Hunger Games-II

Paqnipuri

From ‘Current Noon’ to ‘Colitis’

He would first take the reddish-black balls. The half-marble size globules would then be bathed in two different kinds of salt. A reddish salt that had a milder, sweet taste. Followed by a blackish salt that we called ‘current noon’ (current salt). One had to just take a dot of the black salt and touch it at the tip of the tongue. A severe acidic current used to pass through the tongue and then the entire mouth. What lent it the severe acidity or what really was the composition no one knew, but the salt had some kind of orgasmic pleasure to all of us girls standing in the queue. The reddish-black pellets called “Hojmi” are normally meant to ease a troubled digestive system but loaded with suspicious-looking salts they hardly had any good properties left except to add to the glitter of hungry pairs of eyes surrounding the “Hojmiwala” (Hojmiseller).  Post-school hours and just before the school-bus would ‘pom-pom’ their horns for the final call, we girls would surround the ‘best man in town’ – the Hojmiwala, clutching our little coins. Popping a ‘Hojmi’ in my mouth I would momentarily transcend to a different world which was sweet and sour and more sour and more sweet. The malice of the school hours – the punishment for undone homework, the incomplete class-work, the little tiff with best friend – would all be over with the divine tangy touch!

There was another hawker who used to sit within the school premises during tiffin hours. He had a black tin trunk where his wares used to lay assembled – sugar candies resembling cigarettes; multicoloured sugar candies that used to pop-out of the little opening in the mouth of the Joker drawn on the cover, black colored ginger candies and then he had his special ‘home-made’ chips. I am not sure how the chips laden with salt and generous sprinkling of red chilly powder could catch the fancy of little girls but it was the super-selling item of the vendor!

Being on the costlier side, I would venture to buy from him only on special occasions like a birthday or a friend’s birthday. For me, the ‘Hojmiwala’ was the guardian angel in disguise who would generously supply umpteen quantities of Manna at a mere cost of a one or a two rupee note.

It was for him that my love affair began with the food sold on the ‘other side of the gate’. What began with ‘Hojmi’ and ‘Current Noon’ gradually transformed into umpteen number of items. After college hours I would drag my friends to taste the variety of items outside the college gate. So one day it would be the sweet mango pickle, the other day it would be a special mixture of potatoes and boiled peas tossed in tamarind sauce. The ‘Fuchka’ (‘Golgappa’ /’Panipuri’ as it is normally called in the other parts of India) was my Marijuana; the cheap ice-creams made of coconut and milk was my Hashish…..My love affair with food multiplied over time. The day time used to be spent sampling food items, the nights were spent in food-blabbers while deep in sleep. “Somme morrre salt pleaaaasee”….”Mmmm…niccceee….sommeee morrree tamarind wattterr”.

My friends – Panchali, Paromita, Manasi, Madhurima, Aniyanta- were my compatriots – a few willing; the rest unwilling. By the time I completed my college I had tried out every kind of items – from junk food to healthy green-coconut juice- in and around the vicinity. Many a times I had chosen to walk a few extra miles just because I had invested my bus fare on food!

And all this without giving a thought to the junkyard where I was dumping my junk…..till the junkyard was overloaded. It was a day towards the end of the final year of my college. I hadn’t attended college that day. The day had begun with a severe stomach ache so I had decided to skip college. In the evening I made a phone call to my friend Panchali – only to know that she too was suffering from a similar stomach ache. All along the rest of the call we only discussed about the possible culprit for our ache. Timid and soft that she was, she was one of those who was always unwillingly dragged into my food experiments!

What began as a day’s call continued for three long months! The pain wouldn’t subside, neither would the phone calls.

“Today I was alright in the morning hours and then around afternoon ‘it’ began again”

“Yeah, yeah…same here.”

“A bit towards the right. Like a screw being pushed within”

“Yeah, yeah…same here…same here…only towards the left”.

No doctor, no medicines, no home-made remedies would work for us.

We would miss classes, be depressed most of the time and wait for each other’s phone call to discuss about ‘it’ – the stubborn tummy ache.

With passing days the level of our imagination crossed every limit possible – from ulcers to tumours – we had every range of discussion possible.

All the doctors would look at our tummy – press here, press there but not be able to identify the disease at all.

