My Buried Youth

Each vacation, we measured our years

by the progress of the new tar road.

 

Electricity had come when I was very young,

but the servant quarter was yet unwired.

A flickering wick on the earthen floor

cast warm, inviting shadows.  There, at sundown,

the handymen relaxed on haunches, softly chatting,

and their ­beedies­, at each deep puff, fiercely glowed.

In the little room to the right of the hall

ranged sooty lanterns, ready for special use--

like when you had to, after dark, visit the latrine

which was by the distant compound wall,

or when unexpectedly, the electricity went off.

 

On the dark, empty beach, there we could be free

to play out our fantasies.  Two cousins in pony tails,

flushed with youth, would pretend to be film stars.

They taught us, in English, to say "Hi" and "Bye"

which was pretty ahead of our times in 1965.

The wind sighed its longing through the evergreens,

and the sea complained constantly even when out of sight.

By sunset, we had to leave though our castles were

incomplete.

On the way back, a broken club-house and tennis court

always spiced our curiosity: who could have played

tennis, here in this remote, undeveloped village?

 

The spacious wash house was built around the well.

It was dark and cool, even in the hottest spells:

if you came in from the bright warm sun, it took

some blinking before you could see clearly again.

In the large well hung a deep and friendly silence.

Its stones were mossed and slippery.  When you

let go the rusty bucket, the wooden pulley whirred.

The splash that followed was always superficial:

you had to wait for the bucket to drink its fill

before plying the pulley, whose old handles were smoothened

by rough palms.  When the dripping bucket emerged,

the brown, whiskered cord glistened, wet and taut.

In the morning, still together, but not so well-disposed

standing in single file, we brushed our teeth, grumbled,

and the dark gutter was streaked with our white spittle.

An old bronze boiler supplied the hot water.  The aunts,

with soap and towel, retreated into the smaller rooms

taking one bucket of well-water, another steaming hot.

They warmed the stone seat before closing the door;

then, emptying pitcherfuls over their shoulders, the bath.

 

Before supper-time, long prayers had to be intoned.

Perched cross-legged on a broad, creaking swing

we feigned earnestness by swaying to the beat,

but when left to ourselves, never failing to skip.

 

By nine, we lay on ­charpoys­ in the yard, gazing at the

sky.

On moonlit nights, the yellow ­champak­ was fragrant and

luminous;

there were earth smells too, the plants being freshly watered,

and in season, the lush scent of mangoes ripening in the porch.

The custom was to tell each other stories, until no one

spoke

except the cicadas, who kept tedious vigil without repose.

 

My great-grandfather built that mansion

for a sum of only rupees six thousand.

(But that was in 1907.)

He was a pleader in the Thane district court,

sufficiently modern to smoke.  His brand:

555s, which then came in round tins.

With cane, ­topi­, and waxed moustache,

he is portrayed upstairs in black-and-white.

In a dusty closet rest some of his things:

an ancient iron safe effectively conceals

debentures and bonds of poor investments,

an insurance policy that returned no yields.

Dozing undisturbed for decades, cob webbed shelves

retain withered tomes, ledgers, rusted biscuit cases,

invoices, faded letterheads, clotted ink, quills,

lacquered paperweights; underneath, on the chest,

bandages, enema equipment, enamel bowls,

scented water in sealed bottles, rusted scissors,

red salve, rats bane, ointment, tincture iodine,

epsom salts...

                I could, of course, go on,

but to cut the long story short, when

the road reached the shrine of the Monkey God,

as you are likely to have guessed by now,

we went far away from our ancestral home.

That summer, hoping, as usual, to return,

I hid something precious in the pigeon cote

in the musty alcove over the parlour door.

Now continents later, unsure of my past,

in vain I try to recollect that nuance.

I know I mourn a conventional loss--

you too, I dare say, wistfully long

for one or two memories,

misplaced beyond recall.

My childhood belongs to another tongue,

it briefly came back to me just now,

like snatches of a forgotten song.

You don't blame me, do you,

for writing these fragments down?

 


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  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape