The area where I grew up (in the small capital town) epitomized the ‘mohalla’ culture of yesteryears perfectly. The mohalla had an eclectic mix of houses, slums, a strange general hospital cum office building which no mohalla-folks visited, a coal yard, a guest house where stray foreigners used to stay on their way to holy places of Rajgir and Pawapuri, a huge orchard and a very stagnant and slowly decomposing pond. All this in a tiny kuchha lane magnanimously called Beni Babu ka Bagicha.
As per history, Mr Beni Babu once owned the whole area and after selling away most of the land was left with only the ‘huge’ orchard and the pond at the end of the lane. In remembrance, the lane still held the original status and hence name.
In keeping with the mohalla’s diversity, all the people living there were as varied. Bengalis dominated the area with as many as 7 families (including us), 2 Bihari, 1 Gujarati, 1 Sikh and 2 Marwari families stayed there. A few more came and went.
The huge Chaterjee mansion in front of our house representing the archetypical educated, cultured Bengali joint family, the handsome Bengali with terrible temper who used to beat up his epileptic wife, the unheard situation of two unmarried working sisters who stayed alone at the far end, the lovable Gujarati family who always used to invite and pamper us kids with yummy gujarati specialities (I still can’t forget the taste), the sexy and smart Sikh aunty with terribly dull kids and the pretty jovial bong kakima who was my mom’s thick friend….everybody knew everybody else and gossips flew unchecked.
But we kids didn’t care about anything….we were one huge mohalla gang ready for any mischief at anytime. Friendships were formed with ease. On the first day of our arrival in the mohalla, Mamta just came and stood outside the gate and smiled. Later that day, I was playing with her. Similarly, we used to go and stand at the gates of any new arrival and thus the gang grew.
We climbed trees and stole kuchha mangoes and guavas from the orchard in the peak of the day when everybody slept. We scared the foreigners during Holi and bullied their kids. Sunday movies had to be seen together, initially at my friend Sangeeta’s place and after we bought a colour TV, at our place. The windows and doors were kept open for the slum children to sit and watch. Boys and girls formed teams and waged war against each other in intense games of pitto and kho-kho. We also fought to see which team learnt cycling first, laughing our guts out when the fat bong boy fell into the naala. I hated it when all chose to play cricket because I was given ‘baby’ overs to play. We used to search the bushes for snakes and centipedes and sit near the pond telling stories of the ghost which haunted the pond. We stole peacock feathers from the innocent little girl (I think I still have them!) because she was too girlie. We forcibly poured sand on the sikh girl’s head and made her cry everyday because we found her dumb. We used to scale walls and jump gates to show that we were no lesser than the boys. Moti, the mohalla’s black bitch and her puppies were pampered by everybody. Once a month, on Saturdays a huge screen would be put up in the middle of the lane and we used to sit on the walls and watch any movie that was shown. And when the electricity went, we would sit together in the darkness, count the stars and tell each other many-a-stories.
Each and every detail of those days, colours, dresses, feel of morning dew, running for the school bus, jumping on puddles, little voyages of discoveries in the backyard, songs and dreams…all are etched vividly in my mind. It just seems like yesterday. Just when did we grow up…and more importantly why?