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The missing siren

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Then: Circa 1987. Four in the afternoon. School bag tossed aside. A hurried lunch and a forced nap later, it’s time to hit the neighbourhood park for a bout of pakdan pakdai with para friends. Or chor police. Or rong milonti. Or go-o-o-o-o statue. Or hopscotch. During winter, the afternoon nap is bypassed for extended playtime. And holidays are about games, games and more games. New games are invented frequently.

Now: After coming back home, children can’t wait to rush to Timbaktoo. To Space Jumble, Fast and Furious, Skee Ball, Ace Driver. Outdoor games, earlier an inescapable part of a child’s growing-up years, do not figure much on their list of activities. At best, it may be a game of cricket once in a while. Does anyone play kalagaach anymore '

“Playing with my para friends was a daily ritual, much like going to school. But now my 12-year-old son rushes back home from school just to log into Xbox,” says banker Aritra Banerjee.

Hobbies

Then: It was obligatory to collect something — stamps, coins, matchboxes, cigarette packs, even pencils. Stamp collecting (or philately for the enlightened) was the most dignified hobby. Cricket trivia cards, which came free with a chewing gum brand, were a huge hit — children would compete on who had more cards. And who can forget the phase when collecting soft drink bottle caps was the “coolest” thing'

Now: Hobby is not a word that you will hear much among Gen Y, except for Pokemons and Beyblades and Spiderman merchandise. Or tazos. Many sign up for dance and singing classes with the intention of being the next big thing on a television talent show.

“My mom was an obsessive stamp collector as a student and she handed down her collection to me when I turned 12, so that I could add to it. But frankly, collecting stamps is so boring. I would rather sign up for salsa classes,” smiles 15-year-old Akanksha Mehra (name changed on request).

Comics

Then: Comics, from Amar Chitra Katha to Phantom, Tinkle to Archie, Champak to Chandamama, were what children in the 1980s and even the 1990s fed on. The characters in these became a part of their lives and imagination and the latest edition was looked forward to with as much eagerness as a visit to the mamabari was. Many had such huge, treasured collections that those had to be bound in volumes. Chacha Chaudhury, Hada Bhoda, Nonte Fonte, Bantul the Great ruled. Even a comic book version of Amitabh Bachchan — called Supremo —was lapped up.

Now: Comics don’t find favour with today’s kids, though Tintin and Asterix do have a following. But the practice of reading comic books has largely disappeared. If kids are crazy about Superman, Spiderman or Batman, it’s through the movies.

“My 11-year-old nephew is completely hung up on Harry Potter although I can’t really understand what the Potter craze is about. I still have many of my old comic books stashed away in an old cupboard and I return to them every now and then,” smiles IT professional Surbhi Sengupta.

Stories

Then: Parents, uncles and aunts told ghost stories and grandmas told religious stories. So from stories of Behula Lakhinder or Kaalkumar Keshtokumar or Sheikh Chilli to stories about Vaishnava saints and the Puranas, evenings were often another place, another time. There was always someone in the family who could make up stories. And there were stories special to all families.

Says 24-year-old data analyst Mohini Ray (name changed): “My father would make up stories about aliens coming to visit and travelling to weird planets. They used to be a bizarre mix of Asimov and Enid Blyton. Thakuma would tell me stories of Rup Sanatan and stories of Vishnu’s avatars. At my grandma’s, I’d pick a book from the shelves lined with Sharadindu omnibuses and Rabindra Rachanabolis and afternoons would be spent under the blanket completely under the sway of Shey or Jhinder Bondi.”

Now: Thakumar Jhuli is no more known. The members of Paramhansa Deb Road Sarbojanin Durgotsav, whose Puja pandal was inspired by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar’s compilation of Bengali fairy tales in its centennial year, agree. While Lalkamal Neelkamal sat pretty in a corner, seven-year-old Ankur stared at the figures and asked: “Papa, Lalkamal Neelkamal ke'”

The siren

Then: The siren at the nearby factory went off at 9am and that really signaled the new day. On days it failed to go off, we were uneasy.

Now: It is not heard any more. The neighbourhood factory has closed down — or the family has moved to a trendy condominium.

“I was telling my nine-year-old son about the siren the other day. It was such an indelible part of our childhood,” says entrepreneur Sourav Sengupta.

Lozenges

Then: Tree top juice, chiclets, sugar-coated jujubes, barley lozenges, Mr Pops, candy floss, Parle G orange lozenge, Poppins, chocolate lollipop, kuler achar, tangy ajwain candies. The right mix of raw tamarind, salt, mustard oil and sugar, the ingredients stealthily obtained from the grandmother’s cupboard while she was taking a nap, is a cherished memory. Sweet coated mauri and peppermint cigarettes were loved too.

Now: Finicky and overprotective parents have put an end to the small childhood pleasures of popping hajmi and licking current noon. Imported chocolate brands — Snickers, Toblerone, Ferrero Rocher — have caught the fancy of the young. They are everywhere — in the neighbourhood shops and in the upscale malls. Frequent trips are made to Candy Treats.

“During my childhood, we ate a lot of roadside lozenges which came in colourful glass bottles, without paying much attention to hygiene. Now I am careful even when buying Swiss chocolates for my daughter,” says Deepa Roy, mother of three-year-old Meghna.

Load-shedding

Then: It was a welcome break from tedious studies and one that promised fun galore. Ghost tales were spun and songs were belted out in antakshari sessions. Rosh Kosh Shingara Bulbul, Super Chef Barbie, memory games, dumb charades, Chinese Whispers, Japanese Whispers — were games that load-shedding brought on. They lightened the discomfort.

Now: Load-shedding is no longer a daily phenomenon and whenever the lights do go out, children don’t have much fun, but all the discomfort. The studies continue by candlelight. Or the house has a generator.

The family’s day out

Then: Winter vacations meant family picnics, visits to the circus, and “holiday homework”. In fact homework, too, was “a paragraph on a visit to the circus”. It meant gazing with wonder at the trapeze artists clad in glittery pink outfits, and being overwhelmed by the elephant’s tricks. Family picnics would mean driving to a baganbadi in the suburbs or to Diamond Harbour, for a day of playing gadha peta peti with your uncle’s pack of cards while your uncle got busy cooking mangshor jhol.

Now: Now no one you know goes to Diamond Harbour; and circuses have closed down. Family picnics are a rarity. Corporate picnics allow the family, too, and while children of employees might get together for a game of cricket, meals are sanitised affairs, with caterers stepping in. “Poribeshon kora” is out.

Says 45-year-old teacher Susmita Bandyopadhyay: “I was at a loss while helping a student to write an essay on choduibhati (picnic). She’d never been to a picnic. Family outings for her mean driving to Fort Radisson in the weekends.”

TV programmes

Then: Doordarshan. Chitrahaar and the instrumental Hindustani and Carnatic classical music pieces. Nukkad, Hum Log, Buniyaad. Fauji, Banegi Apni Baat, Trishna, Escape to Victory, Escape from Sobibor, Jesse Owen’s Story, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot. Ramayan, Mahabharat. By the 1990s TV achieved new heights of “cool”. Though cable television had entered the market in 1992, it was beyond the reach of many. DD2 with its two hours of MTV International aired late afternoon, one Hollywood movie in the weekend and music countdown shows like Superhit Muqabla.

Now: Jetix, Pogo, Cartoon Network, Disney Channel and Nickelodeon… and talent shows, talent shows, talent shows.

P.S. But we have a strong suspicion that Gen Y will be as nostalgic about their childhood when facing Gen Z, 20 years from now.

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