As I scroll to my next page on my Kindle trying to digest the daunting details of Dostoyevsky’s short story “the dream of a ridiculous man” the wailing little girl in the story suddenly springs up memories of my own wailing like a kid on my way to my Kindergarten, Jagadamaba Shishuvihara on maid Channamma’s trunk. I take my eyes off the Kindle and stare at the wall looking back at my childhood days.
“Do you know what happens to children who refuse to go to school”, my father’s roar rings in my ear from my Amygdala. He pinched my left ear and holding it took me to the dishwashing area behind our house as I followed him wincing. He pointed at the perfectly formed rounds of Cow dung hurled on the wall and shouted: “You will end up throwing balls of Cow dung on the wall for a career like Channamma”.
His gift of a Gold Chain to me two decades later when I completed my Engineering Degree with distinction appears less significant as a gift to me in hindsight than his ear-pinching correction.
I smile at the memory, fold my Kindle and close my eyes taking a journey into my childhood.
I was surrounded by smells and fragrances right since the day I was born. My parents were living at our incense factory to keep vigilance over their incense business, and they kept me with them till I was three. The perfumes used for coating incense sticks and the natural floral and animal extracts stored in glass and Aluminium containers in the ‘scent room’ fascinated me. The smell of Patchouli from my father’s Coat and the scent of Jasmine fragrance from my mother’s sari are still vivid in my mind.
The building on 100 Feet Road where we manufactured our incense and where I was born was rented out to us by Raghavendra Temple in Mysore. The building was supposedly constructed during Tipu Sultan’s era and was subsequently bought by Raghavendra Mutt from one Mr. Ali Khan. The place was not occupied since it was dreadfully rumoured that building was haunted. My father, a rationalist, did not bother about invisible obstacles and rented the large building for less than a reasonable rent.
On 100 Feet Road, big rain trees grew on both sides of the wide road, and the chirping of many different birds early in the morning are a fond memory. The whooping calls of Cranes are still so nostalgic that my brother Sridhar and I engagingly look at each other at the Tennis Court whenever we hear their cries.
We had four Bedford vans for van sales of our incense and two bullock carts for local transportation. The rocking rides to the Octroi office on those carts with the fragrant wooden cases in them, and then on to the railway station for dispatch, with the bow-legged Siddappa manoeuvring the bullocks by the rope tied through their noses, is still green in my mind. Siddappa taught me how to drive the bullock cart by explaining that pulling strings to the right or left would make the bullocks go right or left and pulling them together would make the bullocks halt.
Sridhar and I pestered Bashir, production-in-charge to prepare wooden swords for us inspired by the sword-fighting scene in the 1965 film The Great Race. While fencing, I once hurt my hand when a sliver of wood slipped into my finger. My father’s hasty footsteps with his angry stare at the sight of my bleeding finger brought an end to our swords. We also made bows and arrows with bamboo sticks and jute threads, which, again, got banned since the sharp end of the arrow scared the hell out of Father. We created our own adventure since the only instrument for entertainment was our imagination.
My father loved watching “English (Read Hollywood) movies”. He made sure that he took us along to most of the historical and Walt Disney movies. ‘The Ten Commandments’, ‘Ben-Hur’, ‘Spartacus’, ‘The Guns of Navarone’, ‘Nutty Professor’ and ‘Hatari’ were some of the famous ones.
As a kid, I was very impulsive, rebellious and quick tempered and more so when I was hungry. Once on a Sunday, my Mom ordered for Dosas for all of us from a nearby restaurant. The Dosas were everyone’s favourite for their delicious taste and aroma. Several parcels of Dosas packed in banana leaves and used newspapers tied up with strings soon arrived. I had to wait for my turn since I was the youngest of the seven brothers. After all the older brothers took away their share, when my turn came, there was no parcel left either because of under-ordering or because someone else took away two packets instead of one. I went on a rampage. I went inside the Kitchen and bolted myself from inside out of anger and irritation. I refused to come out of the Kitchen even after two parcels were shown to me from the window. I spent the whole morning inside. Our factory Supervisor Bashir figured out a way to pull down the long bolt from the Latch through the window Grill from outside using a bamboo stick and a hook tied to its one end. I was inside the room for more than three hours despite my hunger. I don’t remember crying but remember everyone else laughing heartily.
