Its been raining steadily for the past week and I’m sick of it. Fortunately, over here when it rains it warms up. And it reminds me of a rainy autumn in Kolkata, 56 years back. It was back to school after a long summer break for my two elder bros, but not for me – I was a pre-schooler still.
There was no pre-school those days, neither were there any day-cares. And even if there had been, there was no way my father would be able to afford them. Orphaned at the age of 10 and raised by a widow who never married, my father barely made ends meet in those days.
Thus, when my two elder bros went off in the morning school bus, I just followed my Ma around the house and through the day she effortlessly kept me busy doing lots of stuff. If I was in another room and a little too quiet, she would holler,” What is my little Jobbu upto now, I wonder. If he has finished coloring the Donald Duck, maybe I’ll let him have a khir kodombo…” (Khir Kodombos were a variety of Bengali sweetmeat she knew I loved having, because of the soft core and the hard outer shell that had sprinkly powder on it).
When it was time for my bros to return, sometime around 4pm, I would be at the balcony balustrade which had this diamond-shaped latticework grill whose diamonds were just large enough for me to be able to shove my little head through the grill and eagerly scan the road for the school bus.
My two elder bros were tyrants, who didn’t believe in pulling any punches, but I missed ‘em all the same and I couldn’t wait till they were back. Something like Jeremiah Jefferson, waiting for Massah Jefferson ta come home so he could be lashed around that huge cedar and whipped some more for stealing a tomato from the 1820 Alabama pantry.
We used to have an aunt living in Kent, in the UK, those days and Chotopishi vacationed with us for two weeks in summer every year. Unlike in the English language, where an aunt is an aunt, regardless of whether she’s your father’s sister or your mother’s sister, we Bengalis demand more clarity. The father’s sister is ‘pishi’ (variations – pishima, pishimoni, pipirani, pipu and so on) and that’s not all – the elder sister of the dad is ‘boropishi’ and the younger sister, ‘chotopishi’. The mother’s sister is ‘mashi’ and likewise, we nitpick over how ta call all our aunts and uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces.
So, now you know exactly what kind of aunt Chotopishi was. Read my blog – it’ll enlighten you beyond words. You have no idea how many Nobel Laureates credit my blog and Facebook page as being directly responsible for their fame.
The summer of 1961 was different. Chotopishi had brought from England a suitcase full of toys but in order to avoid a scramble and a riot, this time she had each toy clearly marked with our names on it. Dada (my eldest bro, 11 that year) got slightly more mature stuff, like a Mecano set and a train set that had to be assembled with tiny screws and glue.
While Dada is the eldest bro, Chorda (short for ‘choto dada’) is a kinship term which literally means ‘little big brother’, generally reserved for the brother who is the second youngest son. Dada was huge and could easily beat me up and often did. When he did lay into me, he always took pains ta explain the charges against me, like we were in a court of law. He was the law, no question about it. Sometimes he threw a punch at me simply because ‘I dunno, haven’t beaten you up in a while’.
Chorda had the same height and build as me and just as Trump didn’t recognize Obama as being American, so did I not recognize Chorda as older and more worthy of respect. Having the same physical strength, we often fought bitterly – until my mom appealed to his elder mature status and exhorted him to spare me since I was just a li’l kid.
My early relationship with my two elder bros was a strange one. We slugged it out most evenings – I got pushed around, that is – but I still missed my brothers and looked forward to their arrival back from school every day. The first few minutes I would be so thrilled to see them that I would be running errands, fetching them their slippers, their shorts, getting them their sherbets from the fridge, lugging their backpacks to their room and filling them in on how I spent the day and following them around the house.
But all that my bonhomie really did was to make me an enormous pain in the ass, since they essentially wanted to be left alone a while, until they recovered from a stressful school day. Very soon the old routine would begin, with me being told ta ‘get lost, I’m busy’ and me, offended, throwing something at them and getting punched in return and soon things descended into chaos and the living room began looking like Aleppo.
Until my dad came home from work and suddenly our home turned into a sepulchre – deathly quiet, funereal almost. If we had been in 15th century Mexico, we would be tossing coins ta see which one of us would be disemboweled and sacrificed first.
Usually there was a two minute warning that my dad had just arrived at the wicket gate at the end of the front lawn, having been spotted by my mom who invariably stood looking out for him at the upstairs balcony around that time. My dad would pause, engage the neighbors – an old couple – in a short conversation and then move toward the front door, which by then would be open, my mom standing there and proclaiming loudly over her shoulder,” Babu, Gopal, Baba eshe gechen, porte bosho ebar..” (Babu, Gopal ***my two elder bros***, sit down to your homework. Dad is back.)
My father was a humane but otherwise stand-offish, professorial, cold and impervious personality who didn’t tolerate unnecessary noise. For the love of me, I couldn’t imagine why anybody would want to live in quietness. Be that as it may, any kind of commotion – such as kids playing and fighting – was anathema to him. ‘Good kids should be seen and not heard’ was a 5th century BC Greek proverb he quoted often – especially on days when the lookout lady hadn’t been at her post when my dad walked in unheralded and then stood staring at what seemed like the final stages of Galipoli.
I see him clearly – on one of those occasions when the lookout lady was missing from her post – my dad, staring at the living room from the front door – cricket bats, wickets, balls, gullis and sundry other toys strewn around, the fingers of his right hand absently scratching his chin – exactly the way General Ian Hamilton must have tugged at his goatee when the Turks overran Galipoli and besieged the British invasion force.
(to be continued…)