Being already engaged to be married, I even wrote a ‘goodbye note’ to by fiancé and kept it with my friend – to be handed over to him ‘in case of an eventuality’.

I do not know how long this mortal suffering would have continued till my mother decided that enough was enough. And so did my friend’s mother. All they did was to chalk out a diet plan and force it upon us. So, the tangy sauce was replaced with a near-transparent fish cooked in as less oil as possible. The variety of fried goodies were replaced with boiled veggies. And a total curfew was installed on our ‘just trying out some snacks’. What the doctors couldn’t do in three mon ths, they nearly managed in three weeks. And the doctors ultimately concluded that all that I had was a case of mild Colitis.

My ‘goodbye note’ was finally replaced with my wedding card and our phone bills became lesser. But if you feel it was a lesson well learnt towards healthy eating then ha ha ha ha. My friend Panchali and I still call each other pretty often and the discussion mostly veers towards either of the two topics – food or tummy ache!!!

PhotoSource: Wikipedia

 

Hunger Games-I

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Okay, yeah, this is a misnomer. It has nothing to do with the series of ‘The Hunger Games’. It is about the hunger games we play in our daily lives. Basically, it is about the little tales surrounding food.

Family Trails….

It is normally believed that there are two types of hungry people in this world: one who eat for the body, the other who eat for the soul. Sadly, my genetic traits have clubbed me to the latter half of the population who live to eat. But, trust me, this is not just because of me. It has been there – in the DNA of my family – for ages and nano centuries perhaps. Our festivals, gatherings, arguments have always been around food. The farthest tale I can recall is that of my grandmother’s ‘food stories’. In the lazy afternoons she used to narrate about the huge quantities of food that used to be prepared and gathered for family functions during those times. When refrigerator was an yet-to-be-heard word, foods in huge pots, buckets and bowls used to be kept under the high cots. The servers had to tactfully take a portion from one corner of the utensil and go about the serving business. In one such event, my food-lover grandmother and her sister kept a keen watch on the array of food items on display under their cot.

“Given a choice, which one would you eat first?”, my grandma asked.

“The one with the fish and the red gravy”, grandma-young replied.

“I would start with the meat. And then the sweet. And then the curd”, grandma’s excitement wouldn’t ebb away – as she kept pointing to one food item after the other, sitting from her high seat on the cot.

And suddenly there was a noise. A crash, bang – followed by another bang.

The next discovery was done by my grandma’s mother – two young girls bathed in gravy of different hues. Her shrill voice alerted the others. The two pre-teens were then fished out of the tons of gravy, smashed pieces of fish and meat, blobs of curd – all of which had mingled into a single mass of utter disaster.

Stopping at this, my grandma would have a hearty laugh.

“ So excited were we both about the food, that we had hardly noticed when we had come precariously close to the edge of the cot – till both of us fell head-long into the bucket full of food”.

With a grandma as this, it was no surprise that my father was equally obsessed about food. Though there are many tales around his food obsession –one takes the cake –literally!

It was the wedding of one of my aunts. A huge wedding-cake had been ordered. A wedding cake was a novelty item those days. And being the younger among his umpteen sisters and cousins, my father had the privilege of being the closest to the grand wedding cake. His little eyes marvelled at the number of marzipans shaped into wedding shoes and wedding bells that adorned the cake. So, while the entire wedding was on, his little fingers crawled time and again to reach out to the edible ballet shoes, bells, flowers. Finally, when the cake was no longer the centre of attraction he even peeled off the cake icing, stuffing those into his mouth as much as possible.  Things would have gone unnoticed, if he hadn’t begun complaining about tummy ache just moments later. What began as a mere whimper due to a tummy ache, gradually converted into a night-long howlathon –interspersed with unending visits to the loo and bouts of severe vomiting.  The elders would have been left clueless if the half-digested shoes, distorted bells and petal-less flowers had not tumbled out of his tummy.

From that day on, during every marriage ceremony, one of the sisters or the other used to be deployed to keep an eye on my Dad – lest he repeated his feat!

