Baptism by Fire


I was barely six months when I was baptized by fire. The water in the cemented tank was dullish transparent; not fit to be drunk under any circumstances. That water, that smelly dull water was used to dissolve the powdered milk. I wouldn’t stop whining otherwise. Having born a near-dead baby with a de-skinned look, I was not a loud, wailing baby. But my constant, nagging whimpers were enough to put my young mother in a tizzy.

It was too late in the night and my father was nowhere in sight. My mother was oblivious to the fact that my father was stuck up in the midst of a forest – confronted by a group of dacoits. (Well, that is yet another interesting story that I leave for another day!). In the small guesthouse, in the midst of night, she was left alone with a hungry, whimpering baby and a helpless assistant. No milk, no food, no drinking water. She whispered a small prayer as she dipped the glass in the water tank adjoining the bathroom.

“I leave my child to your care, God. If she is destined to survive, she will”. She prayed silently as I hungrily devoured the milk prepared with the near-dirty water.

It was strange, but my weak stomach showed no resistance to the contamination and I survived.

And perhaps that was the day I was baptized and hurled into the world of red soil, poverty, oily hair, smell of flowers, buttonless shirts, runny noses, illiteracy and human touch.

As I grew up I realized that my parents’ work as social workers meant less of everything that spelt luxury. So it was a pair of school shoes for festivals instead of fancy slippers; sharing dresses with my cousins rather than buying new everytime and playing with gifted toys instead of visiting a toy shop.

That my parents were social workers also meant everything that spelt unbound happiness. We would ‘set up’ our own restaurant in our balcony, while my mother would successfully put in the chef’s hat. From using cycle spokes to make delicious sheek kebabs to baking cakes using a sand bed – she was our very own masterchef.

Our vacations, except once or twice, would be strange ones…..travelling to the remotest rural areas. The jeep would manoeuvre through lines of Saal, Simul and Gulmohar trees. With burning eyes, parched throat and untamed dusty hair flying here and there, I would eagerly look forward to the final stoppage.

Normally it would be a training programme organized for the rural workers. I would happily mingle with Minati, Swapna, Lakshmi, Rashmoni…They would mock fight amongst themselves, claiming ownership of my company. I would pacify them in turn by dividing my time amongst all of them. I would help them make alphabet cards, paint charts, prepare songs.

Afternoons would be fun meals in long rows, in which I would choose my seat next to my favourite participant. As the volunteers would pour piping hot lentils on heaps of coarse, reddish rice, my eyes  would watch the stream of lentils finding their way out through the maze of rice grains. Hungry ants would wait around the leaf plate for a mishap to happen.

“Mix the rice with the daal…faaaast”, the women would giggle. I would still wait for the yellow of the lentils to merge with the pale white of the rice and then have my first mouthful.

I don’t know what was so special about the rice but it tasted so different – deliciously different.

Food over, I would dare not go to my mother as she would be insistent about a well-required nap. Instead I would huddle with the young women -my world totally taken over by their gossips. My fingers meanwhile would fiddle with their packets of Borolin cream, rusted safety pins, sticky combs, women’s magazines and cheap nail polish. I would gladly let them use me as their guinea-pig as they would tie my hair in different styles: put nail-polish on my fingers, dot my face with face creams. My skin would tingle and I would resemble a ghost-in-motion, but I would gladly submit.

The evening hours would normally be reserved for cultural programmes. Amidst halos of gas lamps and ill-tuned harmoniums, songs in high pitch would be rendered one after the other. My role was that of a guest artist. Just a small cue and I would pop myself on the dias and dance my heart out. There was a time when I had a collection of long skirts and frocks in atrocious goldens and silvers, just reserved for programmes as these. Performance over, my cheeks would be pinched, I would be squeezed into warm embraces and those would be my ten minutes to fame!

But what stands still in my memory bank are the pictures of the night sky! While the tired souls would submit themselves to blissful sleep, my eyes would be glued to the snippet of night-sky visible through the window. While the moon would shower speckles of silver on the pond nearby, the shadowy fingers of the swaying leaves of Papaya and Mango trees would create eerie silhouettes of the mud-walls. I would train my ears to hear strange sounds – barking dogs, wailing of colic-affected baby, late nights songs from a far away radio…subtle, subdued sounds but they would give me goosebumps. “Too hoot hoot….Too hoot hoot”….a night owl would flap past the window. I would clutch my mother tight – burying my face in her blouse…..

As I grew up I went here, there and everywhere; I did this, that and everything but I knew my call was somewhere else. And I knew I couldn’t choose any other profession that would give me goosebumps.

Many a times, my friends ask why I ultimately chose to be a social worker when I could have as well done anything else. And there have been many challenging moments when I myself have felt if it is worth all the effort! But then, like there is no explanation why mountaineers risk their lives to reach the peak of Everest, there is no explanation for this as well….

But frankly, for nothing in this world would I trade the surreal feel….that framed box of night sky is still so vivid in my mind….

And thank God for the tank of dirty water; it did give me enough strength to be immune against worldly wants for a life-time!