It was the last day of the school year and everyone had taken up their positions behind the desks waiting for the final bell to ring to be the first one out of the door. Everything had been packed and readied to go in their satchels and knapsacks. The bags were much lighter on this day though as the contents weren’t the usual. The children carried only the pencil boxes, the lunch boxes and the priceless contraband that had exchanged hands during the abridged day. I’m of course referring to the comic books and novels that had been bartered and meticulously stowed away in the deepest recesses of the bags and guarded like hawks against any potential book brigands. The ever heavier burden of the school books were conspicuous by their absence as they had outlived their utility at least for that year and there was still time for the next set to become available.
The school bell rang to unleash a flash flood of children who came gushing out of their classrooms which resembled tributaries of a flood swollen river. It was a deafening cacophony of hoots, shrieks, jubilant yelps and animated chatter for the next 15 minutes or so. But after tide of students had ebbed, silence moved in surreptitiously to encroach the now empty school corridors and classrooms which had been occupied by utter pandemonium until a few minutes prior. The premises were fully aware that silence and solitude would now be the only tenants for the next couple of months.
The action and pandemonium had now shifted to the bicycle stand where everybody took to languidly unlocking (yes, was and most likely continues to be common practice to have elaborate locks on bicycles in India for fear of theft), loading the school bags and pulling their bikes out over friendly banter, plans feverishly afoot for their first week off and arguments over the next course of action as it was a half day and they had a good four hours at their disposal before the end of the usual school day. It wasn’t much of an argument though as cricket was uppermost on their minds. A consensus decision was arrived at forthwith to play in a small field opposite a friend’s house which was mostly equidistant from everybody’s homes (the hapless outlier to this premise who lived in one corner of the town had to just suck it up). But there was one final task that remained to be consummated prior to proceeding for the scrimmage. The small group of ten rode ‘half seat’ to the school canteen which was a standalone structure by the school playground operated by a Bengali immigrant, his wife and his two young sons who pitched in whenever a set of extra hands were required. The dainty ‘singadas’ accompanied by ‘guguni’ were the highlight of this culinary establishment but some kids preferred the lip-smacking ‘tractor’ biscuits instead. Pocket money was a rarity in those days but most of the kids had managed to beseech a couple of rupees from their parents for that special day and that special snack. The penniless were accommodated by friends although this favor was used later as an ace up the sleeve. No meal would be complete and no game of cricket could ensue without the ritualistic bubble gum and so there was the ‘Big Fun’ brand of gum that was expressly purchased not just for the gum but more importantly for the accompanying freebie cricket cards which were a collectors item and a prized possession. There was an unspoken pact that everyone would collect as many of these cricket cards over the summer break and then come back after the break to see who had managed to collect the most and then proceed to barter the duplicates for the ones that one did not have. This was serious business folks!
The sun was slowly starting to make its descent toward the western horizon as we embarked on the game our cycles herded together behind the wicket to act as a barricade for the balls that eluded the wicketkeeper’s gloves. The neck ties had come off and had been stuffed into the bags, but the school uniforms were on and the black leather shoes were covered by now with a layer of dust from the dustbowl of a field. Nobody cared a fig though about school uniforms on this day. They were celebrating their freedom from the rigors of school and relishing every moment of it. The game, the banter, the stories, the gossip continued unabated interspersed with water breaks that were provisioned by the friend who lived opposite the field until his mother broke up the party by calling her sons name in a loud elongated manner much like when a muezzin summons the faithful to prayer. Everybody reluctantly said their goodbyes with a billion plans for the remainder of the break as well as promises to reconvene the next day for an encore of the action. Same place, same time and we were off riding our Hero, Atlas, BSA, Hercules bicycles with one or two breaking away from the herd as they approached their respective junctions.
It was the beginning of summer and a cool evening had descended upon the town. I had already scarfed down my lunch and was feeling somewhat languorous. I decided to lie down on the sofa with a comic book in hand picked out from my recently acquired stockpile and was instantly transported to the imaginary world of Chacha Choudhury, Krookbond, Tintin, Amar Chitra Katha, Mandrake and Phantom and a myriad others. I did not know when I had gone from dreaming with my eyes open to my eyes shut only to be awakened by the gentle caress of my mom’s fingers running through my hair. She had just returned home after tending to her patients at the hospital. Dinner comprising of ‘ruti’ (Indian flatbread) and ‘dalma'(Indian vegetable medley stewed in pulses and lightly seasoned with roasted and ground spices at the end) was served which was ingested with much consternation by my sisters and me. Let’s just put it this way: The nightly news was the only savory thing that was on offer at dinner time! I truly did have a thing for news from a very early age. But that pain of gulping down morsels of ruti bathed in dalma under extreme duress was completely neutralized by the excitement that was building up that Friday evening in anticipation of watching the weekly episode of ‘The world this week’. It was a one of its kind show at that time and our window into the happenings and current affairs around the globe. It transported us to the various corners of the world from within the confines of our drawing rooms and was such a beautiful end to a school week!
