A love letter to my childhood

A love letter to my childhood

The first showers of 2021 have arrived. The rains remind me of the coastal town I grew up in.

My childhood was perfect. There is nothing I would like to change about it. I grew up in a quaint village on the western coast of India. When I think of my locality, I feel warmth, comfort and a sense of safety. Nostalgia can be misleading, but I trust my feelings.

My school was barely a kilometre away from the shores of Arabian sea. My house was a few hundred metres away from school. I cycled to school every morning, as did all my peers. My mother taught English at the same school and took tuitions at home in the evening. My father worked some 40 kms away from home, taking a local train to reach his workplace. My parents worked hard to build a good life for themselves and their children.

Even though the place had the word ‘gaon’ (village) in its name, it was neither a rural village nor a town. We lived in an apartment that had about 50 flats including our own, but also waited for buffaloes in the mornings to cross the street on our way to school. This one teacher always chastised us—“even buffaloes walk in a single file, what is wrong with you all?”. We had two theatres in the area, but had to travel at least 30 kms for a good hospital. We could reach any part of the country from a railyway station just ten kms away, but the airport was at least 50 kms away. Some of my classmates lived in poor conditions but our school had 30 computers—newly bought and placed in an air-conditioned room—which every student had access to once a week regardless of their background (where we played road rash when the teacher looked away).

In that sense, the place was an ‘in-between’ and so were most of us children, growing up in a newly liberalised India. We weren’t ‘too provincial’ to feel lost in a big city (which was an hour's train ride away), but we felt a pressure walking into one of its malls, where everyone dressed well and bought expensive coffee.

My parents’ move to this interior ‘village town’ was incidental. My father’s friend, who had promised to rent him a home in the city, ditched him at the last minute. Around the same time, my parents came on a trip to this town to visit its beach, away from the big city. They loved it so much, they decided to make it home.

Our flat, a modest 540 sq. ft 1BHK, was amongst the new residential apartments that was coming up in the area. Old homes built in traditional Konkan architecure—a pitched roof with Mangalore tiles, a welcoming courtyard and sturdy compound of laterite bricks—still dotted the entire region. These houses had been around for years, and seemed as old as monsoon itself.

The monsoon always arrived on time—June. It brought with it overflowing roads, petrichor that told you the intense heat of May was over, and unexpected holidays, which we looked forward to the most. Gum boots, rain coats, books in a plastic cover inside the bag, umbrellas—when all these failed, it meant a holiday was in the offing. It was customary to get drenched in the first rains. The monsoon also brought a new academic year and hence a new beginning and a renewed determination—this year I will do better in studies.

Adjoining my apartment was a cowshed that was part of a family-run dairy. It housed about twenty buffaloes. We played there often, hide and seek in the hay stack. And even witnessed the death and burial of one buffalo. The family placed a hundred rupee note in the buffalo’s mouth before burying it, as an expression of gratitude. That image stays with me. The son of the man who ran the dairy, only a year older to me, studied in the same school as mine. Everyone bullied him—calling him dullard, milkman, dimwit, buffalo and other choice words. Sometimes I also partook in the bullying in the fear of coming across as ‘too goody-goody’ to my peers. Even though my childhood was perfect, I was anything but.

The road that led to my school was no wider than ten feet. On one side, was a huge depression that filled up with water from June to September—all through the rainy season—and turned into a large mossy pond. On the other side, there were salt pans for almost a kilometre, leading all the way up to the beach. There were no tall structures in the vicinity. My school was the only three-storied building for as far as eyes could see; so if you got bored in class and looked out of the window, the sea breeze would blow through your hair as you gazed unto the horizon and beyond. It was perfect. It was as though a building filled with nasty, stinky, noisy children—who had no appreciation for their surroundings—had been airlifted and carefully placed in the most idyllic setting.

As if this was not enough, there was a potter at the end of the street who lived in a hut. Every so often, we would stand by his hut after school and watch him make pot after pot, and be amazed every single time. Right next to the potter’s hut was a narrow bumpy road that led to the beach. The salt pans ran on one side of this path and a marshland with bushes and herons, on the other. All eventually culminating into the beach.