There are some things you cannot escape, even if you wish to. And the ‘hyper-active hunger DNA’ continued to swish down to us too. And by us it would normally mean three of us – my brother, my cousin brother and myself. Every year during Christmas, a local doctor and family friend , Dr.Paul, would be invited to have lunch at our place. It was almost like a ritual that he would arrive with a huge earthern-pot full of spongy, white Rasgullas – the quintessential Bengali sweet delicacy. Considering the number of family members, the number of Rasgullas would be about fifty or more. Dr.Paul would only have fried Luchis (Poori) and Alu Dum for lunch so mother, grandma and aunts would be busy fishing out one fried Luchi after the other, while my brothers would do the same with the big pot of Rasgullas – kept in one corner. Turn by turn they would scoop out one sweet after the other – wiping their mouth intermittently. By the time Dr.Paul would finish washing his fingers, my brothers would have made way to some hidden corner of the room. Post the guest-session, my grandma would bring out the pot of Rasgullas only to discover a lonely piece floating unwillingly in the pot full of sugary syrup – in the company of an ant or two. No amount of searching would find the two-some and they would reappear only when things would have been forgotten and forgiven in the festive spirit!

But this habit of ‘help-thyself’ has brought in many an embarrassing moment as well. In one such occasion, when the newly-wed cousin of mine came for her first post-nuptial visit, like a good, typical Bengali family we served him a plateful of sweets. It is part of the custom to present a plate over-flowing with a variety of sweets to the new son-in-law. And like any other shy groom, my brother-in-law exclaimed that it was way too many for him.

“Why don’t you guys join me?”, he offered politely. Given this sort of an offer, normally we would help ourselves to half a piece or so. But to my brother, it was a green-signal to gate crash. Smiling ear-to-ear he picked up the largest piece. Being the youngest, his brashness was greeted with an indulgent smile by my brother-in-law.

“Hey, take some more”, he offered.

The flood gates were now open……one after another he kept on picking up the best sweets of the plate.

One of us rolled our eyes, the other winked, someone else gave him a mild nudge, my nervous aunt began to sweat visibly. But there was no stopping the monstrous DNA. My brother-in-law watched helplessly as his youngest trouble-maker was on a all-out-eat-all spree, leaving very less on the plate meant for the guest. In order to prevent further dent to the damaged reputation I finally managed to give him the hardest pinch.

His mouth overloaded with sweets, he managed to cry out, “Wha aa yo phinshin ma?”

“Why don’t you go and wash your fingers now?”, I yelled .

Having achieved three-quarter of his goal, he now didn’t mind the cleansing and happily obliged – much to the relief of the family and the guests!

So, these days when I discover the upper lips of son laced in cream, the sticky fingers of my daughter or nibbled-and-then-reshaped pudding, I smile to myself. And inspite of their vehement  denial and violent shaking of their heads, I can still guess the name of the cat which stole the milk! Well, we really cannot escape what runs in the family, can we?

(And you thought, this is it? More food stories to follow…..)

Pic Courtesy: Pixabay

 

The Christmas Countdown

 

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Ours is a big, fat, full-on family. With marriages and births occuring every year, I’ve lost count of the total number of family members we have right now. Interestingly however, with the increasing number of members, the head count for Christmas has dwindled over the years. This is mostly because the youngies have made other states their home due to professional commitments.

But when we were young, very young rather, Christmas was a different story. The countdown, the kaboom and the aftermath were something we used to wait for – year long. And it used to start somewhere in the first week of December.

Date with fruits and nuts: Annual exams over, we knew it was time to go for purchase of dry fruits and nuts for the Christmas Cake. But before that there was this ‘list-making’ by my grandpa. Meticulous that he was, he made and re-made the list till evryone finalized the list. So, armed with the list, off we would go to the dry fruit shops. I loved the way we were made to feel all important by the shop-keepers. “ A seat for the baby”, one of them would shout. Goggle eyed we would stare at the wide variety of mixes, peels and nuts on offer. Every once in a while they would let us ‘taste and buy’ the items. A scoop of crunchy nuts would be temptingly placed in our vicinity. One or hardly two of them would find their way to the elders’ mouth, while our aim would be to grab in as much as possible within our little palms. Grab and gobble was the general motto. Never mind if the tangy riasins refused to merge with the blob of cashew and mixed peel mish-mash already fighting their destiny with the tongue! And this would continue till a more-than-hard nudge by mother would put an end to this shameless grab and gobble policy.

