The West Side Story

Down Memory Lane

I would go round, playing in the dust, making contact with friends like Dinesh, his brother Vijay and his cousins Rajen and Anil. There were three girls elder to me. But soon many more would be born to the three or four families around. So the picture was that I grew up in a place well surrounded by a dozen kids of about my own age. I have that definite feeling that I was never to sit put at home; most of my days would be spent hovering around, going from house to house to see my new friends…”


When and why did my parents leave our house in Tantine Marazine compound to cross Dupere street westwards and rent a bigger thatched-roof dwelling is a mystery to me. Whereas on the east of Dupere street I was enthralled by the vast green potato garden, on the west side there was no such attraction, yet there was a totally different field – one populated by kids like me — all of whom would make my day. The new compound had a semblance of an unkempt hibiscus hedge at the roadside, full of big holes plugged here and there by some stones or rusted pieces of tin sheet. Our new house lay some 100 feet further l west from the road, and in between were some 3 to 4 thatched houses where the Joosery family resided.

We now had two rooms plus a “godon” with an open verandah running on the west and south side; the floor was totally ‘cow dung-treated’; and our detached kitchen was some 10 feet still to the west between the house and the western ‘Balaiye Fatac’ boundary; a solitary vacoas tree was near that hedge.

The Past Revisited

It must be said that our childhood remains a strange storehouse of wonderful memories. I could see myself roaming the large compound between our house and the Jooserys’, dressed in a single whitish “toile écrue” robe. I would go round, playing in the dust, making contact with friends like Dinesh, his brother Vijay and his cousins Rajen and Anil. There were three girls elder to me. But soon many more would be born to the three or four families around. So the picture was that I grew up in a place well surrounded by a dozen kids of about my own age. I have that definite feeling that I was never to sit put at home; most of my days would be spent hovering around, going from house to house to see my new friends. Surely my mum would have had a tough time keeping track of me.

Like the young of all mammal species, playing, teasing each other and quarrelling lightly, human kids also indulge in similar pranks. According to sociologists, this helps to develop the cognitive and social faculties of the individuals, just as in animals such playfulness prunes them to face the fierce competitive adult life of the jungle.

The Surroundings

As the months went by, I would become aware of the grown-ups too; those simple, humble men who seem to be very friendly with my dad; one of them, being the eldest, would call dad by his name, but the others called him Ané. And then there were the ladies, always dressed in saris; later I would learn that they were the in-laws, married to the men of the house. And what to say of the middle-aged, stout, roundish grandmother whom we children would fondly call Dadi. I always remember her as a gentle, sympathetic lady who was always kind to us children and neighbours. I have the vague recollection that there was a cowshed around, but where exactly in the compound I don’t know. And when it rained the footpath leading to the road would become quite a muddy alley, with the rain water running from the road down towards and in front of our verandah.

Standing in our house, looking east from our window towards the road, I could clearly get the feeling that the people living on my left were very closely related. I would later know that there were four brothers living in the two thatched houses, while those on the right gave me the impression that they were more reserved; but as my pal Dinesh and others resided on the left my interest turned there. The thatched house on the right was smaller but different in that their basement was e higher than all other houses, where years later a small baby boy would be born. The elder man living there was also different in that he had a thick moustache, and almost always wore a khaki coat. Only later would I know that all the other people in the compound were related after all.

Was the Swami Malaye always in the centre of the compound under a tree which had silvery thin leaves? Or was it built later? Someone would pray and light an earthen lamp there every evening. While playing in the compound I would hear patchily during some time of the year some religious song — the tune of which would tell me for many years that it could not have been other than that unforgettable “Jai Jagadisha Hare”; and sometime during the year the sound of a shell conch being trumpeted afar would permeate the afternoon atmosphere of the land. Maybe some of the neighbours around were then celebrating Durga Puja.

As I drifted around up to dusk, I would sometimes find myself near the kitchen of Dinesh’s or Rajen’s mother; they were very soft-spoken gentle ladies who would on many occasions give us all children “farata” to eat under their kitchen verandah; this picture of maternal kindness would always remain etched in my memory.

Years later as the news of so and so had had the luck of getting some job, I would realize that not everything was rosy financially for the men in the compound; how was my father faring, I could not know. I would gradually learn that the Jooserys were proprietors of their houses, but dad was a tenant, though the difference meant nothing to me at that time. But it remained quite clear in my mind that dad, always wearing a khaki outfit, was going to work on a cycle.

Dhin’s House

It was in the house belonging to Dhin’s family that at my young age I tried to play mischief with dad. After seeing him leaning his cycle against a tall bush in the compound, I would quickly hide clumsily below a reed garden basket under our verandah and try to crow like a cock when he came back home from work. My elder sister and dad would be standing by and smiling happily at the show of the little kid.

One good day it would be from here that I would set out to cross the compound and turn left at the road with a flat vacoas bag; for my parents would have decided that I must attend Miss Gizele’s preprimary school – Ti Lecole — situated at the north end of Dupere street. Was I was alone in this venture? I have a feeling later Dinesh and my sisters joined me in that tin sheet house with stone pavement so different from our thatched house. Did we wear shoes in those days? No, for that would have been too much luxury for us poor children — we went bare-footed to Miss Gizele’s school, walking and keeping in touch with Mother Earth.

Of course, that’s the place where we children could easily associate the visit of our two maternal aunties – specially at dusk; they were reliable support, specially during the flu period. What to say of the abscess under my right armpit, which was incised and drained by the local male nursing officer who, for us kids, was a doctor. I was put on an artisanal wooden chair under the verandah, while the ‘doctor’ would boil his sharp instruments in a metallic box before the kill. My elder aunty would come along and was all support to the whimpering child. She brought along a ripen ‘vavang’ and offered it as a consolation. Most probably I yelled when Mr Skelbek slit the abscess; but thankfully all that pain and discomfort has been forgotten, while the ‘vavang’ motif had remained clear in my mind.

And what to say of that unforgettable old derelict English car lying by the Vacoas tree near the ‘Balaiye Fatac’ hedge. It was an adult life-size toy for the boy; it would give me the greatest satisfaction and fun of my childhood.

Now, decades later, looking back, I wonder whether my childhood would have been so memorable had I not been so well surrounded by so many friends and wonderful adults at that stage of my life. But suffice to say that all those people in that compound — grandparents, parents and children — would always remain close friends for the rest of their lives.

 


* Published in print edition on 21 September 2018

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