Even though my father was a brilliant student who had passed out of the Indian Institute of Science with a M.Tech Degree in Computer Engineering and a scholarship, our financial conditions were difficult because of various reasons which I would rather not discuss here. So, basically, what I meant to convey through the previous sentence was that my childhood was not adorned with luxury and pampering, I was never given extra chocolates or objects which could bring me satisfaction when I did something wonderful to surprise or bring a smile on my family's lips.
We lived in damp yellow government buildings in Belgachhia, Kolkata. It looked old and ruined, and frankly, it was home to the middle class of the society. The middle class who spit on the roads while walking. The middle class who have no manners at all and yell in public areas like its their own living room. The middle class who have absolutely no sense of fashion at all. The middle class who don't dress up gaudily because their self image is not a concern for them at all. The middle class who never attend lavish parties, and bargain for the fish in the fish market to buy an extra pack of sweets for their toddlers while going back home. The middle class who understand and value life, and live it the way it should be !
Dad and I used to go for sunday shoppings early in the morning, when the machh-wala and sabzi-walas called out to us from their stalls. I knew all of them just not by faces but by names too, and we almost had a normal chit-chat in the morning.
" Pinki aaj ki nebe? " ( "What will Pinki buy today? ") The phool-mashi called out to me with the flower basket on her head. I still remember her orange soda glasses covering her greying eyes, and her yellow broken-toothed warm smile.
" Pink phool ta dao na mashi," I replied politely. ( Give me the pink flowers, auntie.)
She always stuck the flowers in my pigtails that hung by the side of my plump face in a loving manner. Maybe thats the reason, I still remember her.
Another one of my favorite shopkeepers was the man in the stationary store- Shubodh kaku. His store was a small wooden stall which I now wonder how he fitted in amidst all the books, papers and pencils. As I was too tiny to see the amusing things that were inside, I used to climb up and sit on the counter while he showed me whatever I pointed at. Ocassionally, he even gave me a few free candies on the way back home. The last time I met him four years back, he had turned grey and aged from the dusky tall man that he was. But he still remembered my name!
When I hopped back home, or rode back in my father's red hero honda bike, we always stopped for a balloon. The best days were when it rained- I still believe that Kolkata rains are much better than the Bangalore Monsoon Showers. The skies sometimes turned pale yellow right before it rained, and sometimes there would be a terrific hailstorm or a kal baisakhi while it rained buckets. I would fling my arms and turn round and round in my balcony, screaming, " Rain Rain go away! Come again another day! Lil Pinki wants to play, " while my mother tried her best to hush me up, and the stares of the neighbours from the windows only rushed my adrenaline more.
The balcony was my playroom. When I played " Teacher Teacher," my mother's numerous plants were my students whom I indifferently hit with a wooden stick, while my mother came up frantically running to the balcony trying to explain to me how plants have life. Then I would shed a few tears, and switch to playing " Kitchen Kitchen," where I would fill my lilliput sized utensils with the mud from the plant pots, and add substantial amounts if water to it to cook my curry meals. There was a blind singer accompanied by his small son who came near our houses and sang for money. I had heard him singing the same song for almost seven years, and we used to throw coins wrapped in paper and rubber band after he was done. He had a beautiful voice.. he probably would have earned a lot more if America had come out with American Idol much much earlier.
Near our house, was a small lake. Bengali's call it a jhil.. i dont really know how to translate it in the exact terms in English. There was a cute little bridge adjoining it to the railway quarters where the lower strata of the society who helped us with the menial works at home resided. I had often wandered off to the quarters while roaming in the park or playing hide and seek with my friends by the lake, but after a few mishaps, I started visiting that place on my own. I loved watching them, watching their lifestyle, those children who asked for a better life continuously.
