I was born and raised in India, with somewhat of a silver spoon, in a world without Internet, without cable TV and without mobile phones – A time untarnished by technology. Life was simple then. We spent quality time with family and our community. We met often. We knew our neighbours, exchanged notes on the day’s events and looked out for each other. We spent time in the garden and drove out to catch movies or go shopping. I didn’t need PlayStations, PSPs or fancy games to have a good time. When I was tired of the outdoors, indoor games like Ludo, Chinese Checkers, Bagatelle and Brainvita took over, before someone introduced me to Monopoly, Scrabble and Pictionary. Sometimes I played with video games like Tetris and Oil Pani at the local video games parlour. I knew what a bioscope was. In fact, one of my favourite toys was the View Master. I discovered with fascination the Wonders of the World via 3D postcard-style color slides and reels that were slipped into this funky contraption that seemed a cross between a stereoscope, camera and an embryonic TV! And if there were no board games, I played capitals, currencies, Name Place Animal Thing or full names of cricketers. This is why in one recess of my brain I can still remember Ravishankar, Jayadritha, Shastri, Doshi and Syed Mujtaba Hussein Kirmani. Hell, I even imitated run ups of famous bowlers. Malcolm Marshall, Imran Khan, Kapil Dev, Madan Lal were my favourites. And if there was nothing else, there was at least Book Cricket… Another pastime would be to enact entire scenes from movies like Sholay and Deewar. 90 | Indicting Goliath School-time was superb with friends; studies was not the first priority at all! However, when we studied together we got appreciated together with friends but punished as well if any of my friend scored higher than I! I wasn’t forced with tons of books and studies as we hardly had 6 subjects till 6th grade. I had a Camlin Geometry box and I would always lose my protractor. To date I do not even know when I used my divider. Hero ink pen was considered elite. Ink rubbers were prominent and it was always a Red and Blue one. All my text books and note books were wrapped. Studies used to emerge only one month before the exams and we h ad only two exams in a year! No unit tests or projects harmed our life! Education was at its best during that time, which allowed children to spend some dedicated time on studies and rest all the time in playing and exploring our childhood. As a student, I aspired to graduate from half pants to full pants, metallic geometry boxes to magnetic pencil boxes and boring erasers to colorful scented rubbers with cartoon figures. There was no concept of ‘use and throw’ pens. Fountain pens were tediously refilled, until the more practical ballpoint took over, even as my parents rued that it spoiled the handwriting.
I would have that sleek envelope of refills ready at hand. From the art of covering note books and texts with brown paper to sticking labels or polishing my shoes, everything used to be a ritual. The rare decoration in my room would be glossy centre-spreads from Sportstar or Target, before posters of Rambo and Schwarzenegger took over the walls while Samantha Fox or Madonna hid inside my cupboard. Holidays were spent at my maternal aunt’s or paternal aunt’s place with extreme pampering by her and strict rules of my uncle. Eating mangoes and getting a daily dose of scolding by elders for my mischief Who Is Lal Bhatia? | 91 was my only target in holidays. Climbing the trees to steal mangoes from our garden and running before the Maali (caretaker of the garden) was my biggest adventure.
I never had summer classes or summer camps! Holidays were strictly meant for playing and getting tan under the sun!! My idea of time was different and I divided it liberally between family, friends and myself. I pursued hobbies like painting, reading, theatre, sports, travel and letter writing. While the elders had ‘fast friends’ (as in thick, not loose), I had ‘pen pals.’ I eagerly anticipated the postman’s arrival with postcards, a money order or the odd telegram. If I wanted to speak to my cousin, I placed a trunk call. Time walked at a leisurely pace and I slept earlier or read a book for want of something to do. I spent time not at malls but at circulating libraries. Library cards were diligently maintained and a strict librarian fined you for not returning books on time! Comics were a big thing. I grew up on a staple of folktales and fables, Tinkle, Ananda Chitra Katha, Chandamama and Commando comics, as I laughed at the capers of Suppandi, Shikari Shambhu and Inspector Moochhwala or envied the volumes of Archies at a friend’s place. Before X-Men; my superheroes were Chacha Chaudhary, Sabu or the Indrajal pantheon of Bahadur, Mandrake and Phantom. Hell, we even had Hatnik Phantom sweet sticks with a red tip that looked like cigarettes. It took just a towel to transform into caped crusaders. Of course, there was no Harry Potter. I had to imagine the adventures of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven to Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys or Agatha Christie. And then one day, my father would get all my issues of Amar Chitra Katha hardbound for posterity. I collected stamps, coins, matchboxes, badges and even wet tissues from Air India flights that my high-flying uncles got home as a souvenir. Flying was unthinkable. For me travel meant train journeys with packed 92 | Indicting Goliath food hurriedly prepared at home and leaky Milton water coolers. There was no bottled water – when the train stopped at a station, passengers ran for a refill, mobbing the water cooler on the platform like it was a superstar. If the Oscars was my window to cinema, The Grammys was my only reference to the world of international music.
I recall how my grandfather waltzed in the hall as a wind-up gramophone or ‘turntable’ in the corner hummed out Western tunes. When rock n roll hit India right through the 80s, cities turned nocturnal as discos drew. As a youngster I would jive, hustle, cha-cha and boogie late into the night. A local music store would record my favourite songs on Mixtapes for a small sum. When the cassette loops got stuck, I would patiently unwind it and use a pencil to roll it up again. If the sound got fuzzy, out came the aftershave from dad’s closet and a handkerchief for some good old ‘head cleaning.’ Today’s sensory overload has pushed back so many childhood memories; yet they are still etched so clearly in my brains. Russian magazines like Sputnik and Misha. Sticking each finger into those hollow pale yellow ‘goldfingers’ and Fryums before eating them off, one by one. The call of the Kabuliwala with kohl-rimmed eyes and a Pathan suit, doing the afternoon rounds with his cache of dry fruits and goodies, was the bugbear before Gabbar. Our neighbours were extended family and were invited for festivals and pujas. Homemade snacks would be prepared with much enthusiasm. During Diwali I sun dried my crackers on the terrace, made ‘diwali ghars’ with brick and mud, inaugurating it with a chocolate or atom bomb or bursting them under old Milkmaid or Nutramul tins to watch them skyrocket with glee.
I was content with those coiling snakes, toy pistols and boats that went round and round in pails of water. In the Who Is Lal Bhatia? | 93 rains, I ran paperboat races in the puddles. During Dasara, I visited neighbourhood homes to see dollhouses and miniature rural depictions with tiny patches of sprouted gram to represent paddy fields. There were a lot more power cuts and I dealt with it with far more calm and resignation. It taught me patience. Looking back, these dark moments came as a blessing as it seeded memories of singing songs in the dark, my mother or grandmother narrating stories and group games like Antakshari. And sometimes, even calling on the neighbours to check if it was a colony blackout or a short circuit. It involved the spirit of sharing and living in the moment. These were opportunities for bonding and building relationships. Life could not be controlled by the push of a remote button.