Some things from that evening seem faded, so faded that they could very well have just been dreams. Dreams of how I’d have liked things to have turned out, rather than actual events. It takes a lot of effort now, remembering each detail.
After all it was more than half a century back – Diwali, 1965. But it’s a Diwali that still shimmers, in the haze, except that the haze – it grows denser as the years roll by and the lines, once sharply etched, now seem blurred.
Sukhoranjan, our Jeeves, lit the oil lamps and arranged them along the terrace parapet, the balcony balustrade and even on the window ledges – of employees’ quarters, Type-E, No.34, MAMC Colony, Town: Durgapur, Province: West Bengal, Eastern India.
The October breeze was mild, but the lamps flickered and inevitably some went off after a sudden gust, making Sukhoranjan scurry around, relighting them. “Oof! Aaj eto hawa hobar ki dorkar chilo ? **”of all the days, did it have to be so windy today?”***he fussed.
Meanwhile right after the first fire crackers went off in the neighborhood, our dog, Shepherd, took refuge under the bed – my bed, our bed, mine and my two elder bro’s. Shepherd made frightened, whiny noises as he slinked in, tail well between his legs. He didn’t emerge till it was dinnertime, the festivities were over and the neighborhood had fallen silent.
My father had his arm round my mother’s shoulders, with her head tilted and resting on his, while they stood back and watched their three kids waving crackling fuljhari sticks wildly around. My favorite was the thubri, a firecracker crammed inside an onion-shaped clay pot with a hole on top like the caldera of a volcano, through which it kept spewing stuff out high in the air like a fountain.
The thubri was a dazzling display of colors that lasted around 30 seconds and then the pot lay spent but smoldering, with a tiny flame still licking up from within. I loved giving it a hard kick then. Who lit the first thubri – Chorda? No, perhaps Dada. Heck, I just can’t seem to remember that clearly anymore.
What I do remember is that the war with Pakistan had just ended in a ceasefire and while the mood was upbeat on the one hand, there was also some grieving at the sudden death of the revered Indian Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri. The Gnat fighters from the nearby Panagarh airbase had finally stopped screeching past at treetop level, by the time Diwali came around.
The squeals of excitement of that Diwali, the laughter – it all comes back in snatches, like when you are turning the knob of an old radio and the music from a short wave station keeps swooshing in and out.
Some other moments are still etched. Like the fact that the stash of firecrackers that our father could reasonably afford happened to be far smaller than those of all the other Joneses in the neighborhood. And we didn’t want to finish before the others. A dark and silent house in the midst of bursting crackers would be an embarrassment.
My father had an ingenious way to address that. He took us for a long walk round the neighborhood, ostensibly to admire the Diwali pradeep lighting on the houses and the crackers others were bursting. It killed time till it became unbearable and the three of us raced back to our individual fire cracker stashes, to begin.
Afterwards, there were heaped plates of mutton pulao for dinner. This was a big deal because we had meat on the table only once every fifteen days or so. We usually ate mutton – chicken being prohibitively expensive in those days. Though there had never been any discussion on it, beef was never an option, even though it was the least expensive. (I’m not sure if in fact were even any beef stalls where I grew up).
As always, my mother busied herself laying the table and waiting on her four men while they ate. By the time she took her seat, all the mutton was gone and only a bit of the pulao (the rice) was left, stuck to the walls of the pan like a thick plaster. When Dada protested that she didn’t have enough, she smiled and gave him a hug,” If you kids are full, I’m full.” I can still see her scraping the bottom of the pan with her thumb and licking it appreciatively,” You missed the tastiest part, you know.”
I remember Sukhoranjan well. How can you not remember someone you grew up with? Sukhoranjan was a 16 yr old guy from Orissa who had found work as a chaprasi (gopher) in my father’s office. In return for free lodging and board in the servants’ quarters attached to our house, he became our odd-job man, getting the groceries, fixing things around the house, mopping and sweeping, a job that he took as gospel..
Sukhoranjan had left his native Baleshwar with his uncle when he was 6, at the peak of the 1955 famine and the cholera out-break that had claimed both his parents and his younger sister.
After a brief stay with abusive relatives in Chakradharpur, Sukhoranjan ran away and boarded a train to Durgapur, alone, as a frightened 8 yr old. Years of toil in tea shops and grocery stores followed and it was when he was 14, working as a door-to-door fruit seller, that one day his shadow fell across our doorstep.
It had been a blisteringly hot day and Sukhoranjan struggled to lift the fruit basket back on his head, when my mother persuaded him to lay it back down on the ground and asked him to rest a while in the shade of our front porch. Soon a sumptuous lunch followed, which he wolfed down in seconds.
My mother took him in that day and he had been with us ever since. A bright and cheerfully illiterate country boy, a year older than Dada, Sukhoranjan still called him ‘Borda’ (big brother). And he was especially invaluable in my leisure-time pursuits, having taught me the intricacies of gulli-danda, marbles and how to make a gulti (sling) out of a forked wooden twig and rubber strips cut from bicycle tubes.
It was only when you tried to ask Sukhoranjan about his parents or sister that he clammed up. My mother had once seen a photo inside that tiny steel trunk of his that held all his worldly possessions. It was a picture of a couple in front of a hut. He had simply nodded and looked away when my mother had asked him if they were his parents.
And Shepherd. He was a good looking, unusually large, dirty white mongrel pup when he found us. India is teeming with dogs without a home, that loiter around every street, scrawny and emaciated, with open sores and wounds from fights over scraps, with other dogs.
But Shepherd was different. With a dark grey stripe through the middle of his forehead, from between his eyes to the tip of his nose, he was unnaturally fluffy and plump. As he grew, Shepherd got this bushy white tail and when he confronted another dog, it rolled up tight and went into a high frequency, low amplitude quiver, while his bright aggressive unwavering eyes stayed on the other guy and a low growl escaped from his slightly parted lips. Most dogs quickly figured out that the odds against having a ear torn or a shoulder gashed were very little and made a whining exit which sounded more like, “Fuck it, tennis anyone?” to me.
I have a hunch that Shepherd’s father was one of those Siberian huskies that the Soviet experts brought over with them. This was 1965 – at the apex of Indo-Soviet cooperation. We were living inside a township that had technical experts from the Soviet Union helping us build coal mining machinery. The husky must have fallen for a local babe somewhere along and one thing had lead to another. We never got acquainted with his mother. Guess she’d passed on by the time Shepherd, the pup, found us.
Shepherd truly was a Soviet dog. The KGB couldn’t have done any better, penetrating a third world country. Shepherd eased himself into our house gradually in strategically planned moves. He was first spotted sunning himself occasionally on our garden wall parapet and then we noticed he had promoted himself to the top of one of the two concrete garden gate posts. It was not long before he drew my mother’s attention,”Dakh re, kukur ta ki mishti dekhte” (look guys, isn’t that a cute pup?).
Soon Ma was flinging leftovers to him after our meals. One day, when Sukhoranjan was about to garbage an old frying pan, Ma decided to keep it and use it as Shepherd’s dinner plate. She had Sukhoranjan remove the handle and clean it out and began having one of us kids go out and leave it filled with scraps, on his favorite gate post.
As Shepherd grew however, that gate post proved to be too small and he kept inadvertently knocking the pan off it in his eager enthusiasm. Soon we started leaving the pan on our doorstep instead.
The monsoon of 1965 was particularly severe and I remember this one late night. Ma and Baba were asleep, their bedroom door shut. I suddenly woke to see Dada and Chorda standing by our bedroom window, holding the grills and looking out, talking in a low tone. I jumped out of bed and went up behind them. My eyes were at the level of their waists and I had to push my little head through to see what was grabbing their attention. In the blinding sheets of rain, I saw Shepherd, bedraggled, on top of his gate post, trying to find a comfortable position to settle himself in.
Dada looked at Chorda, got a nod and turned to me,”Sshh. Mukh theke ekta shobdo jeno na shuni. Noito gatta khabi, bujhli?” (Ssh. One sound from you and you’ll get one of my bare knuckle raps on your head). He was obviously worried about my parents waking up.
Dada was tough and I never took his words lightly. If he said he was going to beat me up, he was going to beat me up. You couldn’t reason with him. You couldn’t placate him. You couldn’t seek refuge under the law. He was the law. He might easily have been born in the turn of the century in the town of Corleone or Palermo.
So, here we were, by the bedroom window, me held by the ears, slowly being shaken but not stirred, by Dada. He continued, “Teen shotti bol, shatti, shatti, shatti” and I repeated after him in a hushed, awed voice, “Shatti, shatti, shatti”. Repeating ‘shatti’ thrice meant giving your word to the other guy that you wouldn’t rat out on him. This was the first time they were going to trust me not go blab to our parents the first chance I got. It was awesome. I was in! I’d suddenly grown up. I was now being taken as a man by my peers. Laga Chaka Baga Chaka! (relax, that’s Bengali for Yippee!).
My euphoria was short-lived, for Dada hit me with a gatta anyway. I started, “What the…!!%^*” and he swiftly clamped his palm on my mouth, “That was just for taste. There’s more from where that came, remember that.” Jesus Christ, they should have named this guy Joey Gallo.
The gatta was painful and unprovoked and when it became evident that I was going to burst out crying, Kissinger (Chorda) stepped in,” Now relax, take it easy, ok? You are now one of us. We gotta stick together, right?” I nodded hurriedly, gulping back my tears.
Dada took charge immediately, “All right, here’s what we’ll do” he jabbed a finger painfully into my chest sending me reeling back,” you get that spare mat from the prayer room and meet us at the front door.” With that curt command, he and Chorda swung on their heels and slinked down the stairs, while I made my way in the dark, to the prayer room, to retrieve the spare mat, making sure I kept a safe distance from that pashbalish (round cushion) on the whatnot that scared the bejesus out of me every time I was made to enter the prayer room alone in the dark. I grabbed hold of the mat and raced downstairs to where my elder brothers were waiting.
They already had the front door open and Shepherd was standing there, dripping and forlorn, his wet fluff now sticking to his body making him look half his size. There was this cove under the stairs next to the front door which housed the family bicycle (my father went to work on it when he didn’t manage to get a lift).
Shepherd came in and proceeded to the cove where he shook himself dry vigorously, soaking us all in the process. I hugged him. He was cold. Chorda had brought a bowl of milk which he placed next to the mat. Shepherd curled himself up on the mat and lapped at the milk gratefully. He was done in a microsecond and lay stretched out, eyes half closed, bushy tail wagging lazily in appreciation. In another minute he breathed a deep sigh and was out like a light. The next morning we were taken aback to note that our parents didn’t mind Shepherd’s new lodgings at all.
The penetration of the household was now complete, the culmination of a totally successful ‘hearts and minds’ exercise – the only casualty being my forehead – from Dada’s gattas.
Sukhoranjan got a permanent unionised job at MAMC, married soon after and moved away in ’68.
Shepherd passed on in the summer of ’69 around the time of the first moon landing. He failed to recover from a tonsil operation. I had just turned 14.