I am called by the name of Vardan in school. At home in the village they know me by a few other names, one of which is most popular. I look forward to being back in the village. Truly speaking, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. Catching up with my parents, aunts, uncles and cousins is always a treat. I feel like a new person altogether! I live for those stories that my cousins have to share about the good old days when the large rolling acres were still forest, plantation and farmland, unmarked with rabid construction. Before I left to spend most of my childhood and teenage years in a boarding school, I believed the sun rose and set around our village and the world was populated with only my relatives. Every next person was either an uncle, aunt or cousin. The three-odd kilometre radius around our warm, earthy, wooden cottage and wicker walled kitchen that I loved, had been my universe. The old house was the stuff of memories now, having been replaced by a brick and cement bungalow.
Here I was again, sitting around a bonfire, playing cards, singing songs, sharing gossip from the archives and munching chikkis, roasted cobs of corn and fenugreek laddoos with a troop of my cousins. Little had changed over the years and we all still met during the winter break in our well-loved haunt. Prakriti di, the eldest in the gathering, was still a brat at twenty-one. She was the elder of my aunt, Urmi’s, two daughters. While she regaled us with spicy knicks and knacks from the past, it was usually done at the cost of someone’s pride. We allowed her to do it because she didn’t spare herself either. There was some scandalous role that she played in every story.
“Hey, Boncool! You look all grown up this winter! Time I let you in on the story of how you came into this world.” She taunted comfortably. I looked at her in confusion.
She enjoyed punctuating our ego with loud references to our embarrassing nicknames whenever it suited her. The unspoken rule in the village that once a child hits puberty, he must be called by his formal name, didn’t dissuade her.
“Arey bhaiyya!” She smacked my shoulder. “You have a right to know the full unabridged account. No less!”
I looked around at the other interested faces. Another unspoken rule that could never ever be broken was to not chicken out when the sword dangled over one’s ego.
Still, I thought to strike a bargain at least on the prickly issue of my nickname.
“Praku di…I’m game for any earthshaking disclosures but please don’t call me by that name again!”
“But why? She squealed. “ Don’t tell me you’re embarrassed. Such a juicy history too!!”
Most people who knew my nickname also knew the story behind it. There was no escaping the fact. When I was not yet five, I had earned it thanks to a boncool gathering expedition with my brood of cousins in the forest by the riverside. I was too little to reach the boughs and the shrubs were too prickly for me to pick any wild berries of my own. The grandmothers in the village were waiting to trade their jaggery candies for our berries that they would lovingly pickle. I was so worried that I wouldn’t get any candies, so I sneaked an older cousin a request to share his bounty with me. When that didn’t work, I asked if he was willing to barter. He sniggered, “ What’ve you got to give?”
“ I can let you have a quick peek of my derriere for two boncools.” I had said point blank. He had gawked, passed me two berries and lit off. Later that afternoon, when the foraging party was back home, I found my aunts stealing strange glances at me, mumbling something to each other and chortling! By the next morning, the entire village had unanimously christened me Boncool.
“Please Praku di, forget about my nickname. Everybody wants to know how I was born. Let’s hear it!”
“Well, this was around fourteen years ago… Grandpa was very much alive and your parents had just been married. Rajen mamu was head over heels in love with Binnie maami.You all remember what naanu was like, don’t you?”
Bhupen, a son of my father’s first cousin, chimed in, “ Yes I remember . That was the time a major change took place in your kitchen. It had sent Hari grandpa into a fit! He was so mad that he wouldn’t eat at home and kept turning up at our place during lunchtime with blistering abuses for Rajen kaka!”
“Right! That was when Rajen mamu refused to let maami use the earthen stove in the kitchen. He couldn’t stand her coughing in the wood smoke, trying to blow into the pipe to light the fire. So, without ever consulting his father, he brazenly brought home the first LPG stove in the village and got a gas connection from town. Moreover, he placed the kitchen slab right next to the window. He wanted Binnie maami to stay entertained, watching the comings and goings in the lane outside! Only after maami had prepared his favourite halwa that tasted heavenly even when cooked on an LPG stove, and given his head a good massage, did naanu finally forgive mamu.” Praku di’s revelations were engrossing, to say the least.
Seema di, Praku di’s sister had more pleasant memories of grandpa.
