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A Nosalgic drive to my Chawl

“Amma, it feels like you have put on the AC. Air has grown cold”, said my 7-year-old lifting up her beady eyes from her maths homework. A cheery hurray followed.

I shook the clothes firmly and filed them neatly on the cloth stand. Yes, indeed. There was a light nip in the air. Not due to AC. And, certainly no change in the temperature. It was still a blazing 38 degrees outside.

I smiled and was whisked off to my childhood days. To my nondescript haven that would have looked more picturesque in a child’s sketchbook than in reality. A chawl which housed 14 flats adjacent to each other, spaced out at an arm’s length. A place where people were knitted closely together regardless of what social standing they were in. A place where we children had not one but many houses at our perusal to watch television, eat lunch, sleep under the warm covers and take refuge from the angry monsoon spells. A place where aimless wanderings were honoured but not bothered by ruthless meanderings of the routine. A place where mothers were not tired of cooking even if the sneaky rats were merciless and snuck out of nowhere to have a first bite every time the hot rotis came off the stove. A place where our father made sandwiches on Sundays and the screentime meant watching the DD channel together with family.  A place where childhood was all about playing ghar-ghar in our 4-foot muddy verandas and tucking the grownup’s bags in our shoulders to play office-office near the community tap with its noisy sigh playing on the background. Where playing outdoors was our only agenda. Going to a road was one fence-jump away. A place where we were young, scatterbrained and unsure of ourselves but our sledge-hammered conviction of becoming like our 20-year-old neighbourhood didi was palpable. Where in monsoons we made our aquifers using the gravels and rocks and made pools for the crafty crabs to swim over but a few stray ones bathed in puddles were swiped off by the neighbours and became their delectable dinners. Also, the muddy puddles played out as river in disguise for our Dongar ki paani game. Where failings and foibles of mankind lay far off from our sights and air was heavily drunk on love and little joys.

I stood rooted to the spot, my reverie still unbroken.  The memories fleetingly dislodged from the recesses of my mind as my daughter’s eyes hungrily looked on, waiting with bated breath, for I started regaling the reminiscence of my bygone but never-to-be-forgotten tales. Fleeting as they were but even in its fleetingness, some memories stayed deeply etched and memorable. Like author Ruskin Bond, the boy from the hills did say, “Childhood memories linger forever”, it is undeniably true to the word.

Every nook and cranny of the horizontally expansive chawl was home to me. The more I blink back my tears that gush in remembrance of the place I grew up, the more I think of it. And withdrawing all restraint, I allow my tears to flow down in gay abandon. The atmosphere grows even more cooler. “Kavita”, a whisper gets out in the loose, and slowly prisoned feelings break the invisible chains and an inexplicable feeling tugs the heart. My daughter arches her eyebrows and ponders at the moniker that comes out of my lips.  

Kavita was my close friend. We never had friendship tags at that time. A friend was a good or close friend and never graduated to bestie, best friend forever, Bae or Bro etc. We were far-off neighbours, 10 flats away but intimate friends.  Kavita stayed in the last flat number, which lay at the turning of our chawl and lived cheek-by-jowl with the neighbourhood chawl.  Eldest among the three, there hung a heavy weight of responsibilities on her shoulder and the furrowed lines on her forehead were the proof of it. Theirs was a vulnerable, low-income family which struggled to make ends meet. Kavita’s house was often my respite and refuge. A shelter to run under avoiding one too many whacks and angry scowls of my mother. She was also the first one to introduce me to the game of stones which we children took pleasure in playing. A simple game with a few smooth-skinned stones was our everyday game. Hardly we knew that it also promoted hand-eye coordination, one of the key milestones in children. I got the hang of the game yet it was not easy when Kavita was part of the game.  She, with her sharp, superior eye, was always the winner of the game.

One sultry afternoon, I was at Kavita’s house waiting ardently for her to join me in the play of stones. That day, I felt like I was an intruder that came in her and her toil’s way. The blistering sun beat on her back yet she drew out the soiled utensils and sat on her hunches to wash them in the scorching tap water. I held my gaze on her when after washing the utensils clean, she dipped a rag cloth in cool water and started to run it on the floor. In an instant, a child in Kavita grew up and became a domestic goddess. Her conversations with me did not stop all this while and her dexterity in handling household chores marvelled me. She chatted with all honesty, doing justice to her friendship as well as guiding her hands to finish her worldly duties. The sweltering tiles of the roof of our chawl sent all our efforts to keep us cool down the drain. Yet Kavita had a secret magic wand. She pulled all the rag clothes, ran them in tap water, wrung them to remove excess water, and hung them in a neat line. The occasional breeze brought in the coolness of the clothes along with it, casting a pleasant spell on us. We sat at the threshold of her house and savoured the cool breeze that tickled our faces. The failings and foibles of life forgotten; we inhaled the lingering fragrance of the innocent little joys. Kavita found a solution to the sunny days. Much to my delight, she gifted me a life lesson. She did not have any comfort to her name yet she found a way to be comfortable. She had enough reasons to crib but she chose to make do with what she had, turn her life around and see a ray of sunshine in all her adversities. Kavita was a giant wave that chugged wavelets of challenges with unwavering spirit.

I don’t know the whereabouts of Kavita. We drifted apart, each with their priorities. Yet in the unknown, there is some sort of sweet joy. Just like Ruskin Bond in the Night Train of Deoli did not alight the train to connect to his past and wished it was better off not knowing the unknown so that the image that we brew in our minds of our past lies undiluted. What I know is today after all these years, my present is deeply entangled with the past. Sometimes it is difficult to prise apart the present from the past because they look identical to each other. Just like today, the whiff of cool air coming off from the wet clothes put me on the same threshold that I was decades before with my good friend Kavita.



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