La Dolce Vita
La Dolce Vita or the good life spent in salubrious surroundings and the lap of nature is a beautiful memory that stays with the writer for decades. Chitra Singh fondly recollects and recapitulates the unabashed joy of her childhood years spent in a small hamlet in Dehradun. Her write up is a heartfelt salute to those magical days
‘’It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’’; these famous Charles Dickens lines could aptly describe our early childhood in a small hamlet on the outskirts of Dehradun. The circumstances were unusual. Our father had lost his important post in an independent principality due to the Zamindari Abolition of 1952 and perforce we had been constrained to move in with relatives during this post-colonial era. Our comfortable and lavish life had come to an abrupt end. Undaunted, our mother, determined that our elite education should not suffer, and had moved us to her relative’s place in Dehradun and enrolled us in the best schools possible under the circumstances.
Dehradun was the Mecca of education in those times and some of the best institutes of British India flourished there. It was a bustling city and its cantonment and elegant bungalows with all the modern amenities like electricity and piped water made it a very desirable place to live in. However, the village, which was barely a stone’s throw away, lacked these. The road leading to the village was a rough ‘kankar’ one. Kankar roads made of compacted mud and nodules of calcium carbonate were a common feature in those days. This immediately stamped the area as rustic. Street lighting was non-existent. A public transport system was not in place and most of the commuting was done by walking, on bicycles or tonga. Motorcars were a rarity and were the hallmark of the very well to do. All this did not deter people from going about their daily life stoically. The kankar road which formed the main artery of the village, was flanked by large tracts of tillable land. The landscape was dotted with a few imposing bungalows belonging to the landowners. The landowners who had been so used to serfdom, couldn’t come to terms with their changed circumstances and existed in a kind of limbo, not knowing exactly what the country’s newfound independence entailed for them. Most of them did nothing to improve their circumstances and continued to exist in the void that had occurred. Though it meant a drastic change in their lifestyle, they accepted it resignedly. Many had lost their lands and couldn’t come to grips with the changed economy. Most of the houses were dilapidated and unkempt, because they didn’t know how to eke out a decent living. Though most of them were on the brink of poverty, they held their heads high behind a flimsy veneer of respectability. In any case poverty was not a stigma in those times because the majority of the population was afflicted by it anyway.
We entered this scenario unwittingly, but the village folk extended their welcome to us and indulged us because we hailed from an officer family. We soon became the most favoured children of the community; the embodiment of the ‘atithi dev bhayo’ etiquette. We were the cynosure of all eyes because we were the only ones who attended an elite school and left every morning in our smart uniforms. They were fascinated by us because we could switch from fluent English to colloquial Hindi in the blink of an eye. This was our ticket to all kinds of privileges, and we were feted with special treatment wherever we turned.
But we were on a trip of our own. We developed a twin persona and juggled them to perfection. Once in school we joined the morning assembly, marching smartly to the piano belting out a lively tune played by Mr Nailor, the music teacher, who taught us Alto and Soprano singing. We learned to conduct our lives according to the school motto which read, ‘Build ye high but build ye true’. We made sure we excelled in our studies and participated in all kinds of activities that the school had to offer. We were divided into houses with Scottish names like Kirwin and Fraser and were fascinated by our Principal who tottered on to the stage in her four inch heels and was stylishly attired in twin sets and figure hugging skirt. We were imaginatively manned by a string of dedicated teachers. The British had left the country, but the legacy was deeply entrenched and was followed in the strictest regimen.
But as soon as school was over and we were homeward bound we eagerly awaited the appearance of the kankar road, and as soon as we saw it, all thought of the English window dressing vanished, and we hurried home with one thought and one thought alone; to be accepted by our village playmates. We yearned for our play time with them, and they in turn eagerly awaited our return from school. We climbed down from our ivory tower, put the English on hold, and slipped into our ‘country’ mantle as easily as day merges with night, or the land with the sky at the horizon. Our single-minded mission was to be in total harmony with them. To this end we embraced fluent Hindi, negated our ‘uppity ness’, and bonded with them in totality. We forged a friendship which knew no boundaries and revelled in its simplicity. We knew that a major part of our lives would be spent amongst the simple village folk and so we may as well make the most of it. Though our upbringing had nothing in common, we revelled in the pleasure of each other’s company, because we had a common goal, that of camaraderie. Thus unfolded a rare and most endearing chapter of our lives.
