blogs at https://awonderfulworld.life/