I spent my childhood (and the holidays of my IIT days) in a village 25kms from Cuttack. My father had a small house in Cuttack with three rooms right from 1955 when I was born, but he stayed there alone with his sister and her husband. We were five sisters and three brothers, and we all lived with our mother and grandparents in the village. Father cycled from Cuttack most Saturday nights and went back to Cuttack on Monday mornings. I assume my father chose this arrangement partly for economic reasons and partly as his way of discharging his duty towards his parents. Whatever it maybe I have never had as much fun in my life as I had in the first twelve years of my life in my village before I moved out to study in a residential public school on a scholarship.
My grandfather was a hands-on farmer though we had hired hands helping us in the farming. He wore his dhoti langot style and smoked bidis and drank countless cups of red tea ( that’s what we called it – naali cha) which my mother dutifully brewed on a portable chula using dry leaves, twigs and jute plant sticks as fuel. For many years we had a pair of bullocks and a milch cow with us. Sometimes we had two cows. These were of the native breed and barely gave enough milk for our own needs.
Our village had fertile land with access to canal irrigation. Most families lived in clusters based on their suranames. So we had Mohanty Saahi , Senapati Saahi, Pradhan Saahi and so on. Only our house was an isolated one on the other side of the canal adjoining the farm land plots. We had a huge compound with two ponds ( one for bathing, one for rotting jute plants ), a coconut grove, many patches of vegetable garden and trees of all kinds. We had mango, jackfruit, guava and drumstick trees like most others. We also had jamun and chalta / ou trees as well as pineapple shrubs. In addition, Grandpa had planted many trees not typically found in our village – sapota, leechie, jamrul, perfumed jamun, kamranga and even an orange tree than never bore fruit. He also planted an elaichi plant once which burst into a riot of white and purple flowers but again never gave us the actual spice. We had medicinal plants like neem, pudina, alo vera and rukmini (fleshy leaves with a tangy, minty taste, used to treat stomach upset). Wea lso had a small bamboo grove by the side of the smaller pond. Different kind of hedge plants were uses for compound fencing. We had little plots within the compound where we grew arrowroot and arvi, and we also grew vegetables like yam, ribbed gourd, cucumber, snake gourd, brinjals, tomatoes, pumpkin, white pumpkin, lauki, ginger, turmeric and chillies. We also grew many kinds of saak / greens . We did not grow potatoes, onion, garlic and cauliflower or cabbage. These were the exotic vegetables that we considered a luxury and my father brought these from Cuttack when he came home along with suji /rawa, simai and arhar daal which we did not grow on our land ( It was moong and urad daal on our land mainly.) He worked in the state fisheries department and occasionally brought home a katla or rohu. He also brought spawns which were let out into the big pond for them to grow into fleshy katal and rohu.
Living by ourselves on the other side of the canal meant that we were isolated from the naughty and awara kids of the village and could concentrate on studies which both my father and grandfather were very serious about. We had a family tutor who taught me and all my brothers and sisters. He was a genius and he grew us into what we are all today. His exploits deserve a separate chapter.
So where the fun did came from? Mostly it came from the fact that we had no money. Of course no one in the village had any money. We hardly ever bought anything. Somone who was baking cake of chhena would exchange it for two coconuts, a jackfruit for a litre of milk and so on. The weekly haat would sit once a week where people took their spare vegetables to sell and buy groceries. Grandpa and the hired help who lived with us would carry our spare vegetables there. He would give me a paisa or two paisas to buy a jalebi or a few lozenges.
The point is because we had no money we had to devise different ways to amuse ourselves. Climbing trees, faffing about in the water, making paper boats and catching dragon flies were there. But we also created our own playthings. We made bows out of sliced bamboo and coir rope. But real innovation came in making the arrows which were basically jute plant sticks. But these were too light and won’t go too far when shot. We would rub out little sheaths from a cactus plant and put it on the tip to make it heavier and the aerodynamics would improve significantly. We made chariots and many other architectural structures out of round inedible plum-like fruits held together by coconut leaf sticks. Boys everywhere like to play with weaponry and we were not satisfied with mere bow and arrows. We needed pistols which we manufactured using a narrow bored thin bamboo barrels. We stuffed both ends with two berries of a genus that was quite tough in texture. Then one had to push the berry from one end with a rounded thin bamboo rod. When the berry was mid-way within the bamboo barrel, one gave a final push with some force and the pressurized air would push out the berry in the other end like a bullet, and would you believe, accompanied with a whiff of smoke!. There was a hedge plant whose leaf stalk when bend won’t break fully. A thin thread would hold the snapped stalk together with a triangular film of soapy secretion trapped in between. If one blew hard at it, one would get bubbles, just like from a real bubble-blower that one buys in melas. Almost every plant would yield something to play with. We made watches and trumpets out of coconut leaves, whistles out of emptied out mango seeds and floats out of jute sticks with a blob of sticky mud at one end.
As I said, in the village, one hardly ever bought anything. Grandpa never bought matchboxes, for example. He had a flint stone which he struck with a piece of metal to produce sparks, which he caught in a piece of sola ( cork? ) and blew on it to create flame to light his bidi.
No one sold fish in our village. So you had to catch your own if you wanted to eat fish. I would sit with a fishing rod in our pond using earthworms as bait and catch a few tangda and puti for a curry for lunch. My sister and I would use a saree, each of us holding both ends with both hands and pulling it from the middle of the pond to its banks. When we lifted the saree and let the water drain out, we would be left with a few puti and a handful of tiny prawns. We do this some ten times, and again we would have enough for a meal. On special occasions, we would borrow a net from our mama who lived near a river and cast it into the deep end of the pond to catch a katla, a rohu and occasionally, some parsay. In summer, when the canals were relatively dry, we could dam the water flow, allowing it to flow through implements made out of coconut leaf stick, designed to trap small fish that lived in the canal water. Grandpa would catch ‘chang’ and ‘singi’ fish and desi crabs from the fields in monsoon which would be roasted in the chula fire and ground with garlic, green chillies and mustard to accompany the hot rice that he ate on returning after hard work in the field.
Our village was 5 kms away from the nearest bus stop and two kms away from the nearest motorable road. It had no electricity and we all studied in lantern light while mother managed her household work with a lamp or a dibi.
Our village, and within it our house with its compound, was a self-contained universe and a self-sufficient eco-system with very little connection with the outside world. I went to Cuttack perhaps once a year, sometimes not even that. But I had my books.
And that’s another story, which I will club with the stories about our family tutor and narrate some other time.
- Villlage Vignettes (Part 2) – Seasons in the Sun
- Espionage With A Touch Of The Real