The concept of a nuclear family was introduced in the mid-70s in India, when Sanjay Gandhi began a vasectomy drive aimed at curbing the nation’s population.
Of course, by then – my grandparents (God rest their souls) had already done what they intended to do. As such, my mother came from a family of four sisters and two brothers. They had just about enough manpower to start a small profitable supermarket all by themselves.
By the time I set foot on earth, there were six volatile sisters and three blood thirsty brothers baying for each other’s blood. Fond discussions about their (not so) recent childhood reveal telling details – like how they enjoyed spending most of their time without a shred of clothing, rolling in mud or dried leaves – eating wild berries off plants and insects. Take for instance one of my cousin sisters, who was in love with tea from a very impressionable age – she’d routinely enjoy the drink of the residual tea in the cups left behind by the adults of the house. As brothers, we’d wage wars on a daily basis – be it our inability to dismiss one of us at rooftop cricket – or losing a match in FIFA. My sister is about eight years younger than me (making for very awkward conversations about equally awkward topics.) Any hope that she’d turn out to be more civilised than us, was quickly put to rest when she routinely began stealing coins and tablets (and eating them) from our help who’d steal from the house. We were in college or the fag end of school by the time she was four or five – and she had already established herself as a skilled burglar with nerves of steel – no amount of questioning or threatening could crack her.
We came from a typical middle class background (been over this to death in the about section of my blog.) We received humble remittances from time to time. Year after year – without a modicum of respect for inflation, I continued to receive five rupees every time my cousins and I decided to hit the streets. Collectively, we’d have upwards of two hundred rupees – and ten drooling siblings. We’d walk for miles, wide eyed at the glittering lights – the scent of the smoking coconut fibres and the delicious street side wraps filling our heads with dreams until we were too tired to stand and were miles away from home. We’d then board a couple of half-drunk rickshaws which would creak and teeter towards our home – weighed down by fresh memories of the world’s finest festival.
My parents took frugality to a whole new level, though. Take for instance the annual fete that would be organised at our school. The entry fees were two rupees, while the cheapest food on sale would be priced at five rupees. As such, after a lengthy discourse on the economics of the world – my mother would hand me the grand sum of ten rupees like they were nuclear codes. As such, I’d steer clear of conversations pertaining to money in class. I was lucky (and I still am) to have friends like Dipanjan or Arka – who were only slightly better off than me. Within the unenviable total of seventy rupees, we’d somehow manage to fit in a meal and a half and a couple rigged games that even God couldn’t win at. We would go back home tanned, hungry and tired – with skins caked with mud and hearts filled with happiness. Years later, when I was sitting through one of those somnolent afternoon lectures on Economics – I realised that my parents had already taught me to pool resources – in turn, engendering a friendship that would last through the decades.
Or take for instance the two hour long cold war that lasted between my cousins after one of them managed to hop on to the only vehicle our combined family owned – a wobbly LML Vespa, while the other one wept silently in the shadows of the auto rickshaw that she was consigned to for the entirety of the journey. The scooter was so old, that in the years gone by – the company went through a near financial bust up, came out with a few more failed models and finally settled on a moderately successful scooter.
I had a penchant for breaking things – especially so, when it came to my favourite cousin’s belongings. On the other hand, my sister was very quick with her hands. As a result, the poor chap learnt the importance of inventory management from a very early age. It was not like I intended to break things. I loved experimenting – as such, some experiments did not go the way I intended.
Bengalis love milk. They love all products born out of milk – paneer, curd and the infamous curd cheese (chhena). The latter, has to be my biggest nightmare growing up. Bengali parents are among the biggest fans of chhena; unfortunately their children are more than often, not. All of us have been bred on chhena. I hated the fiendish, wobbling amoeboid mass more than my daily prayers at school. I remember being beaten black and blue over this dish, as my parents and my aunts tried their best in force feeding me the extremely undesirable combination of chhena and mashed bananas. The fear is so deep seated that my heart shrivels merely at the sight of it – especially as the struggles have been carried over to our next generation (Re: my little polyglot niece.)
Allow me to also introduce you to one of my favourite people, choto mama. He is the younger of the two brothers on my mother’s side – and almost dwarfish in stature, hence the name is appropriate. He is a strict vegetarian, consumes no aerated drinks or alcohol and in other words, is my anti-Christ. His mode of communication with his two grown up daughters in their twenties (one of them is married and is about to have a child) is sign language, occasionally interspersed with incomprehensible noises. Despite his views on God, his moral strictures and his ability to pass gas at the most inconvenient of moments – he is mostly a benevolent man. His technique of wearing the lungi – a cylindrical piece of cloth that is worn around the waist and can come off at the slightest disturbances, was notoriously flimsy. Ranchi, where they formerly lived, is known for its hot climate. So you could forgive him for not wearing the inner essentials and/or a shirt. As such, this was the set up to the famous wardrobe malfunction of the early 2000s, when, the helpful man that he is, he attempted to help the sabzi-waali (good natured woman who sold vegetables) with her basket, and the lungi got caught on his feet. Down went the lungi, down went the basket and the poor lady ran for life – probably traumatised for life.
It has been years since we met, all of us together, at the same place. I could be accused of being a romantic, but even I realise that this is not a very strong possibility anymore. Most of us are busy making presentations, flying to countries and studying in lands far, far away – or in my case, happily blogging away. Sometimes, during Durga Puja, we still try hard to stick to the schedule. We make it for a lunch or two – but then there’s always someone missing (mostly me, as I have to judiciously divide my very limited time between my darling Sampriti and my cousins.) There are still those starry eyes – tempered by time and responsibility, lambent lights, the regrets hidden by the familiar laughs, and the clink of glasses.
We’ve got plenty of money now, just not enough time to spend.
(Thank you guys for an amazing childhood. We’ve certainly outlasted most other relationships in the world.)