It was the sight of kids of construction workers playing marbles that took me back to my childhood. “The past”, wrote L.P.Hartley, “is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” In a small industrial town, I was growing up in a generation that was witnessing an economically liberalising India and the technological revolution that has changed our lives and lifestyles. Surely we did things differently then.
It’s the simple things that come to mind. For instance there was no luxury of running out of home shouting to your parents that you will call them once you reach the destination. The plan of action had to always be revealed before embarking. The level of planning was mind blowing but adorable. For instance, given my tendency of getting lost in any fair-from book fairs to Durga Puja fairs, before entering the venue I was always told where to come in the likely eventuality of getting separated from my family. There was no “if we get separated and I get lost, I call you” approach. I’m not complaining that we moved on, just reminiscing over where I started from.
The games that my friends and I played. When I was visiting my parents, on one of the evenings I saw kids gathering for their skating lessons. “Lessons” during play time, really? We were the gully cricket, pitto (a pile of stones that you hit with a ball and then have to put the stones back in their pile), the gilli-danda, the lattu, lukka chhuppi (with the associated dhappa) and the marbles generation. I don’t see these things anymore. I guess those kids of the construction workers are keeping a heritage alive.
On account of less traffic we could go cycling far and wide in the evenings. We caught dragon flies, saw them curl on our finger and let them go. We counted the number of coaches in the goods train at the level-crossing. All February we collected dry leaves and twigs to make our own holika. We waited for dad to come back from office. There were no myriad tuitions to go to. A list was maintained for all the things that had to be bought on the next market visit.
We fought over the freebies we got with Rasna (I think they were called prankies) or the trump cards with chewing gums. Temporary tattoos with Big Babool and Boomer were a source of disgust for our teachers as were the constant requests for writing with a ball-point pen. Fountain pens! There’s a certain charm to writing with a fountain pen; the whole process of filling ink, wiping their nib and keeping them carefully created a sense of belonging between the pen and its owner. Letters and greeting cards were common place. The demise of the fountain pen, handwritten letters and handmade greeting cards with thoughtful and personalized messages does make me feel sad.
We walked on grass, barefoot, to feel the morning dew. Sports changed with seasons. Winter was badminton time. Winter marked the arrival of the man who would go from door to door selling his services of fluffing up quilts and mattresses. The music he made with his one stringed instrument! There would be the wool sellers with a kaleidoscopic heap of wool on their bicycles. How I miss wearing sweaters knit by my mother. Summer was the time for mango diplomacy. Everyone took pride in the mangoes from their respective gardens.
Back then one did not have the luxury of avoiding uncomfortable encounters by staring into smart phones. Awkward moments and awkward silence had to be dealt with. The landline was associated with its own stories. From getting its connection to frequent misunderstandings (for instance, my brother’s friends addressing me as “Hello Aunty!” and I continuing the conversation with “Hello Beta!…” till the receiver was taken by my brother) the landline was fun.
We would have conversations with strangers. We would actually laugh to the point where tears came out. It was a process that took some minutes, not an emoji sent with a stoic face. On a similar theme but in a different context, lamenting on the perennially low voter turnout rates, Barack Obama had urged people to become involved saying, “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet try to talk with one in real life.” Before social media took over and the era if post-truth came knocking, there was a time when the smallest deed was better than the greatest intention.