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The tradition of buying dry fruits for Christmas Cake continues till date

The act of Cutting, Drying and Disappearing : The next process was labourious- cutting the fruits into minute bits and sun-drying them. The cutting part was always Grandma’s department. Our work was to put them out in the sun, placing on plates, under a mosquito net.

The fruit peels, raisins, nuts came with a warning. “Remember, these are for the cakes– THE cakes – THE Christmas Cakes and it is a sin to eat even one bit”. But as they say, every ban, every warning comes with the unwritten rule that it would be ignored. So, in the guise of a replacement for the scare-crow, we wouldn’t hesitate transfering a raisin here, a cut fruit there into the dark hole of our lust…Not that our conscience showed the green signal but then, who has ever ignored the call of greed !

Birthday Big Bang: The official ribbon-cutting would however be on the 19th of December – my father’s birthday. A grand feast would mark the get-set-go to the Christmas festivities. My aunts would arrive and so would my cousins. And being the only brother of his sisters, my father would be spoilt rich with the wide variety of food on offer.

My father was born with just 6 days to go for Christmas. Normally, it is a custom for the new mothers not to appear in public functions before the 21st day from delivery. But my grandma being grandma – the quirky and unconventional, managed to anger and surprise her whole clan by landing at the Christmas Service with her six day old son! From then on, my Dad became the unofficial Christmas Mascot for the entire family!

The Bake Cake Day: 20th of December was our official Baking Day! My aunts would arrive early in the morning with their share of dried fruits, nuts, flour, eggs, butter. Considering the large number of cakes to be baked, the actual baking would take place in one of the bakeries in a place called – Bake Bagan!

While the cakes browned themselves in the large ovens at the bakery, my aunts sat in the courtayard with their back to the sun – drying their hair and giggling in mirth, recalling their own childhood christmas tales. My mother in the meanwhile would prepare mounds of Rice and Dal and a simple fish-curry for all.But all the while we would wait for the cakes to arrive from the bakery.

The cakes would arrive in the evening – brown, hot and wet with molten butter. Their aroma would drive us crazy but they were not to be touched.

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The ‘Cake Bake Day’ was a festival in itself, with my aunts arriving very early in the morning

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Catering to the demands of the new generation, now there are some home baked fancy items too!

Ramp Ready: My youngest aunt was the quirkiest of the lot. She was mad, enterprising, moody and our official fashion designer cum make-up artist. It was strange but true, that all of us – irrespective of our gender – had to wear the same fabric! Somewhere in the beginning of December my aunt would arrive with a roll of fabric – having strange names – ‘chinese silk’, ‘disco chiffon’, ‘hawaian velvet’. And then she would ensure that each of us got to have a piece each for stitching our christmas dresses. So, somewhere around 22nd or 23rd would be our dress trial day. The tailor would be nervous about the outcome of having to stitch dresses ranging from shirts to frocks to maxi dresses. And invariably, the conclusion would be a stiff warning to the tailor to improve his craft within another year!

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Dress-Code: Same-to-Same (Irrespective of the gender!)

This would be followed by a hair cut session. And for a change I would be spared of a hair cut by the local barber. My aunt would take us to a parlour for our hair-cut. Step-cut, Blunt-cut, U, Deep-U…the parlour girl would blurt out her list. Having been baptised in hair oil throughout the year, my hair would be a limp mass of hair which the parlour girl would refuse to cut untill a proper shampoo was done. A wash and a cut later I would come back home in a glorious form…only to be reprimanded by grandma, “ What have you done to your hair? You look strange!”.

Christmas Eve: One church and fourteen children….I don’t know how Jesus Christ managed the cacophony – but he did – with a smile on his lips for all the years till we grew up! Off and on, about fourteen of us huddled together to decorate our little church on Christmas Eve. The older ones did the basic planning but we were allowed to put in our inputs as well. We were not supposed to sing film songs but our sisters managed to do some whispers about semi-shaved and hairy-chest heroes in between selecting the roses. Not that we never fought. But the in-between peep-ins by our elders, restrained the level of fights.

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A big part of Christmas Eve has been decoration – not just the church but the entire locality

Once the decoration was over, it was time for us to rush back home to have our first taste of Christmas Cake.