The ‘Braun’ alarm clock (the small German folding into its box kind) started chiming at 5:30 AM in the morning but I was waiting and ready for that event to occur and shut off the alarm in a flash careful not to awaken the rest of the household. I had already performed my daily chores and was ready with my sports clothes and shoes on to hit the ground nearby where our neighborhood cricket club practiced. I slid out from the backdoor and rolled my bicycle out through the rear gate of the backyard boundary and proceeded for the five minute bicycle ride to the field. My friend and I were the early birds and we understood our responsibilities well and took them very seriously. We started with putting up the net behind the wicketkeeper that was hung to keep the balls from disappearing into the thick brush behind the pitch. We would then pull out the kit bags from the small store room adjacent to the ground and neatly lay out the equipment for use by the ‘seniors’. We would then proceed to take the light roller and roll the practice wicket in preparation for the nets that would ensue later that morning. Last but not least, we would warm up by jogging a few laps around the field followed by stretching exercises and a few fielding and catching drills we had picked up from the seniors. The seniors would arrive eventually and the nets would begin in earnest. We the juniors would be posted around the ground to just retrieve the balls that had been stroked away over the boundary i.e. from the other side of the road which ran adjacent to one side of the field or from the park compound on opposite side which happened when the ball was lofted for a six over and across the park boundary. We would be rewarded for our unwavering diligence by the head coach or a senior by allowing us to bat or bowl for an over at the end of practice session. This happened maybe once in a fortnight if we were lucky. So you see the early birds seldom caught any worms but that once in a blue moon opportunity was reward enough and we were thrilled to be part of the club and wouldn’t trade that privilege for anything else under the sun!
The return leg of the journey from practice was a scene of the fixation of a famished teenager’s brain with food and a growling stomach restless to receive the same. The Sunday breakfast was always special as we would get to enjoy ‘parata’, ‘alu bhaja’ and ‘semeyee khiri’. I would gobble up all the yumminess served to me in no time and also would end up stealing some from my sisters’ plates too! The breakfast done with and the hunger pangs satiated for the time being we would all move to the ‘drawing room’ to enjoy our TV favorites like Project UFO, He-Man and the masters of the Universe, The giant Robot (which moved to another day later on) and then for the big daddy of them all the grand epic Ramayana. Rama Das (aka Jada) our caretaker would have by that time returned from the butchers’ post his Sunday morning ‘mutton run’ (a Sunday ritual). The unmistakable and foodgasmic aroma of ‘mansa kasa’ (succulent pieces of goat meat from a just slaughtered goat cooked in a pureed blend of onions, ginger, garlic and other spices) being prepared by a ‘Rama’ wafting from the kitchen into the ‘drawing room’ and assaulting our nostrils when the eyes and ears were being subject to the piety of the sermons of Lord Rama (any slaughter of animals would be taboo to him) playing on TV was a classic case study in the multilayered paradoxes of a Hindu household!
It was lunch time and nobody needed a second invitation to congregate and take up position at the dining table. We knew what to expect: Bhata (steamed rice), and piping hot ‘mansa alu jhola’ (‘mansa kasa’now in a thin gravy with half cut skin-on potatoes) with an accompaniment of sliced cucumber, tomato and onion salad. There would invariably be a small skirmish amongst the siblings to wrest away as many pieces of ‘kalija’ (goat liver) from the other (mom would play peacemaker and divide all the pieces equally amongst all the siblings) before we could get down to the business of wolfing down all the grub and licking our fingers and the plates clean. After a couple of gratifying belches we would retire to our bedrooms, the curtains would be drawn, the Hardy Boys novel pulled out to hasten the onset of the siesta which would last a good couple of hours.
The children would start trickling out of their homes around 5 PM and then would get together to play various games such as hide and seek, ‘pitto’ (the one with the seven stones stacked up and a soft ball used to knock it down and then tagging each other with that ball), or ‘chooan-chooin’ (just plain tag), maybe badminton doubles on somebody’s front lawn or gully cricket which would entail periodic moving of the makeshift stumps every time a vehicle passed.
Mom would summon us and break up the block party. We would be asked to wash up and get ready to go to our cousins’ for dinner. We would then hop into the Fiat 1100 (whose first owner incidentally was Sharmila Tagore) and true to form the car would refuse to start and then Jada, my sisters and I would give the car a push with my mom at the wheel and the ‘Italian stallion’ would sputter and come to life. Come to think of it now there was a certain romanticism to this whole exercise, the embarrassment of repeating this act everyday at least once notwithstanding. We would then jump in and zoom away (Mom was a brisk driver!).
My ‘mousa’ (the husband of my maternal aunt) would be ready upon our arrival with the newest Hindi movie VHS cassette and would slide it into the VCR and then switch off the ‘drawing room’ lights and all of us kids would be instantly transported to the world of Bollywood make believe for the next couple of hours. The evening would be capped off by some delectable food (courtesy my Mausi the ever so brilliant cook) over some quality family gossip. Oh! Those were the days.