Once in a while, we all think about the good old childhood days. Back when our lifestyles had a carefree rhythm. A time when we used to have actual face-to-face conversations and not video calls (and never realized that one day we would be actually missing them). A time when we had genuine concerns and empathy for people in general. A time when things did not move this fast, and when we had the time to appreciate the beauty of simplicity. I do miss those glorious, happy-go-lucky days (sigh!) of growing up in a wonderful little town in India. Therefore, I will show you a glimpse of some of my favorite memories, which I shall cherish forever.
#1 Ice-Cream Vendors
Back then, there were no fancy gadgets. No costly toys. No branded clothes or delicacies. Limited quantities of unnecessary pampering. Reasonable demands (on rare occasions). Yet, all the human senses were far more satisfied and happier. That glint in the eyes upon hearing the bell of an ice-cream vendor, especially during the hot summer days, is all but gone.
#2 VCR And Chaplin Movies
Remember VCR? My uncle had one. During summer vacations, we were allowed to immerse ourselves into the world of the incomparable Charlie Chaplin. It was Chaplin, and the duo of Laurel-Hardy, and some of the Arnold-Stallone-Bruce Lee action flicks. I really enjoyed these afternoons.
#3 Flying Paper Planes
Making paper planes was definitely an exciting exercise. All the folds had to be crisp and proper. Otherwise, the plane wouldn’t take off, or travel the distance.
A piece of paper, if folded in certain particular ways, is likely to stay afloat for a while, thanks to physics. As kids, we used to release the planes in a certain fashion, which made sense, such as lifting the left hand (or the right, basically the so-called weaker one) for stability, closing the left eye (or the right) for better aim, etc. But what was with the childhood ritual of giving a blow at the back of the plane just before releasing it? Some sort of spell to summon the God of Wind?
#4 Slingshot And Mangoes
I have never been a fan of sour/tangy food. My teeth develop a funny (and extremely irritating) sensation.
However, there is an exception, and I thank the Gods for that. When it comes to raw mangoes, sliced and served with black salt and red chili powder, I cannot control myself—the gastronomical equivalent of “Bungee jumping”—according to me.
Slingshots were extremely handy in procuring the raw mangoes, fresh from the trees.
#5 Enjoying ‘Shiuli’
If there is one thing I absolutely hate, it is waking up early. The regular struggle during schooldays (school started at around 7 am) was tormenting as hell. It was even more agonizing then because negotiations such as “5 more minutes”, “Little bit more” didn’t work at all. With the onset of Autumn, something magical used to happen: the blooming of ‘Shiuli’ flowers. Those tiny white flowers, with reddish-orange stalks, singlehandedly drive Bengali folks mad with its intoxicating fragrance.
This flower, along with ‘Kaashphool’, jointly declare the arrival of the greatest festival for Bengalis, ‘Durga Pujo’. Although these factors didn’t help at all in easing the waking-up process, they did provide a wonderful incentive once I was up. Picking up the flowers from a bed of dew-covered grass early in the morning, while savoring the fragrance, was simply blissful.
#6 Rath Yatra (Chariot Festival)
When I was a kid, Rath Yatra was one of my favorite festivals. We, the neighborhood kids, used to decorate a small chariot and drive with it in our neighborhood. Then, our neighbors would come out in the streets, pay homage to the holy siblings, and even donate some money a small cashbox kept inside the chariot. In return, they received ‘nakuldana’ and ‘batasha’. This collected money was used to fund the ingredients for ‘khichdi’ and we would have a feast!
#7 Watching Fireflies
Firefly is the most mysterious and intriguing insect I’ve come across in real life. When I was a kid, my curiosity knew no bounds when it came to fireflies (‘Jonaki’ in Bangla, ‘Jugnu’ in Hindi). Whenever I encountered a group of these glowing beauties, I acted immediately to make sure there were no other sources of light around. Be it turning off the lights, or closing the windows, in order to maximize the effects.
However, when it involved roaming outdoors, it was advisable (not to mention safe) to carry a battery torch. No one wants to end up being bitten by a snake while enjoying the fireworks in the sky.
I did catch a few fireflies to have a closer look. Unable to understand the physics of the light source, I used to stare at these amazing insects. Every single time.
