Monday, August 16, 2010

Of dim lights and evenings in the big house in the narrow lane in Kolkata

As I sat on my bed, tapping on the keys of my laptop, I felt that the light was a bit too dim. Dim lights and US seemed like a rare combination till I realized that it was because of the general tendency to keep bedrooms dimly lit, sometimes with no ceiling lights at all and just lamps. Lamps have always meant romantic for me, but that was when I associated them with well kept hotel rooms, not with a room where I wanted to do my work. And today, this dim light, reminded me of low voltage, load-shedding and loosely plastered walls.

I am talking about my Dadu (grandpa)’s place. The house was old, is still old, probably a hundred years old, as it had been built by my mother’s grandpa. Even now, it is a grand house to look at, once you walk through the extremely narrow lanes wide enough to just allow a rickshaw to pass through, and then stop and turn right (or left, depending on which direction you are coming from) and catch a glimpse of it marking the end of another, slightly wider, but extremely short, lane with a dead end. Standing at the entry of that short lane, the house looks like a backdrop of a stage, with the other smaller houses leading up to it. The verandah would usually have clothes hanging to dry from the lines. The verandahs of other houses are so closely squeezed with each other that someone, who had a steady head and did not mind heights, can jump or simply walk to another, like a skywalk. These closely-build houses are akin to kids sitting knee to knee with each other and usually neighbors knew when the children in one house were being asked to come down for dinner, or when someone was practicing or receiving her singing lessons or being tutored in History, and of course, which house had which channel on. No, sorry, that was wrong. I am taking myself back to a time when there was only one channel on the TV, and when I would strain my ears to catch the Chitrahaar on someone else’s TV because it was banned for me at my place. Sometimes, I would lean over on the side of my balcony, and catch a glimpse of the oil lamp in my neighbor’s house who had electric connection in only one room, and the children had to study by the light of a oil lamp. Their rhythmic repetition of lines in a subject would add to the background music of radio news, television songs and my grandma’s evening prayers.

Evening, never morning. Evening, because it was in the evening that every sound seemed to be more prominent, maybe because they were not lost in the perennial cawing of the crow or the vendors shouting out the rates of fish as they rode past on their bicycles and neighbors calling out to each other from their own balconies.

Also evening, because evening makes me sad, nostalgic and reminds me that the day is over, and I am getting old. In that house in Kolkata, it reminds me of people long gone, of perpetual melancholy underlined by low-voltage lights. It also reminds me of the smell of rotis being roasted on earthen ovens and the sound of my grandma’s heavy aluminum ‘Khunti’ (long flat spoon) on the tawa as it turned the unroasted wheat rotis over and over, so that each one was roasted evenly. I can almost smell the curry that we would have with it – usually aloo-potol dalna(potato and parwal curry), the gravy smelling of ginger and cumin and having a slight tangy taste due to the potol. I would wait for the rotis folded at one side of the plate and the slightly thick gravy and vegetables on the other side, and feel the ginger warming my throat as I ate.

But before that, I would be sitting with my book, trying to complete studying those pages as determined by Maa and would soon get distracted by my shadow on the wall. I would listen to the bells from the temples and sound of the evening Araati, and get the breeze on the face from the balcony, cooled by the wet saree and ‘gamcha’ (thin cotton towel) hanging on the clothesline, left by Maa and Dida (grandma) after their evening shower. The air would smell of incense, curries and smoke. Sometimes I will see a small hole in the wall, and will try making it larger, marveling at how easily the outer plaster broke, but I would be very careful not to create a mess on the floor but gather the pieces and powdery plaster and throw them away when no one was looking.

The house is still there, but yes, the people are no longer there. Some are no longer in this world, and some, even if they do come back to it, no longer add to the character of the house. The neighbors’ children are grown up, some stay there still and some have moved, but every house now has electricity and off course, a variety of TV channels. The sounds are different now, and maybe one of those children would remember them and a decade or two later, mention how different things are.

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