“Paani ayo hai,” someone shouted at the curve of the house. “Lu lu let’s go,” we chimed as we walked down to the ‘paani ko kall’ 200 metres below the house with our 5 litre jerkins (jerrycans). We drummed the empty cans as we marched to the common-public tap of water. It had been over 17 days of no water supply by the Municipality at home, and we girls wanted to help ferry some water for the home. Paani. Such an important feature of our younger days. Despite the rich natural springs of water just a few kilometres out of town, there would be an acute shortage of water supply in the town. Always. Our usage had to be metered, and we were aware of every single drop we used. All rain water was diverted to the toilets, and all grey water was diverted to the plants. Not much has changed today with regards to the erratic water supply, but we are all extremely conscious of the water we expend even in our urban city homes with 24-hour water supplies.
We were all given one rupee each for carrying those cans up the slope home. We rushed to the paan-shop on the road and hovered beside the two rows of round sullied bottles with hardboiled candies inside. I took out my favourite Boyes sweets. They had an orange round variant which was orange-flavoured, a white-blue oval variant that were peppermints, and a black round variant which tasted like kala-khatta (not that we knew then what kala-khatta tasted like). I picked up 5 of the peppermints, 3 of the kala-khatta variety, and 2 orange candies. At 15 paisa each, I had to add eight-annas (50 paise) to buy my pocket-treasures. Bahini took the multi-colored anda mithai, egg-shaped sugarpots and the sticky-jaws. Didi took Phantom mithai, sticking it between her lips, her fingers curling around the white peppermint stick. She drew quick imaginary puffs, and we all giggled. The blue train whistled by us, it’s smoke billowing into the blooming orange skies. Two boys ran past us weaving their ring-gaadi alongside the bustling Himalayan train as it ferried back to town at the end of the day.
Daara. Our spiritual repository. The incense smoke hung thick in the air, as did the vibrations of the fervent prayers on the lips of people. Bahun bajey and the lama flanked both sides of Mahakaal Baba, their individual chants intertwined in the solemnity and peace of the temple. I took the 3 rounds around the main mandir, looking at the prayer flags, praying fervently that I did well in the coming examination, also keeping an open eye for the monkeys who were known to be quick snatchers.
Our yearly calendar was marked by 4 must-visits to Daara – on our birthday, before the final examination, one after the exam report card was received, and before starting a new year at school. We also visited the Temple when relatives who lived far away visited and on certain festivals.
I loved going to Daara. It meant walking up festive Nehru road, passing the big stores, scanning the windows of busy spic establishments, and a visit to the cassette shop and the bookshop. We saved money in our ‘kantoor’ from the money-gifts received on birthdays, on festivals especially Dashain, and from visiting relatives. All this money, soiled notes due to change of hands, we’d count every month, fervent calculations made, and maybe on a special day like a birthday the kantoor was emptied, and we’d bolster to the cash counter and buy the cassette/book we wanted.
I also loved going to Daara because it meant we were in for a treat at Beni’s Café after the visit to the hilltop. Little hungry bodies would push into the benches at the Café, and we’d enjoy our favourite Beni’s chaat and tea. Though there were occasions that we’d have to make do with the ‘aloo ko poka’ at the stalls outside Beni’s. Steaming alu-dum garnished with bhuja, toasted corn kernels, and aloo chips in a takeaway newspaper roll, yum. And as we waited for our alu-dum we would look at the posters outside the Rink Cinema. The Gods Must Be Crazy was showing at the Capitol, a few metres above the Rink.
And as we took our alu-dum and walked on, we would look at the posters pasted outside the video halls that were lined opposite the Rink. There were posters in Hindi and English. Most of them featured blonde women in white shirts looking intently at you or with eyes closed looking at the ceiling. Men in bandanas and rolled up sleeves stood outside ushering the payers inside. We were children and children were not allowed inside these video halls. But there was this one instance I was “smuggled” in. Once. We were going to watch Tootsie. And all I know is that instead of the Capitol, Arrati’s older sister took us to a video parlour. Inside it was dim-lighted and there were rugs on the floor instead of chairs. I do not remember the movie that was playing that day, it definitely was not Tootsie’. We were bought popcorn and aludum and we didn’t question the change in plans.
What I do remember intensely from sitting fuddled in that small shack, cramped with the intimate smell of sweat and hard-work grime, is the feeling of dark escape. Most of the viewers were toilers, those who had come to rest their burden of world-weariness. We slumbered through the movie, sedated on the snacks we had in that warm airless shack, and when the movie ended, we stumbled out into the blinding daylight.
A few weeks before Dashain the cicadas would start singing. The sun would be out in her full glory after her absence during the long dark monsoon months. Rows of ‘gagris’ and bronze ‘tama-ko-bhada’ shone resplendent outside homes after a good wash and polish with charcoal powder. The bazaar would be ‘tam-tam’ with people out for Dashain shopping. The tailor-line would be the busiest side of town, with growing orders for the darzis of the latest fashion fads for tika. Turn a corner, and there would be games in every alley of chudi, paana, eeta, jhandi, makoot, bhotay.
Dashain was a very special time. Boxes of Narayan Das mithai, assorted fruits and dry fruits, and bottles of Druk juice would be lined up on the kitchen table, some under muma-buba’s bed in the bedroom. An assortment of dishes was made for the tika visitors, and though it was not Diwali, we always had sel-roti at home. Thulo-Ama, our grandmother, would take control as the eldest of the homestead. She was a stately figure – lean, deep big eyes that had a life of their own, a long sharp nose, perfectly-cut lips, chiselled cheekbones, a face that one would never forget. The legendary beauty of her visage and persona never succumbed to the lines and shadows deep-marked by years of hardship and life experiences. She always walked tall.
We waited for our turn for the tika, eyeing the hands and pockets of the elders, the exchange of envelopes, happy with the thought of being flush with ‘blessings’. We sat in chronological order on the ‘raari’ that covered the straw ‘goondri’ beneath. Thulo-ama wore a new fariya, her warm mujetro covered her head, as her long fingers softly played with the crimson-rice tika. She checked the folds of her padded patuka to retrieve the money to give to all those who wore her tika. The adults would decline the money, as we children rejoiced at the thought of more being added to our share.
With a white bibhuti tika on her broad forehead, she blessed us as she applied the tika, and clipped the ‘jamaara’ behind our ears. ‘Thulo manchhey hunu,” she said as she benignly blessed our bent heads.
Flushed and happy, we ran to the giant ‘lingaay ping’ that had been installed on the edge of the gaon grounds overlooking the forests below. We lined up for our turn to sit on the high swing built between two tall sturdy bamboo poles fixed to the ground. The swing’s seat was a rough-hewn flat log of wood, and the ropes that fixed the swing were thick.
As the swing released, I soared into the air, restless for time to move fast, to become a ‘thulo manchhey’ soon.
If only, in that sweeping second in the free sky we could have frozen time, stayed in the frame, stayed in our childhood forever.