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Christmas Cakes: Given a choice we would have these for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the entire Christmas Season

‘Not more than one or two pieces!Dinner is ready and if you stuff yourselves with cakes, you’ll waste dinner”, our grandma would warn. But what was dinner in front of piles of yellow-brown, rich, buttery Christmas Cake?

Dinner would add to the winter shiver and chattering our teeth we would rush to the bedrooms to cozy ourselves under the quilts. Six of us under one quilt would invariably mean little spurts of giggle and gossip every now and then. The eldest among us, our sister, would keep on warning us, “Guys, better go to sleep early. Otherwise we won’t be able to attend tomorrow’s church service”. Silence would prevail. For five to six seconds. This would be followed by another spell of loud laughter. Ripples of laughter would echo through the room till the sleep fairies would kiss our eye lids.

The Day: Unlike other days, we would never require pushing and prodding on Christmas Day. One small tap on our forehead and we would sit up on our bed. And our hands would automatically slide under our pillows. Fat belly dolls, Doctor Set, 7-in-1 Indoor Games, Cookery set, Bat-ball set…year after year, Santa satisfied our wants that we scribbled on little notes and left with our parents ‘to post’.

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‘Santa’ was our Hashtag the entire season!

But before we could savour the fun of the gifts a voice would howl, “Just how long would you all take?”. Grandma’s voice was our signal to rush downstaris. Mother would provide a never ending supply of warm water from her boiling pot. A hurried breakfast would follow. And this ‘hurried breakfast’ would actually mean umpteen slices of Christmas Cake. While the others would sign off with two or three slices, my cousin brother and I would compete with each other in stuffing ourselves like a Christmas Turkey.

The Chruch Bell would be a cue for us to wind up our dressing sessions in front of a single mirror.

The way to Church was always a special one – those little moments of rediscovering each other.

“Gosh! You look so gorgeous!”

“Wow! This dress looks lovely on you!”

“Just turn around…let me see your hairstyle”

The chill and the morning shiver, the little wisps of vapour coming out of our mouth, as we spoke….all added to that special ‘Christmasy feeling’.

Inside the church, we children, occupied two side rows. While the priest delivered his sermon we made clutch purses, lotus and japanese fan with our hankies. But we never failed to lend our loudest voice to the hymns:

“Hark the herald angels sing; Glory to the new born king!”

Once the service was over, our ‘work’ was to touch the feet of the elders and seek their blessings.

The blessings came in variety – from placing hand on our heads to kissing our forehead to kissing our cheeks. And by the time the ‘ bless me’ was over, our cheeks and forehead would be dotted with lipstick marks in various shades!

The rest of the day would pass in a daze…….handing out packets of goodies to the poor people who came to our door-step, sessions and sessions of coffee and cakes and laughter, not to forget the change of dresses in between!

But two of the major highlights would be the Gala Family Lunch and the Great Christmas Sports.

The lunch was a ‘gala’ one indeed with near about hundred family members sharing lunch together. Food and gossips went hand in hand, as we, children, continued to bathe in dust and sunshine in equal measures.

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Christmas was and still is incomplete without Gala Lunch for family and friends

Around 3 ‘O Clock would start the Christmas Sports. Children would come teeming from far and wide – mostly from the nearby slum areas. The events included many fun events – biting off a Jalebi tied to a rope and running to the finishing line, three-legged race, go-as-you-like, bursting a pot with closed eyes…..The gifts were equally amusing – from coins to whistles to ill-shaped plastic balls!

By the end of the day, our legs would ache and we would barely be able to keep our eyes open! But we would rather not sleep…..we would never, ever want Christmas to get over!

And the merriment continued….And no, our Christmas won’t be over! 26Th– Boxing Day’ – would be our ‘Official Zoo visit Day’! Not that we were too eager to wish the animals for Christmas, but it had come to become a part of our family tradition – a sort of family picnic! So much so, that we had one new dress earmarked as ‘zoo dress’! Sessions of badminton, popping in juicy oranges, sticking out our tongues to the Orangutang, disturbing the lazy winter afternoon sleep of the Tigers, struggling with the sliding chocolate sheets of the Chocobar ice-creams…these were all part of our ‘Zoo Fiesta’!

