I realized, recently, that I very rarely live in the past. The present is so exciting and interesting to me that I don’t have the habit of harking back to the past (and even if I do, I don’t use the rose-tinted spectacles that many people do. I can remember all the bad things of the past as well as the good ones…waiting several years for a hardly-working telephone, having a choice of 3 cars, Ambassador, Fiat, and Herald, and waiting several years for one of those as well…not just the fact that once upon a time petrol used to cost Rs. 2.50 per litre, and roads were not choked with traffic.)
But I have been enjoying thinking over my childhood days in
Calcutta Kolkata, dwelling on the brother who was part of them all. And I think I am going to do a lot of “memory” posts, so that my daughter has a sense of life “back then”.
For boys, in the Calcutta of the 60’s, apart from cricket and football, which were both religions, there used to be various “seasons”. Apart from the cricket season which was in winter, there were the kite season, the marbles (gOli) season, (winter), the gilli danda season, the kabaddi season…I never could figure out how the boys knew when one had gone and the other was happening…but so it was.
Kite-flying was a wonderful time. Since all the boys of the "pAdA"(locality) used to congregate at our house, I was privileged to watch the whole process. Kite-flying had its own jargon (cutting another person's kite, for example, was accompanied by shouts of "BogAntA!"). I would go along with my brother (having begged and pleaded!) to the little wooden stall-shops which sold kites; serious discussions would happen on how the kite was constructed (thin tracing-type paper on thin wooden frame, the centre of the kite being a little wooden strip, beautifully bent into a curve), the colour, the design of the kite, and so on. Then, finally, my brother would finalize a couple of kites, bargain for quite half an hour with the shopkeeper (who always had the tolerant smile of a person who had also been flying kites in his own childhood, but who was always on top of the negotiations!) and usually, we would also buy a couple of "tOngAs" (beautifully made paper bags, where are they now? They would fold up so beautifully!) of peanuts and "moodi"(puffed rice) from the moodiwallah in the next stall. A good (at least, in my brother's estimation) "latAy" (the circular string-holder) would be another purchase, and the string would be bought too...it was called "mAnjA"...and in those innocent days, it had ground glass and glue smeared on it, to help cut off the strings of others' kites! Of course, the parents frowned on the boys' doing this to the kite-strings themselves...it often resulted in cuts on the hands and arms...but I was privy to the fact that a bit of it was always done, to get a better manja! "Ey! keezha pOy solli kudukkAthEy!" (Don't go and tattle downstairs!) was an exhortation I heard often from my brother. The punishment would be exclusion from the excitement on the terrace.....
The evening after the kites had been bought, a procession of my brother's friends would arrive. These fellows never had anything to say and would stand, apparently totally dumb, in front of my mother or father, until they went up the terrace door was unlocked-- but once everyone was on the terrace, out of earshot of the grownups, their tongues would get unlocked just like the terrace door, and there would be a perfect babel of noise. The kites would be inspected (including the ones they brought along). The best kite was chosen, and carefully tied to the string that was wound around the lataay... and with one boy holding the rapidly rotating lataay, another one would throw the kite up into the air at the end of a taut srting...and...the kite season would be off to a "flying" start.
There were kites to be seen all around us, some being skilfully flown, some not. Already we could see some kite-fights happening. The crowd of kites was exactly like a crowd of children...some trying to live peacefully and succeeding, but others being bullied by the challengers!
It was exciting to watch the kites execute a "pax de deux" in the air, and dance around each other...until, with that cry of "bogAntAaaaa!" from the victors, one kite would suddenly lose its tension and start floating to the ground. The younger boys were deputed to see if they could rush down to the street and get the kite..it was a real trophy. But most often, the kite would float off somewhere where it could not be retrieved, or get caught in trees or telephone poles...or lie, uncared-for, on the terrace of someone who was not interested in the sport!
If it was my brother's gang's turn to lose, there would, of course, be a blame game ("you didn't handle it properly!""I did, too!") and a post-mortem of what should be done the next time. Money to buy another kite was not given easily by any parent! So the boys tried to eke out the entire season with the kites they first got, and this was a great incentive to become a good kite-flier and kite-fighter. (We never flew box-kites, or a chain of kites, except as a kind of "fun" activity; the diamond-shaped kites with triangular tails were de rigeur. We used to see several box kites being flown on the Marina in Chennai when we used to visit my grandmother during the summer holidays...they are no longer to be seen there now.)
My brother and his friends started using a ladder to climb on to the building that housed the stairwell, and I, of course, was warned never to tell my parents about this. And I never lost the guilt of not doing so, for once, just as the Pooja holidays (in September/October) were starting, my brother stepped from the building on to the zinc sheet that had been put up as a rainshade, in the excitement of the kite-fight...he came crashing down to the ground, the corrugated zinc sheet fell vertically on the back of his thigh, cutting it to the bone, and my mother, with great presence of mind, saved his life by pinching the edges of the huge cut together, and rushing him to the hospital, where major surgery was performed after a long delay, as most of the surgeons and anaesthetists were off for the Puja holidays....I remember weeping uncontrollably to myself for many days while he lay in the hospital for about a week. My brother, however, enjoyed all the attention in both the hospital and when school re-opened, when he limped in with a cast...and generously divided up the chocolates he received! He had a huge scar on his thigh for the rest of his life.
The rest of his life, which ended last month...oh, my happy-go-lucky little brat of a brother....sigh, let me not get depressed again! Let me think, instead, of writing about the marbles competitions, the gilli-danda, the kabaddi (how does one translate those?..just click on the names at the top of the post and read about these games!), and the tops and the fantastic things the boys could make those spinning tops do.
PS: Ahmedabad still has an annual kite-flying competion, and I just love the Peanut strips where Charlie Brown faces the Kite-Eating Tree…here’s a lovely picture of one such tree that I got off the net…the first time in a long while that I have posted a pic that’s not mine!
the kite collector, by Amit Kulkarni