#8 Digging Up Dinosaurs
Some kids wanted to become doctors when they grow up. Others, cricketers, and astronauts. I wanted to become a paleontologist. It all started in 1994 when I saw a movie called “Jurassic Park.” I became such a big fan that I irritated even my parents! I painted pictures of dinosaurs and put them on our walls. It used to make my mom crazy. Naturally, I had to take my activity outdoors. Believe it or not, I even tried digging up a dinosaur fossil in my backyard using gardening tools and a toothbrush.
#9 Making Dough Snakes
My grandmother (called her ‘Thamma’) was quite an awesome lady. She couldn’t complete her schooling because of the turmoils caused by the Partition (millions of people got uprooted from their ancestral homes and forced to settle elsewhere). But that didn’t stop her from being wise. She had the stamina of an athlete, and the determination of a mountaineer. However, one thing she was absolutely petrified of is snakes. It is said that perseverance pays off. Although my mother was and still is (rightfully so) totally against wasting food items, once in a while, due to my constant nagging, she had to hand over small pieces of wheat dough. Using that, I could’ve sculpted anything: tiger, dinosaur, rat, gorilla, you name it. But what did I create? That’s right. Snakes! Approaching from behind, I used to place the doughy forms on her shoulder, and scream “Grandma, Snake!!!!”. It used to scare her real bad! Every single time. I know. I know. I won’t be allowed to enter Heaven.
#10 Wielding Handkerchief-Whip
Hitting someone was, is, and always will be something one should refrain from, especially from behind, which is genuinely dishonorable. However, using a handkerchief as a whip was too much fun! And the best part was that it only made sense (and maximum impact) tp hit the posterior.
#11 Fountain Pens
This faulty device called ‘Fountain Pen’ was nuisance objectified during school days. Remember those stains on school uniform? I had to dig out new excuses every time to avoid parental wrath, such as: “What can I do? The pen was leaking”, “I lost the pen cap,” “Had to write a lot during a surprise test,” “Two boys were fighting, one of them had a fountain pen in his hand, and when I intervened, he did this to me,” “Lost my handkerchief, so smudged the ink on the shirt.” All said and done, wasn’t it fun writing with a fountain pen?
#12 Seeing A Real Tiger
Remember seeing a real tiger for the first time? It’s arguably one of the most humbling experiences! The poise, the gait, and the sheer presence of the largest member of the cat family are both captivating and intimidating.
During school vacation, a visit to Calcutta was an accepted ritual. At the Alipore Zoo, alongside other animals and birds, I saw a real Royal Bengal Tiger for the first time. Boy, was it absolutely impressive! One can easily gauge the excitement. We didn’t have access to the likes of Discovery Channels and National Geographics back then. And jungle safaris (costly affair) were beyond imagination. All I had seen till then were photographs of the apex predator in magazines and school textbooks. Hence, the transition from paper to reality was overwhelming, to say the least!
However, I should admit that it was equally sad to see such a force of nature trapped inside a cage.
#13 Batting Order Selection
The batting order selection during a cricket match was a precarious job. There were several methods, and the most barbaric one was “My bat, so I’ll bat at no. 1”. To get away with this unjust, feudal rule, we had to take the refuge of luck. All we had to do was to select from a bunch of lines drawn on the ground with a number assigned to each line. The corresponding numbers were kept hidden under a bat to ensure transparency.
Although the process was not fool-proof with occasional accusations of partiality and cheating doing rounds, it was one of the most accepted systems.
#14 Celebrating Holi
There’s a reason why Holi is described as the Festival of Colors (mind you, “colors” and not “color”).
#15 Pretending To Ride Scooter
Growing up in a small town, away from the city madness, the options for fancy recreational activities were limited. We neither had access to the Appu Ghars, nor the Nicco Parks, nor the Water Kingdoms. We had to resort to all sorts of low-tech options, involving people and day-to-day items. One such activity was pretending to ride a parked scooter, wearing an over-sized helmet (dad’s), and legs dangling high up in the air. Remember all the original sounds we used to make, pretending to race through busy streets? My personal favorite was the sound of the horn, clear and loud enough to scare a buffalo!
