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Sunday, 28 July 2013

Memories of an Indian Childhood

Throughout my career as a schoolgirl, I struggled with an unjust school schedule that unapologetically favours the morning person, who is shiny faced, crackling with energy and at her very best in the morning, at the expense of the rest - the shameful residual category in which I fell. School started at 7:45 am. Even though the bus ride from home to school was embarrassingly short, this early start meant that I was required to wake up well before 7 am in order to comfortably catch the school bus and make it to school in time. As it happens, this was not always the eventual outcome of our morning struggles. Between my brother and I, I believe I was significantly worse when it came to waking up in time to make it to school, but my memory cannot be relied on in this matter, given how sleepy I remained as I emerged from under the covers, and continued to be for much of the morning. By the time we graduated from high school, however, my mother had practised to a fine art, a disturbingly shrill voice that she reserved for our morning wake up calls. It worked better than any man made alarm, shattering even the deepest slumber.

There were varying degrees of mayhem at home on most school mornings in the crucial minutes between waking up well past 7 am and rushing out at 7:40 am. It was in those intervening minutes that some otherwise improbable event would occur. A pencil box would mysteriously vanish or a pair of socks would disappear into thin air, prompting a search in which the entire family participated with gusto, searching the unlikeliest of corners, including the hidden worlds under the bed and the dining table. On good days, someone – most often, one of the parents – would emerge disheveled from a forgotten corner, victoriously clutching the object of the search, and we would be dragged out of the front door to the bus stop. On bad days, the search would be abandoned after prolonged efforts proved unsuccessful. We still made it to the bus stop minus the missing object if it was thought to be dispensable. The more critical an item to the arsenal of a school child, the more likely we were to miss the school bus, and be bundled into our car, to be driven swiftly to school.

On some unfortunate mornings, the school bus kept us waiting endlessly, even as parents dropping off their children at the bus stop looked up impatiently from their newspapers to glance at their watches or to squint into the distance, searching for some sign of our familiar green and yellow school bus. Eventually, one of the parents would defeatedly but decisively fold up their newspaper, and decide to drop the little army of schoolchildren to school. We would all rush into the waiting car eagerly, delighted to have escaped a tedious and seemingly endless wait for a bus running behind schedule. As we sped away, our rear view mirror showed relieved parents cross the road and make their way home, thankful for having triumphed over yet another morning struggle.

In contrast, Sunday mornings were luxuriously slow. No early starts, no shrill alarm clocks, whether man made or of the human variety. Typically, Sunday breakfasts were an elaborate affair at home. I looked forward to puris and potato curry, an unlikely combination of South Indian and North Indian flavours. Whereas the puri is North Indian, the potato curry that my mother (and much of South India) serves with it, is unmistakably South Indian, fragrant with the aroma of curry leaves and mustard seeds, a classic South Indian tempering. If my mother happened to be in a particularly indulgent mood, we were treated to appam and stew, one of my all time favourite breakfasts, which I have referred to in an earlier blog post. On other days, breakfast was the traditional Malayali puttu and pazham, a messy affair that I never quite warmed up to, despite my love of Malayali cuisine. On bad days, breakfast was simply toast and omelette, and would be followed by barely audible mutterings from my father about "proper food".

After breakfast, my brother and I would religiously plonk ourselves in front of the television for our Sunday special dose of DD, short for Doordarshan, the national television channel. In the pre-liberalisation era, long before we had access to noisy CNN-IBN or stiff upper lipped BBC, Doordarshan (which literally translates to "watching from afar", an interesting interpretation of what television viewing really is) was our only source of entertainment. Our parents employed a light touch approach when it came to regulating our television viewing, at least in the early years before the threat of the all important public exams began to loom large over our young lives. Certainly, there was no quota system in place that restricted television viewing to daily, pre-determined doses. This was the tragic reality for some of my less fortunate friends, an outcome that followed protracted negotiations with unsympathetic parents. When I came across DD's signature tune on YouTube recently, it triggered memories of my childhood, and of an India that we have lost to the ravages of time.

This post comes a couple of weeks shy of India's 66th Independence Day. Of the many things that trouble me about India today, the cynicism of my generation ranks fairly high. For those of you who grew up in India, and are lucky enough to be in the country to enjoy the public holiday, I hope you are able to use it as an opportunity to look back at your own Indian childhood. I find that childhood memories can melt even the stoniest cynic.