I watched them live in their tinned homes, with plastic covers sheltering them from the rain and harsh conditions of the weather. I noticed how so many many family members share a ten feet room to live, to survive, to eat and spend each day.. some with a smile on their faces, and some who smile and hide their tears which overflow only at night. I played with the slum children, even though I was humiliated for the clothes that I was wearing, which obviously differentiated me from all of them. So when I did the least that I could- take off my slippers, they looked at me strangely for a few seconds, and asked me, " Ki khelbe?" ( " What will you play?") and we played till the sun set in the evening sky, and the birds flapped their wings to return to their nestlings perched in the big branched trees.
We had continued playing for many more years, and I had taught them the alphabets when I was learning the same. It was a give and take relationship, though I believe I took a lot more than what I could've possibly given back. Because of my close relationships with them, I started understanding their way of life, the universal secrets of life and love.
I heard stories of inter-communal marraiges being treated with disgust- so much so, that the bride was put on fire a week after her marraige. I heard stories of young love, where they had eloped away from home to be in each others arms forever only to find out that love can be never be forever, when the man left his wife and their children for younger attractive women with money. I heard aching stories of how the mothers taught their little children to choose the food thrown into the garbage for their meals, when there was no money at home. I heard disturbing stories of how their older tinned houses were demolished by the Government because they wanted the city to have a proper infrastucture, and they were left on the streets with each other and plastic sheets.
I heard stories of how a mother left her child after giving birth to her because she knew she couldn't take care of her anyway, and she didn't want to see her die in front of her own eyes. I heard stories of how unemployment had driven the men in the family to commit suicide. More and more stories- which made me mature at a very young age. Of course, I don't show the mature intellectual side of mine very openly to the public, but nevertheless, these images and discussions that I've been a witness to in my childhood days, have made me into the sensitive and sensible person that I am today.
We had a fiat, and a red hero honda bike which was mentioned earlier in this note. After a few years during our stay in Kolkata, we bought a white maruti 800. Even though we had the fiat, my dad used to go to office in his bike. He said it could make him fly through the traffic and park anywhere he wanted to. When my dad returned home, he honked thrice and I would run down the four storeys to greet him and be gifted with his precious daddy hug. He used to put me to sleep by telling me stories of " The Good Giant", a masterpiece of fiction created entirely by him. I loved listening to his stories which revolved around all the wonderfully magical things in life, and sadly I haven't grown up too much in this area, I still look out for the same things in life.
Mummy and me used to go for shoppings in the afternoon sometimes. Sometimes we went to Park Street, New Market and feel enchanted at the glimpse of the beauty of plenty of foreigners strewn on the roads. Sometimes, we went to Shyambazaar, where you can bargain and yell at the shopkeepers and get things for half price. We rode the bus everytime we went to Shyambazaar, and mummy would hold me tight as i sat on her lap during the ride. When I started getting heavier, it started getting even more advantageous for me. I got a whole seat and took pride in sitting in the lady's section. There were many passengers who pulled my cheek, sweet-talked me, asked me questions, told me stories- and my mom says I haven't changed. I was just as comfortable as talking or rather rambling to strangers just as I am now.
Today, we have a four bedroom apartment in one of the most posh localities of Kolkata. We live in our fairly decent two bedroom apartments in Bangalore. Of course, we aren't filthy rich as many of the people I've seen till now, we aren't even moderately rich with a bathtub and a huge living room; but things have changed. But I am not sure, if they really are for the good, because in a way, I feel like I'm growing a part of me which never existed, and I'm losing a part of me which had accompanied me for the past eighteen years.
I feel jealous at times, when I see the huge houses people live in, I crave for a pizza every now and then, I AM in fact, wasting my parent's money when I go to college, sit on the last bench with my friends and do everything other than listen to the teacher. I ask for more and more, and I'm unsatisfied to quite an extent with what I have. I demand an ipod, a bike, more clothes of my choice. I throw tantrums when I'm not allowed to go for parties, or stay out with my friends.. but then I remind myself, I'm losing myself. Its not their fault.. Its mine.
