I got a phone call today from somebody I last met and spoke with 13 years ago. The person was none than my childhood friend Pati (short for Prabhabati). Pati is my friend from my dad's village Ramnagar Tuko in Silchar, Assam. She still resides in Silchar but in a different village after her marriage two years back. She had gone to meet my extended families and on seeing my photos, she said she was overcome by the urge to talk to me. She took my number from my cousin and ran to the nearest PCO. So, I had the most pleasant surprise this afternoon. I called her back this evening and I probably have never spoken with anyone this long. Over an hour!

The gap in our communication being, phones have just come to the village. Besides, who writes letters anymore in the days of the email. I just wish she had an internet connection so we could chat and I could send her pictures too. But that is again a distant dream. Maybe, ten years later, that would be a reality too. Our village has just begun to see civilisation now. The roads are pucca, people have taps and some houses have telephones. Pati boasts her husband's village is not bad either because she gets tap water and does not have to go to the pond or the river to fetch water for all purposes!

I remember as kids our evening chore was cleaning the lanterns with dry soft clothes and filling kerosene oil in them to light up the house. No electricty, no tap water, and makeshift toilets made of bamboo walls, the pit dug up manually. A bath would mean taking a dip in the pond fully clothed. Pati and gang would dive and swim in the pond and get those lotus stems to eat, while I watched them from a corner too scared of the depth and the horrible underwater growth of green slimy leaves that would just get entangled in the legs. I would pray to goodness to save my life, while they watched in amusement. And so, every three months of the year when we had to spend our winter vacation in the village, I dreaded the pond and loathed the toilet, but the fun I had with Pati, cousins and my friends more than made up for all these fears, eventually.

Every week, our main source of entertainment was the cinema that was played through the projector and the noisy machine in the paddy fields. We would pack chanas, puffed rice, beetle nut and paan -- our snacks for the evening. Then, there were those famous drama groups from Manipur who would come to neigbouring Silchar. Its uniqueness were the artistes who were all men (they still are) and not for once did we realise the heroines were played by them. They had long hair, their make-up perfect, their voices ultra feminine. While they emoted, the audiences wept. My grandmother was the only unaffected soul, she would accompany us only to sleep through the whole play.

The charm of these sumaang lilas (street plays), as we call them in Manipuri, was that they were all played in the night in makeshift stages, amid the paddy fields. They would be announced during the day through microphones on autorickshaws. It added so much excitement because there would be stepped- up activities in the house. Dinner would be prepared early, and mats rolled up with bedsheets so that we could all sit comfortably through the night. Sometimes, if the play was held in a different village, it meant more excitement, because the entire village would be in a walkathon -- old, young, the middle-aged -- cracking jokes and narrating ghost stories as we trudged through lanes and bylanes with the lantern and walking sticks to ward off the dogs and evil spirits!

Pati's call brought a flood of memories and the things we would do together as kids. We talked about everyone. I had forgottten half the friends I played with but remember her dearly because she lived nearby and we spent so much time together -- there were sleep overs too, her sisters, my sisters all huddled in one bed, discussing our dreams, our lives -- and ghost stories.

I haven't been to my village since 1995. That was the year my brother got married in pomp and splendour, the talk of the village. My brother loves all things ethnic. He wanted to get married in the home and place where my dad lived and got married. And that was the last time I had met Pati and taught her how to wear make up. Save for my parents and other siblings, I have not visited the place because I never had enough time. Plus, eight hours of drive is a pain in the hills. Just now, I think it's not such a bad idea anymore. I want to see the fields and the ponds, I want to see the half-hut, half-brick village school where we would play hide and seek in the afternoons ---and how they have all been slowly tainted by civilisation. I also want to meet Pati.


QueSeraSera said...

Nice post again.I don't know if this is true or not but I once heard that a south indian guy fell head over heels in love with one of the heroines of the street plays when the group went for a tour.It seems he refused to accept that the heroine was indeed a man and to this day is heart broken.

Henry James Foy said...

Another top-draw post there Indira. I often think about my friends now, and how our relationship may change as our careers pull our lives apart. The childhood adventures, however, forge the tightest of bonds. Never lose touch with these links. Perhaps going back to your Dad's village for a bit wouldn't be such a bad idea? I know just how great it is to return and live out those childhood adventures once again.

Sabarmati View said...

Hi Indira,
Journeys are not only about moving forward but also about leaving intimate moments and loved ones behind.Through this blog I was experiencing another Indira of a different time with an essence. I hope that essence which makes you so lovable doesn't get lost even as you go on live in a big bad city like Delhi. As they say you can take a boy out of a town but not a town out of a boy...

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