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The ‘Zoo Day’ would never be complete without a cup (and more) of ice-cream amidst the brrr…winter chill

And hold on, this was not the end of Christmas celebrations…..we found out and invented several events that would let our celebrations linger on till the New Year! A day of marathon movies, a special get-together at an aunt’s place and then at another’s…..our celebrations would never seem to come to an end!!!

The grand finale to the celebrations would however not be that happy – a red-nose there, a sore throat here, a bout of diarreah somewhere….But the spirit of the Christmas-Happy gang was never-ending!

Our Family Circus – Part 2

CIRCUS 2

Among the crowd of guests, visitors and not-so-welcome visitors adorning our home, there were three major Wanted ones.

Wanted…..

They would slither past the front room, holding their breath tight, lest my dozing grand-mother would be alerted. Normally it takes nine and half seconds to cross the room but they would make it in four and quarter. Tip-toeing with such a speed is a near impossibility but they would accomplish the feat with success every time. Once they reach the first floor they would breathe in ease. No, I am not talking about thieves. They were my father’s friends.

Once within their planning den they would draw up blue-print for bringing sea changes in the society – beginning from village, ranging up to nation.

And then would begin their list of ‘wanted’. Invariably they would nominate their friend Pranab for all such demand and supply activities. It would begin by stealing matchboxes from the kitchen. He would then be sent to ask for tea from my grandmother. And this harmless ‘ask’ was actually equivalent to waking up a sleeping Tiger and borrowing it’s stripes. Unaware of their presence so far, my grandmother would be startled awake from her sleep.

“Maashima, little bit….just a too-little bit of tea would be enough for all of us”, he would mumble feebly.

“And when on earth did you arrive?”, my grandmother would thunder.

The demand would step down further.

“If not milk tea; just a light raw tea would be fine.”

Grumbling, cursing and letting the poor kettle face her displeasure, grandma would still make their tea. Milk Tea!

What would begin at twelve in the noon would get over at twelve in the night. The demand of the ‘world reformists’ in the meanwhile would be never-ending – erasers, scissors, old piece of cloth, ink for the fountain pen, old news-paper…… And ofcourse, not to forget the full two meals!

This was one reason why we always had the practice of taking an extra hand-full of rice-grains while cooking.

Given a choice (it did happen many a times!) they would just find a nook and sleep the night away. But near around mid-night my grandmother would noisily climb up the stairs and stand with her hands on her hips – casting her long shadow on the corridor. There would a sudden hustle-bustle – as if things were just about to be wound up. And then there would be a mad-rush down the stairs before my grandma could raise her voice!

Wanted….

In those days when Flipkart was yet to unleash their cart, we still had a number of ‘service providers’ right at our door-step. They were varied, colorful and passionate people. A tattooed cow-dung cake seller, who would almost climb up my grandmother everytime she spotted our pet dog Jimmy.  A sweet-vendor selling jaggery and coconut balls from an awfully dirty, rusted, tin box. A man selling rubber slippers door-to-door, asking us to ‘choose’ from his wide range of choices- blue and white or blue and white!

And then there was Bhola – the barber. He would be commissioned once in two weeks. A seat would be laid out for my grandfather in our family garden and then he would take out his magic-box. We would huddle in mesmerized wonder as he would take out his magic props – an oily comb, three scissors, a mirror with a cracked edge and his shaving razor. His fingers would match the pace of lips – letting out one social gossip after the other. My grandfather would then have to remind him about the presence of children around.

He was our family barber and the word ‘family’ actually included all of us – my father, my cousins, my brother, myself….. When we were young, Bhola was the Fairy God-father – deciphering every bit of our hair-cutting instructions.

“A bit short from here but not too short”.

“ Do you know how to cut an U-shape? It should be a perfect U” .

He would let out a divine smile and nod his head in affirmative. It was only much later, when we grew up enough, did we realize that all his hair-cuts –irrespective of our gender -resembled only one thing : an upturned bowl. Red-eyed protests, lunch-boycotts and nagging howls of crying could ultimately save us from Bhola’s scissors. But even after minor disasters like snipped ear, bloody cheeks and ill-matched side-burns, Bhola’s presence in our house and life continued unabated.

