Summer of the seventies

I picked up the kids from the bus stop this afternoon and hurried away from the hot sun. Naisha lagged behind stopping to count the Hibiscus that had bloomed in the society garden while Hrit sat, actually sat, in the blazing sun, to stare at the cat that had sheltered under a car. How can they not feel the sun, I wondered exasperated.

But then kids are like that. We were like that .. my sister and I. Some three decades back. I think of other hot afternoons when the sun blazed just as strong. Each year during the summer vacations, for a month, we would go to our mum's village. The summer would be at it's peak with sun out in all its glory. Not a leaf would stir. Electricity hadn't reached the village then nor a pukka road but we didn't really notice. We whiled away long afternoons playing cards (which we'd made on our own as cardgames were a forbidden pastime) or antakshari. An old transistor was the only other entertainment.

It couldn't have been an easy journey - first in a State Transport Bus and then in an addha (an open bullock cart) - but for us it was simply an adventure. For our mum, it was perhaps, a way of staying connected to her roots while introducing us to her childhood. Though the only living relative mum had was her uncle, our nana, the entire village seemed to be related to us. Mamas, mamis, nanis, nanas, masis came in all shapes, sizes and even ages. We had two-year old nanis and same age masis.

To say that we had celebrity status in the village would be an understatement... we were, after all, the bitiya ki bitiyas. Besides we could speak English. My earliest memories are of being put on display asked to name body parts in English.. "Eye, Ear, Nose," we'd go as they were pointed out to us, to the immense amusement and amazement of the crowd that gathered to welcome us.

The sights...
couldn't have been more different from the city. Green and blue are the colours that come to mind. A few metres from our house the fields stretched out endlessly topped by open skies.
--- We'd watch the men early in the morning with hals (ploughs, incidentally girls were forbidden from touching the ploughs, don't ask me why) slung over their shoulders, guiding a pair of bullocks to the fields in a bid to get an early start over the sun.
--- We'd watch as nana would churn milk with a huge churner attached to the pole that held up the roof. However we'd turn up our city noses at the smell of that milk, our stomachs rebelling, unused to its purity as against the watered down version back home.
--- We'd watch in fascination as he'd help mum get out grains from the over six feet tall granaries called dehris.
--- We'd watch the girls grinding atta in pairs on a hand chakki.. chatting and singing along.
--- We'd giggle at the toddlers running around wearing nothing but a black thread at their ankle.

The sounds...
are difficult to forget. The summer silence seemed to magnify every creak, every murmur -- the tip tip dripping water on the shivling in the temple to keep hotheaded Shiva cool, the constant puk puk puk of the flour mill, the ku u uuu of the solitary koel, the gentle clink of the cowbells,  or the rhythmic sound of the fodder cutting machine. Late at night as we'd be lying ensconced in mosquito nets listening to stories, the dogs would suddenly start barking. "Dacoits are passing by keep still," we'd be told and we'd freeze on our cots. The lilt of that Awadhi, eons away from the accented English of the Irish nuns at school, warms me even today.

The huge courtyard was where we'd spend most of our time. One corner was covered with a thatched roof and cordoned off as the kitchen, another one stored firewood and a third one, that had the handpump, was the bathroom.

Did I say bathroom? Well I meant bathing area. Exotic concepts like bathrooms were pretty remote. It was only correct that nature's call be addressed in the lap of nature, right? However, a temporary bathroom was set up for us city girls in the cowshed, or the hata as it was called, that housed the cows, bullocks and buffaloes.

The hata was our favourite haunt. We loved to pet the calves whenever there was one or feed them left over chapatis. Surprisingly, the smell of cowdung never disgusted us, not even today, rather it spells cleanliness. Cowdung paste was applied to the floors to keep the dust down, it was even put on the kitchen floors and walls. We'd watch the girls make cowdung cakes, dry them then pile them up into huge mountains and seal them off.

It was there that I got my very first lessons in cookery... on a chulha. Mum would put on the milk to boil and make me sit sentry. "Pull out the firewood when the milk starts to rise," she'd tell me, only to to come back to the smell of overflowing burning milk. Never ever did I get the hang of it. Somedays she'd let me make the bhog (prasad) for the Thakurdwara, our ancestral temple. That simple suji halwa was to me the ultimate cooking challenge.

Mum was terribly protective so we weren't allowed to run free in the fields or orchards. However, one place we were allowed to go to was the Thakurdwara. It was built in a huge compound full of neem and peepal trees that kept it cool during the hottest summers, the neem littering the ground with bright green fruit. At the entrance was a well with a bucket and a rope ready to draw water. Because we were prohibited from looking into the well we never missed a quick peep to see our reflections staring back at us from deep below. Behind the temple was a huge orchard of red-tipped Sindhuriya mangoes. We'd watch trees laden with mangoes, the tangible smell filling us and making our mouths water.

Somedays we would be allowed to go out with the other girls as they collected bathua leaves that grew wild along the fields, to make sag. We'd watch as they deftly spotted the deep greens from among the weeds and tied them up in their dupattas. Hot and tired from their picking chores the girls would dive in the canal full of swirling waters and come out dripping wet only to dry up again in the sun. In the evening they would teach us folk songs and bhajans which we'd sing at the top of our voices while one of them brought out a dhol. Sometimes we'd be joined by one of our myriad nanas who would sing along with gusto puffing on his chillum.

The days would pass by only too soon. There we were with no TV, no summer camps, no evening classes, no toys too and yet we had a great time.

As the kids' summer vacations come close and I find myself desperately looking out for ways to keep them occupied I wonder if I should just let them be -- let them count the Hibiscus and stare at cats, let them discover things to do rather than give them things to do, let them forge bonds with each other the way my sister and I did, bonds that have only become stronger over the years.

Linking to the  Kissan get Real Contest.

Labels: ,