I haven’t been to Calcutta in years. The place I was born in and the hometown of my parents–and theirs–seems remote now. I hear of new construction, gleaming buildings and impressive flyovers but I remember dusty streets, rolls from roadside vendors, cycle rickshaws that trundled along bravely next to overcrowded buses. Most of all, I remember my grandmother’s house–a place associated with childhood memories, summer afternoons, pickle.
A large, rambling bungalow with sunny verandahs, messy rooms and mysterious cupboards, the house held a strange fascination for me. I was a city girl used to two-room apartments that yielded neither mystery nor scares. An intense child locked in inner worlds a lot of the time and more attracted to books than people, my grandmother’s house provided both relief and respite from the sociable demands of school. It had lots of places to hide in and there were old cupboards full of books. Ranging from Les Miserables to Forever Amber and a wonderful children’s edition of the Bible stories, the books reflected the variegated taste of the readers who had lived in that house.
The afternoons were sweltering and power cuts were common. The women would lie down on the large kingsize bed in anticipation of a nap. My mother would trap me, wriggling and restless, with one hand and instruct me to sleep for a while. Then they would chat, giving me disapproving looks if I seemed to be listening, for this was ‘adult talk’– talk of relatives and servants, and sometimes, of family members. I dutifully closed my eyes and waited, knowing their words would soon slow down and they would succumb to the heavy langour of Calcutta heat. The haath paakha (hand fan) in my grandmother’s hands would fall to the side and sounds of gentle snoring would fill the room.
Then I’d gently move my mother’s hand off me and scamper up to the roof, where I read books and ate pickle through the afternoon. Once in a while, I stared off in the distance or play-acted at being various characters I had seen in the movies. (Yes, I was a weird child that way.) Sometimes, the crows cawed a little loudly around my head and scared me. Once in a while, they even pecked me. I’d cry out and then hope that nobody had heard me. Years later, when I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, I remembered the crows on my grandmother’s terrace.
Some evenings, the breeze came like a pleasant surprise. Cool and optimistic, almost hopeful that it would beat the heat permanently. The servants would run around the house closing windows and yelling “brishti aashche“.
And then the rain, intense as new love.