I was moved out to live with my grandmother, six older brothers and my older sister when I turned three. I did not have a separate bed till I was 6 or 7. I would sleep alongside Guru, my oldest brother or Vanaja my sister 14 years older than me with the light-hearted warning not to fart while asleep and if I did I would be made to sleep separately. In many ways, siblings, and especially brothers, were more influential in my childhood than my parents.
My grandmother was a gem of an old lady who was in her late seventies, an asthmatic with frequent attacks. Aerosol inhalers were not available those days, and a Hand pump resembling a small rubber horn with a ferrule was used to pump up a Bronchodilator into Asthma patients. We had to pour the Bronchodilator into the ball, close the mouth with the glass ferrule, place it into the nostril and squeeze the rubber ball repeatedly. It would get rather painful after squeezing the rubber ball for a few minutes, but even after many dozens of time, my Grandma would want us to keep pumping. I was one of the designated members of the family to pump the Bronchodilator into her lungs through her nostrils during her attacks. My hand would almost fall down from the weakness and ache and the few minutes would feel like an eternity. There were more than a few occasions when I disappeared as soon as I heard her yells gasping for breath for inhalation, an act I regret to this day.
I used to accompany my Grandmother to Discourses (Hindu Mythological Fables from Puranas) at Raghavendra Mutt during my summer vacation. My Grandma never wore any footwear since they were made from animal leather and walked an entire mile barefooted even at the age of 75 all the way to the Raghavendra Temple near Subbarayana Kere in my home town of Mysore. My brother Sridhar and I would go there more for the Panchamrutha, a concoction of Banana, Ghee, Honey, Milk and Curd handful of which were offered in a ladle and we would suck up the ‘Holy Banana Smoothie’ from our palms and while downing it into our mouth the sticky liquid would invariably run down our arms. We ran around the Sanctum Sanctorum (Garba Gudi) that had four thick wooden pillars using them for our hide and seek games.
It was amusing for us kids to see the elderly widows gathered at the temple with their tonsured heads and bodies covered with a Saffron long cloth shedding tears during Ramayana and Mahabarath discourses. Before leaving the temple, we had to collect coloured rice grains called ‘Mantrakshata’ from the Purohits. These held a special place in our hearts as we had been taught that it had special powers. The Purohit would sprinkle them on our heads. We would feel holy and protected.
Once or twice every year, Swamiji(Spiritual Leader) of a Madhwa mutt would arrive with his entourage of Purohits. They made imprints of the Chakra (holy wheel) with a hot metal seal on our upper arms considered as a healer of diseases and protection against evil. The mark would remain for a few weeks. But the day of the Swamiji’s visit was a happy day for Sridhar and me, for it meant that there was no school. The orderliness, discipline, and ritual before lunch was served and the first morsel could be eaten were intimidating yet reassuring to us even though we were kids.
There was another kind of ritual that left a permanent scar of fear in my psyche. Weekly oil baths were rarely missed until I was ten. Once I got massive red rashes all over my body after the weekly oil bath. Paapamma, a worker at our incense factory and close to my mother scared my mother that my skin condition was due to Goddess Maaramma’s (Amma) anger on our family for having ignored Her. She convinced my mother that a sacrifice had to be offered to Goddess Maramma, probably a hen. Papamma took me to Maaramma temple to get rid of my “Amma” skin eruptions. The sight of women with large red kumkums between their foreheads with tousled hair fanning themselves with Neem leaves humming in a sinister way left a permanent scar in my psyche and established the foundation for my constant companion, health anxiety.
Childhood memories are essential in life because they create a benchmark for happiness. When we bring out the child in us by shedding our egos and laugh and act like kids we genuinely experience joy.
But not everyone gets a happy childhood. My childhood was, and I was really happy, and now when I have no fun at all, I desperately seek an opportunity to bring out the child in me.