#16 Tram Rides
If there is one public transport in Calcutta that is the uncrowned monarch of nostalgia—that’s the tram! By now, Calcutta is the only city in India that still has them. Trademark metallic, clanking sounds (due to friction between the track and the wheels), the sound of the bells announcing the arrival or warning the pedestrians and vehicles to stop, occasional sparks on the wire above, and the sluggish, yet steady movement are some of the most iconic features that associates with this rapidly vanishing transportation system.
#17 Taxi Rides In Calcutta
At the cost of being controversial, let me say this upfront: In India, it doesn’t get more majestic than riding in a yellow Ambassador taxi of Kolkata! Mumbai’s kaali-peeli taxi doesn’t even come close. The mighty Delhi has auto-rickshaws (trying to suppress my laughter.)
Also, no other city in India provides a grander entrance than Kolkata, if you are entering the city through Howrah Bridge, of course. I kept staring in disbelief at this magnificent engineering marvel every time I crossed.
#18 Religious Tolerance
In today’s world, distrust and religious extremism are on the rise, fuelled by the spewing of rampant hatred and poisonous propaganda. And for what? Ah yes, for shallow political gains… As a result, the world is burning. That’s already bad and sad enough. However, there is a far more dangerous and disturbing trend gaining momentum at an alarming rate- poisoning the evolving, impressionable minds of the nation’s future generations. I need not stress enough; this will have a devastating impact if left unchecked. Nothing short of Apocalypse. Something no one in the right frame of mind would ever want. I sincerely hope that, by the time people realize this, it is not too late. All religions preach love, brotherhood, and peace. What has gone wrong are the translations.
#19 Lighting A Stove
As a kid, I had always hated doing household chores. Like my family members said, the reluctance was transparent: on my face, in my body language, and by the response time. However, like the silver lining of a cloud, there was one thing I thoroughly enjoyed—lighting up a desi stove or ‘chulha’ (‘unoon’ in Bengali). I did this with a lot of willingness in my heart. The ‘chulha’ especially came in handy during the winter days, when hot water was used for bathing in large quantities. I just loved the different phases. First came the preparation phase: ransacking the storeroom to locate the stove, bringing it out in the open, getting rid of cobwebs (if not regularly used). Then, gathering the items (cow dung cakes, dry wood/sticks, a bunch of newspapers, a little bit of kerosene oil, matchbox, and, of course, a hand fan). A metallic rod or a decent length of wood was also required to stoke the fire once in a while. Then came the decoration phase: placing layers of dung cakes in the top chamber (not too densely packed, mind you), and pieces of wood and twisted paper below. And finally came the ignition phase. The trick was to keep the air flowing, using a hand fan. After the first smoke (which I loved, but my eyes did not), when the dung cakes turned glowing-red, it was time to place the aluminum utensil on top.
#20 Rotary-Dial Phones
Back in the 80’s and 90’s, communication device was a shared family asset. For those who didn’t have access to landline phones at home, STD-ISD-PCO-cum-Xerox centers came in handy. Remember that creaking sound of small bills being printed on tiny rolls of paper the moment you put down the receiver? We had a dial-pad landline phone at home. I thought this was pretty cool until I chanced upon a rotary-dial model at a neighbour’s place. It was love-at-first-sight! Now and then, I used to find excuses to go to uncle’s house to get a chance to play with those magical, rotary dials. Most of the time, the need to make calls from someone else’s phone was genuine. Occasionally, I used to cook up bogus excuses such as “Our landline is not working, have to call dad. Urgent”, which worked just fine. Instant access. I used to pretend to call a number, and then say “Line is busy” and leave. In doing so, I achieved the primary aim without any collateral damage. White lies. Sometimes, when uncle/aunty was busy with their chores, I used to do miniature role-plays, pretending to be a grown-up, and dealing with some stuff! Reminiscent of a by-gone era, these landline phones provided healthy exercise for the mind. Didn’t we all remember half of the numbers by heart? For everything else, there was that diary, which had all the numbers, written alphabetically. Any wrong entry, upon discovery, fetched much criticism and ridicule.