Our repertoire was immense. There were no extraneous stimuli, like electronic toys or television; why there was not even the basic requirement of electricity to facilitate entertainment. We lived by our wits and drove our bodies to the utmost to achieve that. We drank in the pleasures of our natural and vibrant surroundings. The group was a motley crowd ranging from all shapes and sizes, from children of the neighbouring families to children of the farm workers. There was a Koki, a Pratap, to a Phullu, a Jyoti to a Madhavi and Kailashi. We ran wild for miles in hot pursuit of each other in a game of robbers and policemen. We jumped on our bicycles and peddled furiously to the river front bordering the village, foraging for wild berries from the bushes that grew profusely there, feasting on their tantalizing taste in unparalleled joy. We sprinted to the railway bridge spanning the river and memorised the number of planks used to construct it and waited breathlessly for a train to pass because we had placed coins on the track. Once the train passed over it, the coin magically converted into a magnet to our utter delight. We raided the sugarcane fields and stripped the canes with our bare teeth to drink the nectar which was like manna from the heavens. Each of us was adept at shimmying up the Leechi trees which were a dominant feature of every house in the village. We looked forward to the winter Sunday mornings when we could raid the neighbouring pea fields where the stems were groaning under the weight of their pods. There is nothing more pleasurable than lying amongst the thick stems, under an azure blue sky, and plucking the peas and devouring them raw, with the imminent fear of the field owner catching us in the act, and we having to flee from his ominous grasp. If this happened, we would run for our lives, and leap high over the water course, separating his field from the next one, and gleefully be out of harm’s way. Oh! the list was endless in those halcyon days.
But one sport took precedence on many a day, and that was playing marbles. Generally, it was a boys’ game, but we enjoyed it as spectators and cheered them on. My brother was an enthusiastic participant of this game. He was not as athletic as some of the other boys in the outdoor sports, but no one could compare with his adroitness in marbles. His skill in aiming at a marble was extra ordinary. There were two forms of the game, one in which players competed in pocketing the marbles in a small hole in the ground where the outer perimeter was fixed. In the other you had to hit the marble out of a circle drawn on the ground. Both forms required great precision and concentration. When playing the pocketing version, the player had to squat down on the ground and aim with his fore finger. Whoever pocketed his marbles first, not only won the game but got possession of all the un-pocketed marbles. In the second form of the game all the competitors threw in their marbles into the circle. Then you had to aim at those marbles with an extraneous marble called a ‘banta’ and hit them out of the ring. The highest scorer got to keep the marble which he had thus won.
The marbles themselves were a source of great attraction. They came in varied sizes and had the most vivid hues of red, blue, green and all colours of the rainbow. The shade shone through the outer layer of sparkling brilliant glass, and we had aptly named them ‘Beauties’. We held them in the palm of our hands and gazed at them in wonder, as they glimmered back at us. We saved what little pocket money we had to splurge on these beauties. If any particular member bought some, word spread down the grapevine, as to who had purchased them and how many, Slowly and steadily ‘bhaiya’s’ reputation as a consummate player grew in the community, and almost all the children couldn’t resist challenging him to a game, but inevitably he won. Predictably, even when I was not accompanying him, he came home with both pockets jingling with the marbles, and with the passing of time his skill only grew. Soon our stash became so large that we procured an old pillowcase and started storing them in it. In our three-year sojourn in the village the pillowcase became almost full. Who could envisage that this carefree, adventurous, marble playing lad, would one day graduate into one of the highest-ranking officers in the Government of India?
In the meantime, our father had been reinstated by the Government in the profession he was qualified for and had been suitably posted. Now word came through that we had to join him at his place of posting. This meant we would soon depart from this idyllic village which had given us such a safe and memorable haven for all these years. We went around saying our goodbyes with long faces, and all the children reciprocated with deep empathy. My brother and I realised we couldn’t part from everyone on a note of dejection and decided to cheer them up. A wonderful idea came to us and for this we called everyone to our home on the evening before departure. They assembled out of sheer curiosity with not a clue of what was in store. We brought out the pillowcase bursting with marbles. After alerting everyone as to the purpose we tossed it up into the air and asked them all to grab as many as possible. The marbles flew to all corners of the quadrangle, filling every nook and cranny with their shimmering beauty in the setting sun. With woops of delight our companions swooped on them and filled their pockets and any other container they could find, with this coveted multi-hued treasure. We smiled at each other across the quadrangle in a silent salute, relishing each moment of this unabashed joy.