Growing up we did not have much, but that did not stop us from being happy. Childhood is the best season of Indian life. Back then extended neighborhoods were still the norm: our front yards mingled with each other unaware of fences or formalities. We walked in any house without invitation; we got scolding from any parents without inhibition. We were fed, watched, and disciplined by all. We were the neighborhood kids, all twenty there of us.
Childhood was a never ending playtime, only interrupted by food, bath, sleep, and study. That was the joy of childhood. We did not have toys, we had friends. We did not practice sports, we just played games. We had an extensive collection of games: the dependable hide and seek; the energetic crocodile and the land; the boisterous l-o-n-d-o-n; the artistic go-go and statue; the painful seven stone; the dangerous touch the red or you are dead; the scary blind fly. We always had our twist: the counting for hide and seek was done with tree leaves and not by shouting numbers. The traditional games did not escape our innovation either: football with a ball of jute or pomelo fruit, cricket with bamboo stick, and badminton with palms. On those days when we took shelter indoor from the oppressive heat or freezing cold or pouring rain, there was the trusted Ludo and Carram among others. No wonder our mothers were always screaming after us to stop playing. Our job was to find a way to sneak out of the house, and their job was to drag us back in. But in those days they did not bug us a lot expect for food, bath, sleep, and study.
Next to games, food was the best part of childhood. We eat all the time and everywhere. Yes, we had the mandatory breakfast: irrespective of what else was there, milk was always present. And there was the lunch and dinner. But those were not as exciting as the afternoon snack. When it came to afternoon snack, there was always anticipation involved. As we came closer to the house, the smell was our first clue. Then there were the special occasions: festivals, fairs, and ceremonies – each of them came with their signature offering. It did not matter what festivals our family celebrated, we only needed one in the neighborhood. We celebrated them all. And it was not limited to the special occasions: if anyone in the neighborhood was making rice pudding, we could smell. All you need to do was to show up at the right time. When it came to pudding, we were always punctual. We memorized the weekly calendar of the pujas done by all the neighbors, and we had inside informants to collect the menus for the prasad. It was crucial, since on Thursdays and Saturdays there were many to choose from. We had to plan and be prepared.
Bath was just a bother unless it was summer and the neighborhood pond was somehow involved. Even for those of us who did not know how to swim, it was always fun. Summer, water, and childhood are the trifecta of happiness. Bath in winter was uncomfortable, in rainy days unnecessary. Winter bath was a mechanical ritual: warming the bucket of water in the sun, rubbing oil all over your body, washing the oil off with lukewarm water. We tried to forget about it as soon as it was over. In rainy days, we got drenched so many times in each day that there was little distinction between them. Bath was the only one that happened indoor.
Sleep was something I do not recall much about – I slept through it. Of course, the nights before the big ceremonies we were too excited thinking about the things we are going to do next morning. Sleep did not come easy. Then there was the hot summer nights, where sleeping on the roof used to start with excitement and end up in feeling scared. Winter nights were the best for sleep: the thick blanket provided the warmth and cover from the chilling cries of dogs at night. But whatever the case was we fell asleep without our knowledge. The next thing we knew was the morning ready for us to start the day all over again.
Study was one of those things we had to do. We did not have the pressure of daily homework, but we had our schools to attend. Schools were filled with friends and freedom, but ruined by teacher and classes. As if the rush to get ready, looking for the clean uniform, long walk to the school, the morning prayers were not bad enough, we had to attend the classes. The roll call was the ominous start. The voice the stern teachers loomed heavy on our mind. Then there was the question and answer session generously sprinkled with scolding and insults that the teachers thought were witty. All we had to do is not to laugh, and it was not always easy. If we did laugh, there would be more scolding. How we longed for the lunch break.
The main part of the school day began as soon as the bell rang after the fourth period. It was the lunch break. The playground would be filled with jubilant kids proclaiming their freedom after the four hour long oppressive regime. The boundary of the playground lined with vendors offering all kinds of tasty mouth watering treats humanly imaginable: from cooked chana to sweet peanut clusters, from big block of orange colored ice called ice cream to black ball of sour imli.
The lunch break was always shorter than we expected: the end always surprised us. The guard ran around with his long bamboo stick to collect the kids he knew to be the trouble makers. If the classes before the lunch were painful, the classes after the lunch were torture. At least then we had the lunch break to look forward to. The main objective in those classes was not to fall asleep. Slowly but surely the end used to come; and we would rush back to our neighborhood.
In childhood we all thought life would be so much easier once we grow up. We could not wait to be like the grown ups. We thought life would be so much better once we leave our childhood behind. How naïve we all were.