My aunt’s house always had this deathly quiet about it. No one ever spoke unless it was absolutely necessary. Levity was unheard of. Everyone just shut himself up inside his own world, like.
When he wasn’t off minding his sizeable real estate holdings, farmlands and fisheries, my uncle would be found on the sprawling terrace, lying on an ‘easy chair’, an arm chair you could stretch out on, by lifting your feet up on the long flat extended arms.
You could hardly make my uncle out, so completely he would be shrouded inside a cloudy cocoon of cigarette smoke. Surrounding him were two large coffee tables on which newspapers, medical journals (he was a retired hotshot MRCP), Perry Mason paperbacks and half-opened packets of India Kings and matches, constantly fought for space. My uncle had this cold and forbidding stare that discouraged even his wife from trying to strike up a conversation.
Guludada and Ronudada would be in their rooms, doors locked from inside, so there was no way you could just walk in without seeking permission. You had to knock and then wait interminably for the door to open and reveal a sullen face, the words coming from it exceedingly polite, yet barely hiding their blisteringly cold tone. Trust me, even cold can give you blisters.
As for my aunt, she had an army of servant maids and therefore didn’t have to lift a finger to do anything around the house. And yet, she was the one I felt the most pity for. She would spend her day tiptoeing around the large apartment, from room to room, like a wraith, mumbling under her breath, her face a perpetual mask of concern. As she moved around in her house gown, quietly switching off unwanted lights, she would sometimes stop in front of a window to stare down at the traffic below.
My aunt had this humongous prayer room that had mirror-smooth, wall to wall marble flooring, though I never saw her venture into it. It was bristling with virtually every idol ever known to mankind. There was the ubiquitous shiva linga, a must-have for every Hindu prayer room, jostling for space with idols of a buxom Goddess Laxmi, a Goddess Kali who seemed to have leapt right out of a Stephen King novel and a tubby Ganesh sitting contentedly astride a swan. Poor swan.
There were so many idols in there that, if I had looked hard enough, I might have found something for an Aztec, a Mayan or a Tutsi to pray to. This room was a constantly running WEF-Davos meet for idols, or if you want to be charitable, a Madame Tussaud’s for deities. Stephen Spielberg would have thought of an ‘Indiana Jones and Spunkybong’s aunt’s weird temple of gloom’, if he had been in movies then.
Besides idols, there were dog-eared copies of the Bhagwad Gita and other Hindu scriptures that looked like antique papyrus manuscripts. Oh yes, Hindus even now firmly believe that the more ‘archeological’ their holy books look, the more pious is the household. If your prayer room has a spanking new leather-bound edition of the Mahabharata, you are a promiscuous upstart and really need to work on your spirituality.
Besides the above, my aunt’s prayer room had all sorts of other holy odds and religious ends, the significance of which I’m sure even she had no clue. When I went to watch ‘A night at the museum’ recently, it reminded me of my aunt’s prayer room.
She rarely went in to sit down and pray though. It was almost as if after having built this space, she had nothing to say to them idols, afraid even to face them, the guilt at having acquired every luxury that life could provide, without having to lift a finger, rendering her somehow unworthy in her own eyes.
Nevertheless, my aunt had to have a prayer room. In 1960s Bengal, you didn’t count if you didn’t have a prayer room. A prayer room was a status symbol. It had to have the Shiva-linga or the Ganesh or the Laxmi or even the framed portrait of Ramkrishna Paramhansa, with his right hand fingers splayed out upward and his face quizzical, as if asking God, ‘Where is that nirvana you were talkin’ about, Dude?’ All of them idols and framed portraits and stuff had to be bigger, shinier, more bejeweled than the Joneses.
Heck, my aunt’s prayer room was climate controlled. Lord Shiva was used to much colder climes, since you always found him sitting bare-chested in his pad on top of the Kailash Parvat in the Himalayas. Even assuming that Kailash was a middling to tall mount of around 15000 feet, that would be -10° Celsius at the most at it’s peak. Oh yeah, Shiva sirji did need air-conditioning, no question about it.
It was a 40-minute walk to school from Hindustan Park, where my aunt’s three-storeyed apartment building was situated.
When I left to walk to school in the morning, it felt like I was being allowed out on unsupervised day parole. Pent-up emotions would surge out in a great big whoosh. Simply running down the stairs and getting out to go to school was a catharsis. Mingling into the crowds that were milling around the busy Hindustan Park Road was an almost physical release.
Back in 1968, the South Point high School had only one location and that used to be close to an elite neighborhood of Ballygunge called Mandeville Gardens. It is in several locations now, I understand.
Savoring the hubbub around me, I would take the Hindustan Park Road till it met the wide Rashbehari Ave, the two lanes separated by a grassy patch in the middle that had tram tracks running on it. I would scamper across, dodging the unruly traffic, to the other side, go further west on Ramani Chatterjee Road, hang a right at Dover Lane, go on south till it met Gariahat Road, again scamper across to Mandeville Gardens and on to the school from there.