Somehow, the presence of these visitors were vital to our very existence. We wanted them, they wanted us. The feeling was mutual.

 And ‘The Wanted’…..

It was late night when my grandmother heard the muffled groan. For a change she was sleeping upstairs with my cousins, leaving my grandfather alone downstairs. She waited for a while, dismissing it to be an extension of her dream. And then she heard again. She woke up my cousins and rushed down stairs. As she put on the light she discovered two nervous men – equally scared and shivering. One was my grandfather, the other was a thief. And the muffled cry was actually my grandfather trying to raise an alarm. Only thing his ‘Thief, thief’ sounded like a mute call of a kitten from under a cushion! My grandmother, brave that she was, didn’t take much time to handle the situation. Within minutes the entire neighbourhood was at our door-step. Each of them wanted to try a hand or two on the poor thief – an easy channel to flush out middle-class frustration! It was then that my grand-father intervened. Holding the thief’s hands he nearly pleaded, “Promise me in the name of the good Lord that you will never steal again and I will let you free”.

The thief was definitely amused. He hadn’t probably ever expected such an easy way out. He promptly fell at my grandfather’s feet and pledged never to steal again. So, much to the annoyance of others, he was let free.

Either he chose an alternative profession or a different area of action – we wouldn’t know, but no one saw him again.

It was a strange thing that the thieves always found our house to be vantage point but it was stranger that they somehow were contemplated by stealing items ranging from soap cases to damaged buckets to non-functional radios.

I do not recall and remember whether the ‘come-hither-and-be-reformed ‘ policy worked for all of the ‘most wanted’ or not but it certainly did for some. When hard core thief Ratan decided to give up his ‘steady business’ and open an electrical shop, not many dared to call him home to avail of his services. But in our house, he was a constant fixture – fixing bulbs or repairing fans. My Dad was a brilliant repair man and I am sure they actually didn’t require Ratan’s services but well, that was the way they were….And perhaps that was the reason why my grandfather and grandmother were ‘Baba’ and ‘Ma’  to Ratan till his death. His sons now proudly sit in his shop ‘Ratan Electrical’ – earning a fairly decent living.

The smell of kerosene lamp, sound and people……

The circus is over. The tents have been wrapped tight and shoved up in the attic. The chief actors of the entire show have taken their final bow. My grandfather smiles from his framed existence. The book that my grandmother was reading till her last days still carries the smell of her hair oil. The God-men, I guess, have surely attained their salvation at last or maybe they have changed their route of travel.

And behind closed doors of my apartment I try to search for the lost sounds and smell. I keep my ears open just in case I hear the call of the chickpea gravy seller. I hallucinate about his kerosene lamp – the black trail of smoke from the dim lamp trailing off into the purple of the setting sun. The smell of his chickpea gravy submerging into that of fresh Saal leaf plates. “One for a rupee”, his voice booming from behind his alluminium pot….

I force my son to pay a ten rupee note to the Sadhu who comes every Sunday, playing the mandolin and singing folk-songs. I feel angry and hurt when my husband whispers, “ I saw him drinking cola and smoking an expensive cigarette the other day”.

I, for one, am not ready to accept that the circus is over.

And my mother continues to put in that ‘extra handful of rice-grains’ into her cooking pot, just in case……..

Our Family Circus – Part 1

pictuOur house had an open-door system. I never remember the front-door ever been closed; except in the night may be. And that meant a steady flow of visitors – from sellers to semi-permanent visitors to almost-permanent guests. As children our duty was to huddle in the front room and be a silent observer to the circus around us. We had to observe from the side-galleries with the utmost keenness, as colorful characters – each varied from the other played their part; skillfully displaying their talents in front of hungry pairs of eyes. They would gladly display their colorful selves and we would be satiated in our study of human nature.

The God-sent and the God-forsaken…..

Ours was a strange mad-house where eccentricities blended smoothly with serious philosophies. So while my grandmother and her sisters toasted themselves in the morning sun while discussing about religion, life and death, they also entertained Sadhus, Fakirs and Semi-God-men on their way to Himalayas with equal elan. In exchange of a few coins or even a handful of rice they soaked themselves in the ‘deep philosophical discourses’ imparted by these God-men, often interspersed with lavish blessings for the children, grand-children and many generations thereafter. These holy souls would often depart with a parting gift of a pinch of some ‘holy ash’ with the declaration that this was their final journey to the path of salvation, only to return the next year with the same philosophies and same declaration.

