I was born in old-time Kolkata, raising clouds of dust, hackney carriages would speed through the city, the horses' skeletal frames lashed by cord-whips. There were no trams, no buses, and no motorcars. Those days, life followed a leisurely pace, spared the breathless pressure of work. Having inhaled a stiff dose of tobacco, chewing paan, the babus would leave for office, some in palanquins or palkis, others in shared carriages. The well-to-do would ride carriages emblazoned with their family titles, the leather hoods overhead resembling half-drawn veils. In the coach-box rode the coachman, turban tilted at an angle, and at the back were two grooms, no less, yak-tail flywhisks swinging from their waistband, startling the pedestrians with their street-cry: 'Heinyo!' Women, too shy to ride in carriages, ventured out in the stifling darkness of closed palkis. Never, in sunshine or in rain, would they shield their head with an umbrella. If a woman was seen wearing the long loose chemise or even shoes, she would be accused of aping the memsahibs, a sign of utter brazenness. If ever a woman came face to face with a man from another family, her veil would instantly descend over her countenance., down to the very tip of her nose, and she would turn her back on him, biting her tongue in shame. They went out in closed palkis, just as they lived behind closed doors at home. The wives and daughters of elite families would travel in palkis covered with additional pall made of thick diamond-patterned linen. The palkis looked like walking graves. Accompanying the palki on foot would be a bodyguard, the darwanji, armed with a lathi. The darwans were supposed to remain stationed at the portico, guarding the main entrance to the house; to finger their beards; to deliver money to the bank and women to their paternal homes; and on auspicious days, to take the leady of the house for her holy dip in the Ganga, closed palki and all. When hawkers came to the door with their display-boxes, our darwan Shuinandan also received his share of profits. And there was the driver of the hired carriage; if dissatisfied with the bakhra, or his share of spoils, he would engage in a ferocious quarrel in front of the main gate.
Our pehelwan or strongman, sweeper Shobharam, would from time to tme contort his body to practice wrestling moves, exercise with heavy weights, pound hemp for his drink, or consume horseradish, leaves and all, with great relish. We would go up close and scream 'Radey-Krishna!' into his ear. The more he protested, throwing up his hands, the more stubbornly we persisted. This was his strategy to hear us pronounce the name of his family deities.
The city, those days, had neither gas, nor electricity; when kerosene lamps appeared, we were amazed at their brilliance. At dusk, the attendant would go from room to room lighting castor-oil lamps. Our study was illuminated by a sej, a lamp with a double wick in a glass bowl.
In the dim flickering light, our tutor, Mastermoshai, taught us the First Book of Pyari Sarkar. I would yawn, then become drowsy, and afterwards, rub my eyes to stay awake. I was repeatedly reminded that Mastermoshai's other pupil, Satin, was a gem of a boy, extraordinarily serious about his studies. He would rub snuff in his eyes to ward off sleep. As for me? The less said the better. Even the terrible prospects of remaining the illiterate dunce among all the boys would not keep me alert. At nine in the evening, half-asleep, my eyes heavy with drowsiness, I would be set free.
The narrow passage from the public area to the inner quarters of the house was screened by venetian blinds, and lit by dim lanterns suspended above. Crossing it, I felt sure I was being followed. A shiver would run down my spine. Those days, you stumbled upon ghosts and spirits in stories and rumors, in the nooks and crannies of people's minds. Every so often, the nasal wail of the shankchunni, the nocturnal spirit, would cause some maidservant to collapse in a fainting fit. That female ghost was the most temperamental of all, and she had a weakness for fish. There was also an unknown standing figure, straddling the dense almond tree to the west of the house, and the third floor cornice. There were many who claimed to have sighted the apparition, and no dearth of people who believed in the story. When my elder brother's friend laughed off the matter, the servants of the house were convinced that he knew nothing about religious faith. Just wait till the spirit wrung his neck one day, that would put an end to all his learned wisdom! Those days, the air was filled with terror, which had spread its net so wide that just to place one's feet under the table was enough to make one's flesh crawl.
There were no water taps, then. In the months of Magh and Phalgun, on bankhs or shoulder-borne yokes, bearers carried kolshis, rounded water pitchers filled with water from the Ganga. Inside a dark chamber on the ground floor, the year's supply of the drinking water would be stored. It was a well-known fact that the spirits who secretly inhabited those damp, gloomy spaces on the lower floor, had huge, gaping mouths, eyes in their chests, ears like kulos--the flat U-shaped baskets used for husking puffed rice--and feet that faced the wrong way. As I crossed those ghostly shadows to reach the private garden of the house, my heart would heave in terror, adding wings to my feet. Those days, at high tide, the waters of Ganga would flood the channels that lined the streets. From my grandfather's times, a share of those waters was reserved for our pond. When the sluices were opened, the foaming tide would descend like a waterfall, with a babbling sound. The fish would try to swim against the current. Clinging to the rails of the southern balcony, I would gaze at the scene in fascination. But the days of the pond were numbered. One day, cartloads of rubbish were thrown into it. As soon as the pond was filled up, it was as if the mirror reflecting the green shadows of the province had vanished. The almond tree remains, but there is no trace now of that ghostly spirit, though there is still space enough for him to straddle.
Now we have more light both indoors and outdoors.
About the book:
Best known internationally for his revolutionary poetry, Rabindranath Tagore is also well known for the school and university he founded in the Bengal countryside. Seen through the amused eyes of a precocious young boy growing up in turn-of-the-century Calcutta, this memoir describes the joint family he grew up in, the city he played in, and the school he was sent to against his will. It is an exquisite portrait of both Tagore's childhood and his country, India, at a turning point in its history.
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