I was born in the late 20th century and to be true to myself, am still stuck somewhere there. Bengal of the 1990s is perhaps very close to the Bengal of 2015. A Bengali joint family is dominated by absurdity. A kid born to one of those households, to which I refer, has to go through certain stages of initiation to be allowed in the inner circle of adults. These toddlers need to be proficient in the arts, music- both vocals and instrumental, dance and academics, of course.
When people ask me about my childhood, I recall my days as a kid in a joint family in north Kolkata. My day would start at 7 am with two slices of bread, eggs, fruits and milk. Shortly after, I would be packed off to school. Back in those days, the concept of carpooling and riding a school bus had not come into being in my part of the city. Hence, reaching school was an adventure in itself- a cycle rickshaw to the bus stop, a bus to the metro station, the metro, another rickshaw and finally, school. I was invariably late every day because I fussed about going to school till about the age of 10. After a lot of crying on my part and a lot of threats from the other side, I would walk into school with a red face brimming with tears.
My school was one of the most reputed and strictest schools in the city- South Point. It had a daunting make- one that looked a lot like Principal Nolan of the ‘Dead Poet’s Society’. It was stuck in the Victorian eras where the staff carried around long wooden canes to be used on the students. I was one of those unfortunate kids that got whacked on a daily basis for a variety of reasons ranging from not completing my homework to talking to a fellow bench-mate.
School would end at 1 pm when I would be brought home and granted a few hours of rest post-lunch. One needs to understand that a characteristic feature of Bengalis is that these boastful creatures need to sleep for a couple of hours after lunch in order to rejuvenate their already superior grey cells. Evening was the time my real education began—Bharatnatyam classes followed by Hindustani classical training followed by art class. I was not particularly good at any of these. There have been instances when I stepped on a classmate’s foot while dancing. Another time, my guru had to physically shut my mouth because I went really off-scale on a spur of inspiration. Coming back home, I would get my ‘jol khabar’ which is the third meal in a Bengali’s day. Yes, they eat 4 times a day.
This was not the end of my traumatic day though. The second last part of the day was sitting to study at a round table with my siblings supervised by an adult, usually a granny. You would be lucky to have your elderly grandmothers sit beside you, as compared to the mother or the aunt. They were kinder and much more benevolent. After about two hours of sharpening the grey cells, dinner would be served and we were allowed exactly half hour, by the clock, of television per day. Bengalis are sticklers for time within domestic boundaries only. TV watching was also a supervised affair. Once I remember having flipped to FTV and my aunt caught me in the act of admiring the models. The lecture that followed made me feel ashamed of myself and made me want to bury myself in the ground.
Such were my days as a kid in the city of joy. I used to want to escape the mundane life back then. But now that I look back on those days, I wish to go back and set things right. I wish I had paid more attention in those dance classes and corrected my staccatos in those vocal classes. If it were not for those forced classes, I would never know the charms of the arts and never be able to appreciate the freedom of flipping TV channels without anyone breathing down my neck.
Such is the absurd race of Bangalis. These people are so full of themselves that they will burst someday in the not-so-near future. Yet, you perhaps cannot find a race which is more balanced like theirs. These fish eating, Rabindra Sangeet lovers might have odd ways and loud voices- such loud that one cannot take a dump without the next door neighbor knowing- but at the end of the day, they too are harmless creatures trying to prepare their next generation to face a cruel world. For that oddity and strictness, I am, oddly enough, grateful.