Why should I feel insecure about my biggie room when I've seen people living on the streets, their home marked by the mat they are resting on? Why should I crave for pizzas when there are millions of children who go to sleep without a single meal? Why should I go to college and not concentrate in my studies, when there are so many others whose dream is to get educated and live respectfully? Why should I demand an ipod, when the only source of their entertainment is the broken radio which the madam was throwing away? Why should I ask for a bike when they have serviced bikes all their life, but have never ever had the luck of riding on one? Why should I feel unsatisfied with my many many clothes, when their ceremonial dress is a stitched rag?
" He is the richest, who has fewest wants." A quote I first read in Little Women- Louisa May Alcott in the eighth grade. It is so easy for us to become a slave to money, so hard to not get influenced in this world of wordly pleasures. So hard to forget our roots, and get blinded and distracted by the crowd, that we start walking towards a different destination altogether. So hard to keep our heads held high when we are in financial crisis and so easy to forget it all when we are back with those wads of paper notes in our wallet.
And then I ask myself, " Why does money make us so inhuman?"
I had always hated money. Yes, I could not have been able to survive without it in the modern world, but its contribution to life is very disgusting and insignificant according to me. It snatches the joy, beauty, passion of life. It turns life into this grey lie which makes us believe that everything- including people, objects, schools, love, every single thing can be bought! It turns us into heartless people who are insensitive and indifferent to the extreme conditions of men and women, and who continue to live their high-class life with more pretensions.
As I pass by the slum right outside SunCity, the Ibbalur Village - I see a scene I had seen years ago, that of poverty. I smile at the little children, and they smile back at me. Some don't, because they are skeptic and suspicious, I find it very natural too. As I get onto the 342F for reaching Christ College, I see a little girl dressed in a beautiful red dress crying her eyes out, while her mother hushes and diverts her mind by showing her an empty dairy milk wrapper. She stops wailing for a few seconds, but then she starts again. She looks at me for a quick second, and her dark kohled eyes gets me mesmerized. Innocense, beauty, wonder! I smile to myself unknowingly, being reminded of how I travelled in similar busses when I was a baby.
The bus halts at the Christ College bus stop. I walk past the temple- a white haired grandmother wearing a greenish yellow saree with a basket of white jasmine in front of her is seated by the side of the road. I walk past her wondering if it were the South Indians who have turned me off my desire to ornament my hair with sweet smelling flowers.
I go to the Ivy Hall to buy a few essentials. The Uncle who always gives candies instead of coins for change, wrapped my bought items in a paper bag. Out of habit, I started reading the paper bag while I was going up the stairs. I stopped. It was an old news of how the servants quarters near National Games Village had been demolished by the Bangalore Municipal Corporation. I was reminded of the apartments, I remember it because we travelled the road several times during our first five years of stay in Bangalore, Koramangala. Also, because, it had a close resemblance to our earlier Kolkata residence, the one I had stayed in during my childhood; though- I have to admit that our complex was in a better condition.
Anyways, I was flooded with memories of how I had noticed the green walls, the tiny windows, the women talking on the staircase wearing nighties, the children running around the scorched buildings from my car window everytime we passed by the quarters. A deep pang of pain jolted down my veins, as I started feeling how terribly insecure and afraid they must have felt when their abode were demolished without any prior notice. Suddenly, a hand gripped my shoulder, shaking me off my reverie.
" Dreaming in the morning also?" she asked, giggling.
" I am a dreamer. Hey, isn't there a song like that? " I asked focusing my attention to scan through the imagined song list in my computer. She blowed on her hot coffee and took a careful sip.
I smiled to myself. " Thank God for keeping my feet on the ground. Afterall, I haven't changed much, and I don't even want to. I love myself just the way I am," I thought to myself, smiling a little more.
" So who is the guy?" she asked, poking me and raising her eyebrows.
" Huh?" I asked confused. " Dudeeeee !! "