I chanced upon a television channel telecasting old Hindi songs this Sunday afternoon. Songs that mostly were composed from a time when I was a toddler, and dear to my mother and aunts whom I remember chatting endlessly about these songs as I pattered around them, busy with the act of growing up. It took me back to the times when I sat on Mom’s bed as she listened to these songs over the radio while going about her daily work, and as my grand mum on the couch in the adjacent dining area talking to us. Symbols of the joys of the mundane and the comfort and warmth of the childhood I was blessed to have.
The idea of living in a house seems almost alien to me now, having breathed a life all these years in a high-rise apartment, and visiting and socializing with friends who did the same. It is only when I accompany Mom on her visits to old friends and aunts from a part of Bangalore that is now termed “old Bangalore” that I am reminded of the luxury of a cottage (our home was called Minicot), with a rose garden, a small backyard, and the inexplicable joy of being able to sit down on one’s porch at sunset and watch the birds as they settled down for the night even as the sun’s orange framed doorways in an ethereal light. Yes, the house I lived in old Bangalore is sold now, partly, due to the inability to manage more than one household and also, owing to the effort that went into its upkeep. A not-so-wise decision that I regret even today.
Friendly neighborhoods actually lived up to the true nature of camaraderie then– with neighbors visiting each other in the evenings, huddling across the gates of our homes and, sometimes, giving a shout across the street, while the dogs barked, adding their mite to the natter.
Our home was located on a street that had six houses—three on either side of a fairly broad street that served as a common transit for public transport. The Madras Sappers (Army) grounds and its golf courses were spread out on one side of the street and, to the right, on the opposite side, a short distance away was a railway crossing. We were a motley bunch of six with each home occupied by people who spoke different languages – Sindhi, Telugu, Tamil, and Malayalam—and with the common thread being the Indian Queen’s English. I remember eating lunch or dinner often at these homes and sampling a variety of foods—from the Sindhi, green chili pickle and ghee-laden sweets to the nippattus and adhirasams of a Tamil household. The morning cart vendors who sold vegetables and fruits (and fresh fish) came by at their prescribed hour, making loud calls in a bid to sell their wares. Each neighbor, including my grandmother, would pick up something or the other from these carts while she also described the breakfast she’d cooked and events that transpired since they last met, which was the previous evening. (What a difference from the water cooler conversations that transpire today!)
All these homes had gardens; some large enough to grow jackfruit, chrysanthemum, neem, mango and palm trees, and emanating smells from any aroma therapist’s dream. Small, wiggly, black caterpillars thrived on the damp walls and trees during the monsoons, serving as entertainment for us children, who lifted them off a stick and placed them on a tree branch or pulled and tweaked their legs (Talk of pulling caterpillar’s legs!). The evening ritual of hosing down all these plants with sprinklers resulted in many more such across-the wall, tete-a-tetes. People and children getting off buses and school vans would make their way past our homes at the same time every evening, stopping by to chat or have a cup of tea. Evening tea time took on a ceremonious air as neighbors went through the ritual of tasting appetizing sweets, pastries and savories from each kitchen.
A short distance away from these homes was a ‘petti kada’ or what is Malayalam for a ‘box shop’ when translated literally, set up by migrants from Malabar or North Kerala (incidentally, where our family also hailed from three generations ago). It had its origins in a rusty iron box, made up of sheets that were 12, 5 and 4 feet, and set into the recesses of the walls of an adjoining house. Its owners sold bananas, candies and petty items like bread and butter and freshly brewed, sweetened milky tea (I am not sure if the petti came from box or from the petty things it sold, now). I remember making at least three trips to this shop each day during my childhood and seeing it grow from a box into a full-fledged brick and mortar superstore.
100 meters away from this shop lay, snake-like, gleaming railway tracks where trains from Bangalore to Chennai (and beyond) chugged and cooed along at assorted times during the day and night. Many of us used to time our daily chores and activities to when these trains passed by. If one hadn’t had lunch before the Brindavan Express came in from Chennai announcing its arrival near the railway crossing at 1 pm, it meant that lunch was terribly delayed that day. Early risers who went on morning walks would time their waking up to the Madras Mail that came in at 430 am. Can you imagine doing this amidst the blasts and honks of the perennial, round-the-clock traffic in any part of the city in Banaglore today?