#21 Playing With Magnifying Glass
The arrival of mobile phones made many old devices unnecessary as everything became available on one device. The list is endless: calculators, maps, compasses, radios, clocks, books, and so on. One special device that’s very dear to my heart has also gone missing. Good old magnifying glass. I remember using a magnifying glass for focussing the sun-rays to burn paper, dry leaves, and sometimes, insects. Is it the combined Karma of a lot of people (who have burned insects like me) that the global temperature is rising, and humanity might get burned to a crisp eventually?
#22 Planting Saplings
Knowledge is gathering the information that all life forms need water to survive. Wisdom is the understanding of exactly how much and why. The fact that over-watering, and surprisingly not under-watering, has resulted in more plant casualties was something beyond belief back then. Despite instructions from family members, I always ended up giving more water than necessary, especially to the saplings. Hence, I had to face a lot of disappointment in the field of gardening early on. I mean, is too much love and pampering is bad for growth?
#23 Exploring The Fish Market
Those were the moments of privilege when my grandfather insisted on taking me to the local market. First of all, I just loved the experience of sitting on a bicycle with a nylon bag in my hand, with a cool breeze brushing my face. Back then, we hardly came across polythene bags (Thank God!). Most importantly, I could sit with my eyes closed if someone else was riding. The most exciting part was to witness the hustle-bustle at the fish market. That entire setup was heavenly—such chaos, yet full of life! There was always a cat somewhere around—either observing from a distance or trying to seduce with the hope of getting some fish tit-bits. With elderly people around, even the fishmongers couldn’t object to my exploratory activities.
#24 Witnesssing Idol-Making
An idol-making workshop (be it the legendary ones of Kumortuli or in any small town) can be a fascinating place for a kid. To witness magic unfold in front of your eyes, wherein wooden frames, straw bundles, and layers of clay are maneuvered to give form to the divine, is indeed something! I remember visiting the local workshops just before Durga Pujo and staring in disbelief at the workmanship. I mean, don’t they all deserve awards and immense recognition for their craft? Especially for the finesse with which they paint the eyes. Simply mind-boggling.
#25 Catching Dragonflies
The forgotten art of catching dragonflies required synergy of three crucial elements: patience (to outdo the reflexes of an ever-vigilant insect), the perseverance of the highest order (to continue the pursuit after failed attempts), and stealth/ambush tactics (to get close enough to the subject without being detected to administer the “coup de grace”.)
The trick was to grab it by its tail first. Once caught the insect tries to free itself by curling back and biting. That was the signal to slowly get hold of its body without damaging the precious wings. Once this was done, all the struggles of the insect to escape went in vain.
#26 Savoring Chicken Rolls
When it comes to street foods, Kolkata arguably packs the meanest punch. No other city in India provides a wider variety of gastronomic wonders, right from ‘Jhalmuri,’ ‘Ghhoti groom,’ ‘Phuchka,’ ‘Aalu Kabli’ to ‘Mughlai Porota’ and ‘Chowmein.’ And of course, the legendary ‘Chop’ (Aalo / vegetable/mocha, etc.) and the ‘Beguni’ and the ‘Phuluri.’
However, my all-time favorite has always been the ‘Chicken Roll.’ Here’s the secret of the best Kolkata ‘Roll’: it has more to do with the outer, crispy coating (i.e. the ‘Porota’) than the content inside (meat, egg, onion, lemon juice, ketchup, etc.)
#27 Messing With Millipedes
How many of you played with millipede or centipede, the insect version of a “touch-me-not” plant? I sure did. Honestly, it was indeed fun. Upon application of external force (in this case, a slight nudge), to witness a crawling insect coil instantly into a button-like form was intriguing enough. The millipedes (the reddish ones) were much more appealing than the centipedes (the shiny, black ones), because of two reasons: firstly, these remained coiled for a longer duration, and secondly, looked far less intimidating. The black ones were stockier and far swifter and hence commanded a relatively higher degree of fear.
#28 Utilising Pull-Up Bars
Can you guess the name of the no. 1 exercise to increase your height? I’ll give you a hint: highly recommended by young and old alike. That’s right. That’s hanging from a pull-up bar. When I realized that Horlicks and Bournvitas (among the most horrible things I’ve ever gulped) were not doing their job, I had to resort to the ultimate savior. And it started to show the results for a while. Until lateral growth took over, and that’s the rest of the story. I had to make peace with 5′ 10.5″.