|Tapas with son-in-laws and grandchildren|
(Agni and Ishaan)
Grandchildren are beings of beauty and joy forever. I have three of them from my two daughters, loving and admirable mothers in their own right. My wife, Indrani, and I often compare the way they deal with their children with our way when they were kids.
I have a new pastime now; comparing the memory of my own situations then with my grand-children's now, and marvel at how time flies.
Ishaan was nine years old when this happened. He had gone out to play with his friends. I noticed from the window that he was running faster than the wind towards home as if being chased by a pack of howling street dogs. He spotted me at the window and shouted for the entrance door to be opened immediately. He rushed inside, and before I had time to close the door, the reason for Ishaan's panic, his nemesis, in the shape of an assembly of half a dozen girls, all aged between six and nine, stood panting before me.
|Granddaughters Agni and Joyee (L-R)|
I heard the chorus demanding Ishaan's mother to be summoned in total confusion. I was ready to grab any hint from him, but he wouldn't even look at me. So I tried the other end of the problem. I explained that his mother was not at home, and hurriedly volunteered the information that his father was not available either. But if they enlightened me about the state of affairs, I could take it up with his parents when they returned home.
They kind of sized up the wizened old man blocking the doorway, exchanged glances, and then a girl of
'perhaps-seven' pointed out another and blurted out, “Usne usko 'I love you' bola” (He said 'I love you' to her).
A knot started tightening in my stomach with intensifying efforts not to burst out laughing. The responsibility now was onerous enough. So I looked at the irate group with as much seriousness as was possible, and tried to talk out of the fast deteriorating situation.
“Toh kya hua?” (So what?) I ventured. “He does that all the time with everybody. He tells that to me, to his grandmother, to his mother, father, sister. It’s good that he loves everybody. That is no reason for you to get angry.”
|Ishaan and Agni|
I quickly looked back to see if Ishaan had caught on to the hint. The dull-dumb expression was gone. His eyes glistened with shrewd appreciation and the usual naughty smile hovered back on his lips. The knot in my tummy remained disconcerting.
Then came the femme-punchline: “Oisa nahi, usne dusri-wali love you bola” (not that type, he said the other kind of 'I love you'), 'perhaps-seven' thundered, her eyes sauntering over to the cover of film magazine lying on a nearby table on which an actor and his consort remained frozen in a romantic posture.
This was now too much for me to handle with the tummy-knot holding the laughter came very much near to an explosion. The situation was saved by a holler from the doorway of a neighboring house ordering two of the girls including the spokes-person, 'perhaps-seven,' to get back home. My promise to let Ishaan's mother know about their gracious visit and bitter complaints persuaded the other four to retreat.
I cannot match Ishaan's record of romantic adventures when I was nine. But here is one that would prove that I was also endowed with the rare quality of creating problems where none existed.
It happened in Darjeeling at a time when a series of Phantom and Tarzan comics gradually built up a sense of invincibility in me. And I was itching to try some of their fighting skill, the killer moves having been practiced time and again in my imagination. The opportunity was also not far away.
That fateful evening, as I climbed up the public staircase to reach the upper level of the road leading to the main market, I had no inkling that I was entering my own African wild.
I stood for a while at the top of the staircase trying to decide whether to go up the serpentine road or down. A lump of spittle released from the first floor window perched on the clothesline below and sprinkled out a few drops on my shoulder. A thousand Phantom and Tarzan invaded and possessed my whole being. Aite's face appeared at the window. He smiled malevolently.
'Come down here and wipe the spittle off my shoulder,' I ordered menacingly. Aite came down clasping a pencil cutter so dirty and rusted that together they would be more fatal than its edge. In two swift moves I got him down on the road. I was myself appalled at the prolific application of imaginary moves!
Then there loomed large my father's rather extremely handsome and well-built countenance some distance away. He had not noticed me, and I decamped from the scene carrying the knife as the victor's trophy. The initial euphoria later gave way to regrets as I ran the moves in my mind, and was sure that I indeed had ample opportunity to land two, at least one, 'deadly fist-blow' and another 'equally deadly boot-kick'. But it was time for me to constantly look over my shoulders to avoid any unhealthy surprises.
Another week later all my preemptive arrangements proved hilarious. Nothing happened. Aite had just vanished into thin air. I relaxed my vigil, and once more found time to say, not 'I love you-s', but potently bewitching 'namastes and good mornings, god evenings,' to pre-determined spots in neighbors' veranda in a kind of complaisant sort of way to prove myself to be a straight enough boy. Any aberration in the early 1950s, fortified by neighborly complaints, used to be taken seriously in the family; any grievance expressed by an older person was reckoned as a case reasonably proved, only the quantum of punishment had to be considered.
Normalcy returned, and I quit looking over my shoulders. On such a sunny day I found the owner's chatty doll-faced granddaughter managing their grocery store. I went in to buy a 'kaath mithaai' (pencil sized sticks of boiled and solidified molasses) that was the in-thing in those days. She informed me that all the boys had run down the road a while ago swinging catapults over their head. This meant there was a war-game on, and I had been left out.
I rushed down the road looking for them in the usual haunts. I found myself in a deserted patch of unfriendly territory between the graveyard and funeral pyre where boys did not venture out alone. My nemesis in the embodiment of a perhaps-15 or more looked me up and down several times before the approaching the subject.
“Do you know who I am?”
I really didn't. Somehow I felt my ignorance was perilous enough to jack up the nemesis' belligerency by a few notches.
“My name is Aitu,” he volunteered, allowing a lingering smile that gradually hardened into a grimace.
I instinctively knew what was coming up, and I had hard decisions to make. No, I decided, I would not defend myself; that would enrage him even more. He was taller, muscular, and way up the ladder in terms of age; instead, my calling him 'daju' (elder brother) seemed to be pregnant with possibilities of launching a self-protection plan that must include a minimum of confusing lies. He did not seem to be a man with whom patience was a virtue.
“I had trouble with Aite, not you, you are Aitudaju,” I began. He stopped me short, stating, that precisely was the point. The problem apparently lay in the affinity between two names – Aite and Aitu.
“You bashed up Aite whom I do not even know, and boys all over the town are talking about me having been beaten up by a half- ‘Bongali’ (todays Bongs). “Why half?” I asked in amazement. The sunny answer came after a rain of 'fist-blows and boot kicks'. I even lost count of how many times I had been hit in the one-sided encounter.
My passivity coupled with freely rolling tears that had welled up in my eyes perhaps disgusted him. He peremptorily asked me to sit down, “Don't you understand that I have a name to protect!” “Sure daju,” I concurred. He selected a few leaves growing on the hillside, rubbed them on his palm, and applied the juicy salve on two particularly nasty looking bruises on my forehead. That was the beginning of a prolonged friendship.
The pain, the embarrassment, the unpleasant prospect of having to account for the bruises to friends and at home, all remained in the back of my head, as I ventured to reiterate my point, “But why am I only a half-‘Bongali’?”
“That is because ‘Bongalis’ are supposed to yap, yap and yap, kill the enemy by yapping. You come down to fisticuffs and lose half of your racial identity.” I decided to ignore even this unwholesome slur on my race lest he invited me to “dare to kill him yapping.”
Two generations down the line, Ishaan would have merited being 'full Bong plus' in Aitu's estimation. After his own fiasco, I had asked Ishaan to explain his conduct, and he retorted, “Your sugar coated blabbering with these silly girls is useless; you should have left the yapping to me.”
** Bongalis – Bengalis are called “Bongalis” in Nepali
BY TAPAS MUKHERJEE