That 5 km walk was the high point of my day. The traffic, the rickshaws, the stray dogs, those careening mini-buses, the clanging trams, the store fronts, the sudden quiet of the by-lanes and finally the hush of the posh Mandeville Gardens – everything came together to give me a feeling of being liberated.
The financial arrangement that my parents had with my aunt didn’t cover my room and board, which my aunt refused to be reimbursed for. All my other expenses, school tuition, rickshaw fare, anything else that I needed for myself – my parents paid for. Naturally, I began walking to school and building a steady nest egg from the saved rickshaw fare component of the cash that I received every month.
Those days they didn’t have any of the fancy ice-cream parlors like there are, all over Kolkata, today. There were just two ice-cream companies in the organized sector in Kolkata – Kwality and Magnolia (and from time to time, rose imitators like ‘Mangola’ or ‘Kuality’, flashes in the pan with ice creams that were atrocious to taste, whom you tried to avoid).
At busy street corners, usually one found an ice cream cart on which an emaciated, bare-foot man in khaki sat slumped, exhausted by the energy-sapping humidity. There used to be a Kwality Ice-Cream cart that I always found at the Rashbehari corner most days when I walked home from school. When I did, I promptly got myself a choco-bar from the growing pile of cash I was saving up and I sauntered on my way.
The moment I turned into the Hindustan Park Lane and began the short walk up to my aunt’s house, my world would begin to collapse in on me. From there, existence once again became robotic – ring the bell, walk in, wan smile, fleeting small talk, a wash, tea with crackers and the trudge up the stairs to the chather ghor, the room on the rooftop that had become my rabbit hole. The whole process was so quiet that anyone sitting anywhere in the house would have no idea that someone living there just came in.
Until one afternoon, as I crossed the Rashbehari Avenue, spotted the Kwality cart and began running toward it, I noticed through one corner of my eye, a flash of tight sky-blue shorts with pink printed roses skipping up toward me. Barely covering her crotch, the shorts revealed the most stunning pair of legs that a 13-year old boy in Bengal, maybe even Bengal itself, had ever laid eyes on. On her two dainty feet were plain rubber flip flops.
It was Rohini, quite unmindful of the stir she was creating, as she swung her hips with gay abandon. We have a word in hindi that sums up appropriately the way she looked that afternoon – bindaas (devil-may-care). Folk, especially the men, gaped, open-mouthed. Lucky, 1960s India hadn’t yet acquired the moniker of the gang-rape capital of the world.
Rohini and I reached the ice cream wala at exactly the same moment. Unused to the humid heat, she was flushed all over, her shoulder-length hair bunched up high over her head.
“Rohini didi!” I called out to her in sheer delight.
She had on a low-cut frilly thin cotton chemise that drooped on one side, baring a shoulder and was drenched in sweat. Here and there, around her armpits and the areoles round her nipples, sweat had made the chemise stick to her, rendering it almost see-through, in spite of the fact that she had a bra on underneath. That was the first time I realized that, even though nipples do most of the work, the areoles are the ones that sweat. If I had a smartphone then, I might have logged into Ripley’s believe-it-or-not and submitted this revelation. But this was 1968. We only had those phones that had crank handles.
Looking at Rohini, I had another one of those fleeting what-if-I-swept-her-up-and-kissed-her moments. She seemed cute, flushed and happy. Though I was three years her junior I was an unusually tall boy for my age, tall enough so that if she decided to stand up on her toes and tilt her chin up, her lips just might graze mine and her breath could well do likewise on my cheeks. Little did I imagine that before the summer was up, my stooping to kiss her would be the tamest of the things I did to her, almost as mundane as a drone strike on Waziristan.
I remember it was a Friday and I knew everyone at home would be away in the other end of town, for some kind of family get-together and I had been looking forward to going over to play with another cousin, a boy roughly my age named Bablu, who lived nearby on Lake Terrace Road. It was going to be an outing for which I had already secured prior permission from my aunt.
“Hi, Rohini-didi!” I burst out, thrilled to find her there. The ‘didi’ is used when addressing an older sister, cousin or older female friend with whom any amorous relationship would be frowned upon.
“Stop calling me Rohini-didi.” Her voice chided in a playful, mocking tone.
“Oh, sorry,” I stammered shyly. I have always been introverted, painfully shy, tongue-tied. There were as many grains of self-esteem in me those days as there were chicken in famine-hit, war-torn Biafra.
“If you have nothing better to do, let’s take a stroll down Southern Avenue and go sit by the Dhakuria Lake. Since you paid for the chocobars, I’ll pay for the phoochka and jhal moori. What say?”
“Sure. Let’s celebrate freedom for just a while.” Her eyes had a sparkle in the them and her cheeks? What can I tell you about those cheeks that that bastard, Tennyson, hasn’t already beaten me to it and enshrined?
Nothing better to do? I almost choked. Bye-bye, Bablu. Bablu? Did you say Bablu? Who’s Bablu? What the hell kind of a name is Bablu?