“Hey, remember what a ruckus we created while washing at the well at the end of the day? Ughhh!! It was plain torture after the joy of jumping and tumbling on the haystacks all day. The scratches never stopped us from going back to rule the fields the next day though. Poor Rajen mamu would hold us tight while Binnie maami gave us a good sudsy washing. And boy, how we howled! Naanu would sit with his walking stick on the armchair at the porch, commiserating with us and flinching at every splash of water our scratches received. Later, within Rajen mamu’s hearing, he would sigh and hope that by next winter there would be an addition of a new member to our astounding brood!”
Chandan, Bhupen’s younger brother guffawed, “ Yes. Those howls in the lantern-lit evenings were the norm then. These days we hardly hear screams from the wellside puncturing the evening peace. Kids no longer find haystacks entertaining…but back then, especially when the two of you , Praku and Seema were here, nobody stopped us from going overboard with our pranks. We made the elders cry. We got up to antics and bore the brunt together. But honestly, I think there’s no doubt we were quite astounding. We could give any primate a run for its monkey at climbing trees too remember?! Hari grandpa benefitted quite a lot from our reckless capers in the betel palm orchard. The guards would come straight to him with their complaints, and we had to stand in line to hand over our day’s heist of betel nuts so he wouldn’t tell our parents on us.”
“How can I forget that winter when you showed us how to shimmy up a betelnut tree balanced on nothing but an ankle cord ?!” Added Praku di elatedly. “ I was so fond of those oversized bloomers from the haat bazaar that we simply had to pick them up as soon as we landed here from the city. I can see why they were so popular! Thanks for showing us how to fold the nuts safely along the elastic hemlines before sliding down the palm and running for our lives. I’d never have known hoodwinking the guard and breaking into orchards could be so thrilling. We hadn’t a taste for the nuts of course. It was the pure joy of the entire exercise that we couldn’t pass up!!”
“Trust a blooming bloomer to draw a string line between a ho hum existence and an awesome one!” Twittered someone.
There was riotous laughter and I was glad the conversation had steered away from me.
I tried to stay low-key.
“I for one, can’t get over the fact that along with the bloomers we also had to pick up cheap nail polish from the haat bazaar when we got here every winter .” Seema di scooped out her dollop of nostalgia. “ News would get ahead that we had bought bright pink or red nail paint, so there would be a gathering at home waiting to inspect the item when we arrived. We’d immediately start a nail painting service for all kinds of nails- toenails and fingernails- male, female, old or young. Even naanu enjoyed getting his little fingernail of each hand, painted.”
“Speaking of which, let’s get back to the heart of today’s matter- how Boncool made his grand entry into the family!” Praku di took a big bite of corn on the cob, munched carefully and slipped in a philosophical wispiness to her voice and looked at my blushing face.
“We were all innocent little urchins once. There was a lot of mischief but we had no malice then. We have no malice now. I don’t know if you all agree, but I can safely say that we’ve lived out a golden era of pure joy…it was pure joy for us no doubt. But our antics. were constantly getting the daylights scared out of the poor grownups, especially Rajen mamu and Binnie maami who were responsible for me and Seema, all of seven and six, in mom and dad’s absence.”
Everybody agreed with what she said. My interest was piqued. I felt sorry for my parents.
A few of the older cousins guffawed and said that a particular day was clear as crystal in their heads. Everything had been played out innocently, with the sole intent of killing time when they had been restrained upstairs in the house one afternoon.
Praku di had the courtesy to fling a warning at me- boundaries could stretch a bit here- no disrespect to the elders was intended. Was I game for it?
“ Boncool… it’s a story I’m dying to share… cos it’s only recently that I’ve come to realize the full impact of our guileless mischief on the demography of this household! But do you promise to take it sportingly?!
“It’s fine, “ I said shrugging my shoulders casually. “ If you all know what it is you do know about me, why the heck have I been left out till now?!”
“That’s the spirit Boncool!” Exhorted the wise elder. “Hang in there brother! Now…it was the day after one especially delicious foray into the countryside. Sukul Tudu had declared war on the pests in his field and had invited us to watch him uncover the field mouse burrows. It got tiresome after a bit as the mice had all decamped. We ventured from there, hot, hungry and thirsty and soon spied a sea of sweetpeas waiting to be relished. Ah! The joy of popping juicy, tender peas and polishing them right off the stalks! Our group of six attacked the crop with the surgical precision of a swarm of locusts. Only when a wailing beturbaned old kaka arrived, flailing his arms, did we stop. It was a big loss for the farmer. An exasperated Rajen mamu had to shell out a hefty compensation. We had managed to upset the poor elders so much that they finally grounded us…imagine their compulsion in restraining us indoors! It was like inviting a storm in.”
