When I stepped into my teens I had this sudden transformation one day. I’m sure you too have had a similar evolutionary process.
From being pesky, bossy, weird creatures, girls suddenly started looking fetching. Luscious curls, pigtails, full lips, demure smiles, hurried steps, plaited frocks – they used to seem like ‘ugh!’ and now, all of a sudden, the same attributes started making statements to me. Back at home after school, I took to reading the Readers’ Digest. The Bombay Dyeing towel ad on the back cover began to feel like more than just a plump broad getting out of the shower.
That was the time when I started getting crushes. For a 13-year old male in the 1960s, crushes began usually with older female cousins, younger aunts, music teachers, neighbors’ college-going daughters, young maids, plump fruit & vegetablewalis – those were the kind of folk whom a crush-ridden boy’s fantasies dwelt upon. If you are a Bengali male and haven’t had a crush on any member of the aforementioned demographic segment, something is seriously wrong with you.
The first thought that would cross my mind was,” I wonder what it’ll feel like if I just walk up to her, lift her chin up and kiss her on the lips. Will her eyes widen in surprise? Will they then cloud over and resign themselves to the (sic)ecstasy? Or will she whap me across the face, knee me in the nuts and call out to my mom?” I recall a thrill coursing down my spine every time I relished the thought, feeling exactly the way a Christian knight felt just before he rode off on a crusade – unsure but excited, nervous and adrenalin-charged.
Of all my crushes, I remember this one I had in the summer of 1968, on a girl named Rohini, an Indian-Canadian who was a few years older. I was 13 and she was maybe 16 going on 17.
For reasons that I don’t want to bore you with, I had been packed off by my parents to Kolkata to live with an aunt.
At first, I had been overjoyed at the idea of going to live with them. I knew that they were very well-to-do and nice folk. I remembered how, years prior when I was 7, they had spent a fun-filled summer with us at Durgapur. They had gotten off the Coalfield Express, loaded with presents. I got a whole set of Matchbox cars and trucks, Dada a Meccano set and Chorda a miniature ambulance van that had been crafted exquisitely. And chocolates galore.
Their two boys, Guludada and Ronudada, had been a lot of fun to play with. That summer had zoomed by, filled with stories of life inside that exclusive school they went to in England, I forget the name, ‘Seven Oaks’ or something. I was in utter awe when they told us stories about the cricket test matches that they regularly went to watch, at the Oval and Trentbridge. Oh yeah, I was thrilled to go live with them. I’d heard that the two boys were back in Kolkata, now all grown up. Guludada was studying medicine while Ronudada was doing his BA in St.Xaviers, Kolkata.
The moment I set my steel trunk down on the hard cement floor of the room I had been given to stay in, I sensed that things were not going to be the same. Guludada and Ronudada were unrecognizable – hulking, taciturn, disapproving, sullen, all rolled in one. Where once they had been bubbling, now they hardly met my eyes, like if they didn’t have to look at me they could somehow make believe that I wasn’t actually there.
Indian dwellings have one feature that is missing in buildings in the western world – a rooftop (or chath, in Indian), that is accessible by a staircase which leads to it from the uppermost floor. It is an open space ringed by a waist-high parapet wall, where children fly kites on summer evenings or prance about in the rain during the monsoons.
The chath has many uses. Women hang up their laundry to dry and whole families come up to sleep there on hot summer nights. The rooftop is the middle-class Indian alternative to the backyard that all western single-family dwellings have.
Air-conditioning being expensive, the 40°C+ heat and the high humidity inside an Indian home can turn it into a pressure cooker. Throw in an erratic power supply and it can be hell in there. So, folk routinely troop upstairs to the rooftop, spread their shotoronchis (mats, in Bengali), stretch out and wait in the stillness for the tiniest rustle of a breeze.
If your rooftop chath is on a single-storied dwelling, you had better slap on mosquito repellant cream or light a mosquito coil. Mosquitoes have a flight ceiling and therefore, if you are on a three-storied bungalow, they’ll only be able to see you climbing the stairs and drool, like,” Look Chotu, there goes our dinner. They should outlaw buildings over one-story high.”
That’s another thing about the tropics that you don’t always get to see in the west. On the rooftop, stretched out on your back, you are assured a spectacle, a gorgeous star-studded sky, night after night. Kids stare up at the glitter, the more studious (like yours truly) arguing animatedly over whether this or that star is in the Canis Major or Cassiopia. Until the monsoons set in. Then you won’t be able to sleep on the rooftop anyway, unless you want to wake up drenched to the bone.
My aunt’s family were super-rich folk who could afford air-conditioning and so their rooftop was never used. Until I came to stay.
I was given a tiny room on the rooftop that we Bengalis call the chather ghor (rooftop room), a common fixture in almost every construction in Bengal that is usually meant for live-in servants or sometimes, if there are no live-in servants, even as a prayer room.
My little cubbyhole was stifling hot but it was still all mine and I was glad to be left alone to myself there. The first night I cried myself to sleep, being away from my own family for the first time in my life.
At my aunt’s I did not want for anything but they, my uncle and aunt and their two sons, Guludada and Ronudada, seemed always cold and aloof, as if resentful of the fact that they found themselves in a situation where refusal to have me live with them would have been seen as being unfriendly. There was no lack of courtesy or decorum, but the one thing that a kid needs the most, warmth and love, was missing totally. I in turn shrank within myself and stayed out of their way, inside that rooftop room, spinning my webs of fantasy, dreaming of a life in a real home and a real family.
In this milieu descended Rohini, to spend the summer of 1968 at my aunt’s home. I was told her mother was my aunt’s second cousin, whose family had settled in Hudson, Ontario, since the early 1950s.
Slightly chubby and a bit cross-eyed, Rohini wasn’t overtly pretty but she had a cute nose that was turned up at the tip and lips that were a wee bit open always, even when she spoke, as if she was about to ask you a question. To me they seemed like she was waiting to be kissed.
It took Rohini just two evenings at the dining table to figure out how things were going down, vis-à-vis me and the rest of the household. She had watched me come down the rooftop stairs for supper and go back up silently afterward, to see me again only the next morning at breakfast.
Until this one evening, when the family was out on a wedding invitation. I had stayed up in the chather ghor all evening, preparing for a biology class test. Indian schools didn’t believe in too much homework those days, just a lot of prep work for tests that were happening all the time.
When I descended the stairs and went into the dining room, supper had already been laid out on the table. Chapathis(flat bread), still warm and moist inside a casserole, macher jhal – hot and spicy chunks of rohu, a carp-like river fish, yoghurt and rice. Keshto, my aunt’s cook, had taken the evening off.
I realized that Rohini had stayed back, when she walked in. She had on one of those flowing gowns that Indian women wear when they are home. Resembling shapeless sacks, they commence at the neck and end at the ankles. I wondered if she had anything on underneath. Probably not, since I saw no bra or panty outline. My pulse quickened. Didn’t take long for a newly transformed teen’s pulse to quicken, I can tell you that.
“Hi! Don’t like going to weddings, do you?” I smiled nervously at her. A closer scrutiny made me realize how pretty she really was. That instant I was in love.
“Someone had to be here with you and I elected to stay. Besides I would have been bored to death if I had gone along,” she said gaily.
Rohini was an infectious chatterbox. Soon, we were laughing and I was grilling her about life in Canada, little imagining that one day I would find myself living the rest of my life there.
It felt like I had spoken more words in that one evening than in the entire three months that I had been in my aunt’s house. That was the first time I noticed her upturned nose and wondered, like I explained in the second paragraph, how it would feel to kiss it’s tip.
(to be continued……)