The beach, itself, was lined with casuarinas for miles on end. As you approached the sea and you went from only hearing the waves to letting them splash against your feet, the sand changed colour from ash to black. The beach would always be empty—barely a soul. This was no tourist spot. There were no shacks or restaurants. It was very real—spooky sometimes—and even dangerous to be out after dark. This is where I got familiar with the Arabian sea. The same coastline extended to my father’s hometown, and continued to one of my favourite places ever—Gokarna; finally ending at the southern tip of India. In a sense, the coastline stitches together many things close to my heart. The sun, the sand, the water, the people—are all same. People who grow up on the coast seem to have their own commonality—an endless love for the sea, the rains, coconuts and fish.

On the outskirts of the town were remains of an old fort built by the Portuguese colonisers in the 1600s, later taken over by the Maratha empire. Legends were rife about the bravado of Shivaji, the Maratha warrior, and the tunnels he built under the fort, and how these tunnels opened up some 600 miles away. No one knew if there was any truth to these stories. They changed with every group and the fabled tunnel length increased every year.

Summers meant climbing mango trees and plucking the most delicious Alphonso mangoes of my life. The family that sold the majority portion of their land to the real estate developer who built our apartment, now had the entire apartment as neighbours. It seemed like they had lost ownership of two Alphonso trees to the developer. So every summer they went green with envy, as they watched a defiant eleven-year-old me climb up a tree—which they had planted some thirty years ago—pluck mango after mango, and even be generous by distributing it to my friends standing below, while keeping the best ones for myself. (The rule was that the climber got to keep the best ones.) I then took them home and ripened them in a shoebox filled with hay from the adjoining dairy. Even the rarest ‘export quality Alphonsos’ would not have matched the sweet taste of these mangoes that had such a story to them.

Tamarind, too, was a feature of the summer. My friends and I cycled around various areas looking for the right mix of sweet and sour tamarinds and upon finding them, stoned the life out of the trees, to gather ripe tamarinds encased perfectly in hollow shells. Star gooseberries were another favourite. The house opposite my apartment had a star gooseberry tree that I never got to fully exploit; I didn’t want to risk being humiliated by the owners in full view of people from my apartment, in case I rubbed them the wrong way. It was painful to watch the berries grow in clusters and not be able to do a thing about it.

Occasionally, dad or mom would casually announce after dinner—“let’s go for a movie!” We would walk to the theatre, which was barely a kilometre away and buy four balcony tickets for hundred rupees. The theatre and its terrible films were truly a special part of our lives. The last movie I watched there left an indelible impression on me as a teenager. The best nights would be those when the fun was triple-fold—we would eat Chinese food at this one restaurant, watch a movie at the theatre and also eat kulfi after coming home. Those form some of the most special memories.

My journey with music began in this modest town. It is here that I took piano lessons in Western classical and learnt Hindustani vocals for the first time.

Of all the things, there is one thing I’ve come to revisit and deeply appreciate about my childhood town. My locality was predominantly Hindu. Just a few kilometres to its west was a ‘Mohalla’ that was predominantly Muslim which had a mosque; equidistant on the eastern side, was an area that was predominantly catholic, complete with a church and all. This was not by design. It was just how it was. My school seemed to have an equal proportion of Hindus, Christians and Muslims. From age eight onwards—when I joined the school—I, a Hindu boy, had Muslims and Christians as my dearest friends till I left this school. I grew up hearing the Azaan. My classmates took a break while playing to go offer Namaaz. I spent time in the homes of Christian and Muslim families. One particular December, Kunal, Nikhil and myself—three Hindu boys—collected money from the houses in our apartment and made a Christmas crib for our (mostly Hindu) society. There was no mention of religion, neither by the adults nor by us children. It was almost vulgar to talk about religion openly like that.

At a time when religious fundamentalism has permeated all corners of the country and made its way into the living rooms of the most privileged and affluent today, such pluralism rooted in Gandhian values, in a small unremarkable town filled with lower middle-class to middle-class Indians was something truly remarkable. Somehow, most of our parents weren’t bigoted assholes and they made sure we children didn’t turn into one; unless it was a co-incidence and I had somehow missed crossing paths with all such people, which, of course, is technically possible.

Even though this secular utopia came crashing down when I was hit with reality soon after leaving this town, the deed had already been done—I had successfully not turned into a bigoted asshole myself. For this life lesson alone, I am grateful to my precious hometown.

The greatest gift one can receive in their lifetime is a good childhood. I am eternally grateful to my parents for giving me that and a lot more.