But one stand-out among those God-blessed souls was a woman named Kanak . More God-forsaken than any, she used to be a sudden visitor – mostly on Sundays. Her knowledge of The Bible was envious – ranging from discourses to explanations, she would marvel everyone till she would be ‘possessed’ by spirits. Happily sipping tea and bread, her eye-balls would suddenly pop out, tongues would roll in strange wavy motions and she would then speak in strange language only known to her. She had nearly convinced my grand-father into believing that Devil and his children reside in the electrical systems and wires and would have nearly pushed us into the dungeon of pre-historic, electricity-less existence, had she not thought of a solution herself. So up there, atop the electrical meter-box sat a piece of paper –supposedly carrying her house-cleansing, devil-protective prayer! It was only recently that we ‘dared’ to throw out that tattered piece of paper, quite convinced that the current load of sins and Devil’s equipments in the household were too many to be combated by the poor piece of paper!

Give-Me-Till-You-Are-Done….

With her hair bundled into a ping-pong ball sized bun, her once-white-now-grey  ‘widow uniform’ roughly draped she would sob in between sips. Her tears would merge with her tea sips as she would speak about the troubles and turmoil in the life of her Bablu – her only son. Who she was or how she was exactly related to us I really do not recall. But from grandparents to grandchildren, she had only one identity, one name : Bablu’s Maa.

Her visits were too-frequent  for comfort but her stories were myriad – all ranging around Bablu. Bablu, who was almost the same age as my father, was both the hero and the villain of her stories. Sometimes Bablu would be the mother-torturing monster, sometimes he would be the all-loving only begotten son of a widowed mother. At times the hero of the story would be terribly sick, almost ready-to-die unless medicines are given; at times he would be jobless. But the moral of every story was: Give me till you are done and frustrated!

No one would believe a word of her but would still hand out a note or two. Tying the money in the edge of her saree, she would leave with all humility and a promise to come soon.

But Bablu’s Maa and her Bablu-stories reached a crescendo when one day she came sobbing her heart out. She would neither take a drop of water nor have a sip from her favourite tea-cup. After much coaxing and cajoling, all she could mutter amidst sobs was that her beloved Bablu was no more. Shocked to silence, everyone was in tears as she narrated how she struggled to keep her son alive and how, with great difficulty, she had managed a decent funeral for him.

“Tch, you should have informed us. Atleast we could have gone for the last rites. ”, my grandfather spoke with genuine grief. The others nodded in agreement. And at the end of the day, she went back with bundles of notes and assurance of our assistance forever. Long after she was gone the elders sat reminiscing about how Bablu was as a child.

And things were about to turn emotional when my father returned from office.

“You won’t believe whom I met in the bus today? Bablu…”

“Bablu? Which Bablu?”

“Bablu of Bablu’s Ma fame…who else?”, my father shrugged his shoulders, unaware of the drama that had unfolded minutes ago.

I had expected a turmoil and a barrage of angry expressions but all there was – was astounded silence.

And if you think that was the last we saw of Bablu’s Ma, you are sadly mistaken. Unashamed, she appeared again after weeks, armed with her Bablu-stories till someone reminded her that her Bablu, as per her story, had already been a martyr. She blamed it on her ‘memory loss’ – for which she needed regular check-up and for which she didn’t have enough money. The end result was however that we continued the ‘Save Bablu and His Mom’ campaign till her death – only, no one ever wanted to hear her stories anymore!

She wasn’t the only one in the category. There was also this old grandmother who used to come armed with strange gifts for the family like sick kittens or soggy flowers picked up on the way.

And  then there was Asamma – who was an old-man wearing laced converse shoes with his dhoti, with a terrible shake of his head – almost resembling a vibrator. My grandfather would religiously hand him a two-rupee note for ten full years till he angrily refused one day.

“Don’t mind, but my bus fare one way to your house is now two rupees! Your two rupee notes have now become my return fare”.

My grandfather was both hurt and ashamed and promptly increased the amount the amount by a full one rupee!!

**** More to follow in my next post *******