A life outside the ordinary

My childhood was spent outside civilian life. Often located tens of kilometers away from a large city or town, factories that build and equip our armed forces and the private housing they provide their employees form mini-cities and develop a culture in themselves. This extraordinary setting was my home until I completed my college and moved West for higher education.

I remember large mansions, thanks to the British origins of our homes. I have memories of running from room to room, identical and adjacent to one another with boarded up fireplaces and sloping tiled roofs. Space was never a constraint and I had never heard of eliminating anything just due to lack of space. We had two kitchens, an outhouse, a long corridor that spanned the entire length of the house with grilled windows (grills were later added to keep the monkeys from entering the house with ease). Our garden was full of trees and a large collection of potted plants curated lovingly by my mom. I remember even a flagpole with a tiny circular dias around it in the center of our garden and endless carefree evenings spent twirling around it. I remember the marigolds that came alive in the early spring and the bougainvilleas that adorned our fence turn to lush pink during the late summer. I saw shepherds gather their goats and sheep walk past our home with our dog Blackie snarling at them. I recall their efforts to pluck fresh tamarind that grew in plenty from the giant Imli trees or stone the mangoes to get some fresh fruit. Roads around our home were private, with complete freedom to walk, run, bike with abandon and summon friends for evening play. I recall buying milk on my own since I was six from the nearby milk booth on my tiny red bicycle. I remember gaping at the depth of the just-drained swimming pool at our local club and accompanying my mother and our help to the weekly vegetable market twice a week, my teddy bear in tow.

Jabalpur is special to me in more ways than one. Though my recollections are tiny compared to my family members who have lived there considerably longer when they were much older than I was, I always remember the place with rose-tinted glasses. Trips to the local ice cream parlor and watching the buffaloes in the diary, counting the pigs and buffaloes wallowing in the naali on the way to the school, the rare city trips that would involve a trip to the bookshop and a bakery to eat hot puffs or watching the fountains in the community garden come alive after being broken (and fabricating stories about how it might be haunted), are all my fondest memories from a place that is often overshadowed by its more important and historically influential neighbors such as Bhopal, Indore and Gwalior. But Jabalpur firmly retains a special love, not just by me but by all who were blessed to spend many years of their life there.

Chennai was no different. We call our private estate as being in Chennai, since the closest city was Chennai. But we lived far from the hustle-bustle of the main city. Whisky and I have spent countless humid evenings rustling the touch-me-nots, biking through the local rowdy group of dogs to irritate them, avoiding thorny bushes and running like headless chicken on the local roads. We have seen cobras do their mating dance, run away from scorpions, escorted so many leeches and snails to safety, waded through ankle deep water during heavy (and rare) monsoons, heard month-long frog and cricket concerts, watched baby-toads swimming in the drains and watched meteor showers from the luxury of our house (thanks to the very dark sky). We had the best of both worlds where we lived in peace and in-sync with nature but had the luxury to venture into one of the largest metropolitan cities of India to eat at a restaurant or very rarely, watch a movie. I loved my home in Chennai that boasted of two floors with large balconies sheltered by tall trees. All I needed for entertainment was my dog Whisky and a big staircase at home on a holiday. Chasing street dogs, watching the birds eat his food and his fear of cats entertained me no end. Birthday parties were simple treasure hunts, memory games and homemade cakes and goodies. Traffic and pollution were never an issue and the facilities to play any sport were just a five minute walk away.

I spent lesser and lesser time at home and more at hostels after Chennai but our place in Dehradun was memorable for its long driveway, portico, abundance of litchi trees and giant voluminous rooms (heating and cooling bills would have been gigantic!). Plants love the chilly Uttarakhand winters, the pleasant spring and fall, producing plenty of vegetables in our tiny patch resulting in delicious pakoras from freshly picked greens and infinite steamed dumplings. Watching the lights of Mussoorie from our home or watching the tiny but fierce Dulhani flow was enchanting, just as having a huge mountain right in front of our home.

As I integrate into the civil society as an adult, with no such luxuries to boast of in my career choice, I reminisce with wonder. I realize today that the things I took for granted were indeed the rarest to find in today’s cities or  in a bustling metropolis. I plan vacations that take me to pristine mountains or lakes, that show me a million stars with fresh air and long to have gardens with tons of flowers and vegetables, but also with the choice of venturing into the heart of the city in under an hour. As spring awakens the slumbering vegetation around me, I cannot help but recollect my childhood homes with utmost fondness.

One might argue that moving frequently has led to no permanent sense of belonging or an established group of friends. The inconvenience of relocating and moving a home can easily overshadow the obvious upside of gathering experiences and creating memories that would otherwise take multiple lifetimes to assimilate. As The Wonder Years rightly pointed out, “Growing up happens in a heartbeat. One day, you’re in diapers; next day, you’re gone. But the memories of childhood stay with you for the long haul”.

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