I felt the group crank up their attention and snuggle closer to Praku di as she deliberately prodded the fire and plied in a fresh arm of a log.
She had overheard my parents sharing their sorrows that evening.
“Ah! Urmi is my only sister and her two children have every right to visit after all. I do have a soft corner for the girls. But if only they were a little less on the wilder side!”
“When I entered this household, I thought the mini-celebrities from the city would be a notch more sophisticated with their manners than the cousins they attract like magnets. I was so wrong…no wonder Urmi di needs a break from them!”
“They are baba’s joy and he pleads with her to let them stay here in the winter. I’m not sure if I’m cut out to be a father figure though… kids sure can drive one up the wall.”
“I agree… just don’t let baba know how you feel. He’d disinherit you right away! He wants his grandson soon and he’s been dropping hints for me to consult an astrologer on the matter.”
“I know. It’s very difficult to make him see reason. Still, I hold him in too great a regard to blatantly hurt him. Can’t let him know, at any cost, that I visit the family planning centre …!”
The next day Praku di and the rest of the gang sobered down and surprisingly stuck to needlework at home. Bhupen dada knew how to knit with yarn on a bit of broomstick. Everyone thought learning the knitting trick with the coconut leaf veins was the coolest thing to do. So, for a while, there was peace upstairs on the wide, arched veranda. Their maiden purl and plain manoeuvres were wholly absorbing.
But my father’s diffident figure in the distance, cautiously approaching the house, caught Praku di’s notice. The fact that his hand kept going to his breast pocket to check on something there, tickled her curiosity no end . When he came upstairs sometime later, to hang his blazer on the wall, he was pleasantly surprised that the imps could stay quiet and concentrate on something that wasn’t destructive. “ Come down for tea in a while kids!” He had announced, before disappearing downstairs again.
He loved to take time out to sit on the bench in the kitchen and talk with his wife while she cooked. On that fateful day, the recurrent feeling of being under siege had taken a backseat. He cherished the moments of peace. His happiness was doubled by the shared secret with his wife, of postponing their parenthood.
In the meantime, the aroma of the buckwheat and onion pakodas that she began to fry, wafted out the window. It travelled upstairs to awaken grandpa from his siesta. Very soon, propped on his walking stick, he slowly stepped down the creaking wooden staircase, shuffled into the kitchen and made himself comfortable on the bench next to his son. They looked out at the view through the window contentedly, as the tea bubbled on the stove, ready to be poured into their tumblers. All seemed right and the children had been so well-behaved that day that grandpa felt quite validated.
The gang of hungry ruffians were also expected to break into the scene any minute, so my mother had placed a large bowl of pakodas on the porch for them to share. Suddenly there was a stampede on the stairs and the kids rushed outside. There seemed to be some excitement. My parents and grandpa watched as someone made the sound of a bugle and marched forward swinging a bit of knitting on a stick, like a flag. Before they could understand what was happening, the rest of the children followed in a single file. Their cheeks pumped and blew up an awkward balloon. Every child had one. They marched across the open window proudly blowing the new balloons from the sachets discovered in their uncle’s pocket, inflating them like trumpets. Better the balloons than the pennies they were hoping to find! Grandpa was staring fixedly outside without expression and my poor parents blushed crimsom and just blinked emptily…
Thus I acknowledge that of the many colourful tales I’ve had the privilege to hear and experience, the tale of how I was born has been the most remarkable one. Prati di and the troop of my cousins did have a very pertinent role to play in my birth. The very next day from the date of that fateful afternoon of the balloon episode ,my parents were sent off to plead forgiveness and seek the blessings of Kamakhya Maa. Then, they were packed off on a honeymoon to Dehradun and asked not to show their faces till the wrong they had committed had been finally set right. After exactly ten months , they had very little choice but to welcome me into the world. My proud grandpa bestowed on me the name Vardan😉 And since I was in a hurry to lose such a good name for something like Boncool, my parents – despite the strikes and protests called by grandpa- bundled me off at a tender age to boarding schoolbelieving that Childhood shows the man, as morning shows the day. I guess they’ve chosen wisely for me… as their parents might have done for them.
Boncool: local name for wild berries
Kamakhya Maa: Goddess of fertility
Childhood shows….the day: quoted from Milton
Connect with Penmancy:
Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!