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Vignettes from wonder years

Time was when birthday parties were all about food and fun, tabla and piano; when each family dinner ended on a memorable musical note

8/1/3 loudon street was our home in the early í30s till we moved out to stay with our maternal grandparents in 1941. Loudon Street was quiet, elegant and shady, abounding in houses where the urbane and the genteel lived and loved. The all-encompassing silence was occasionally broken by the whining of beggars being pulled in handcarts or the jingle of the chabiwala and a few other vendors like the ďsheel kataiĒ whose job it was to perforate with intricate designs the large stones on which spices were ground in every household, as readymade spices were not thought of then.

Faizullah Gangjee and his family were our next-door neighbours who were well known for their generosity of spirit. When my brother had pneumonia and a very vital medicine wasnít available in any of the usual pharmacies, my father went over to the Gangjees in a distraught state to seek their advice. The family was having dinner at about 9 pm when my father arrived. The senior Gangjee made his son Abbas get up from the dinner table immediately and asked him to go to a medicine shop in central Calcutta with my father. He got what he wanted and my brother pulled out of the crisis. Every week they sent us delectable little meat samosas tucked under a serviette. We could fall back on them at any time in the event of a crisis. This kind of neighbourliness was rare even in those days.

I shall never forget our birthday parties in the month of January as both my brother and I were born in the same month. Apart from a colourful khoibag stuffed with gifts, there were festoons and balloons to add a little colour to the scene. The cakes and sandwiches came from Fluryís while our versatile cook, Albert Shaw, produced singaras and kachuris along with ice cream. All the members of our large family were invited. My fatherís maternal uncle, Raibahadur Keshab Banerjee of Murapara, Dhaka, was a renowned table player and after tea was over he gave a scintillating performance with my pishima, Madhabi, lending vocal support. Keshabbabuís son, Nirmal kaka, was also a keen tabla player and he often gave a demonstration of his prowess as well. This turned out to be the pièce de resistance of the evening. Special gifts were also kept for the children who attended the party.

In those days, dinner parties were never complete without a liberal dose of singing. My parents had people over from time to time for dinner and before the gong went off, voices were heard churning out Nazrulís Nishite phulobone jaio na bhramora and Shunyo e buke pakhi mor phire ay. Both men and women joined in and a combination of their high and deep voices electrified the atmosphere. Mother sang bhajans on the harmonium and Atul Prosadís memorable Bharat bhanu kotha lukale. My brother and I enjoyed this sumptuous musical fare from our bedroom although we couldnít understand many of the words. Such evenings were only possible when people were at peace with themselves and the pace of life was leisurely. The piano provided titillation of another kind.

I remember Scottish ballads being sung by Uncle Jock who happened to be fatherís boss in the finance department. An Anglo-Indian nurse who looked after my brother during his illness used to entertain him with the song Toodle luma luma, toodle laiye/Any umberellas, any umberellas for sale today. I donít know where the song sprang from but its resonance left a feeling of langour in me. It came from a different clime with a strange flavour but I took to this song like a duck takes to water.

Gurusaday Dutta, ICS, lived in a house facing ours where Calcutta Medical Centre now stands. I often saw him returning from work in his grey Fiat with a canvas hood. From our veranda we could see groups of boys dancing in his garden with sticks in their hands much like the Gujarati garba. Dutta founded the Bratachari Movement which drew from folk sources and was meant to promote community feeling as well as tighten the sinews of the performers. Physical fitness coupled with a sense of joy was one of its chief aims. He was one of those rare individuals who wanted to bring about a sort of mini cultural resurgence in Bengal. Being a member of a very privileged service did not stifle his idealism and nationalist fervour.

I used to see a very tall and handsome man in saffron robes entering his house, and mother told me that was Dilip Roy who led such a chequered life both socially and musically and ultimately joined the ashram in Pondicherry.

Satyen Roy, a friend of my father, belonged to the ICS but was in no way a typical bureaucrat who never strayed beyond his boundaries. He was a highly cultivated person with a strong sense of humour. When he sang Tagoreís Madhu gandhe bhora mridu snigdha chhaya, he stepped into his own private world and had everyone listening to him.

A childís world is full of exuberance and little surprises. Father used to bring us toy cars from New Market. Some of them resembled the models one saw on the streets. He also got us a carrom board, ludo, snakes-and-ladders and a bagatelle. There were also jigsaw puzzles to contend with and varied water transfers with which to decorate ourselves. In those days school studies had not become a burden and there wasnít this unseemly desire to compete with oneís fellow students to the exclusion of all else.

If Alice could carve out a niche for herself, so did we, armed with the pictures of Hollywood film stars which came out of Nestléís chocolates. At the age of nine, I was familiar with the faces of Ronald Colman, Jean Harlowe, Anna May Wong and Zasu Pitts. The magazine Child Life shaped my inner landscape in different ways.

The servants we had were models of propriety and went about their jobs with a smile on their faces. Their salaries varied between Rs 25 and Rs 30, causing no dissatisfaction. Our driver, Nayeem Khan, was a plump man itching to entertain us with funny little rhymes. However nonsensical they might seem, these lines proved highly entertaining and he always recited them when we were going round the Victoria Memorial.

Loudon Streetís silent backdrop gave its residents breathing space where they could hear their own hearts beating and knew how to preserve their strength and integrity. Whenever I think of Loudon Street, my eyes become misty and I descend gently into a lotus-eaterís paradise.

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