Ten years a home

Duliajan is also known as the Oil Town of Assam. Digboi, the place where the Britishers dug the first oil well in the country is situated just 80 kilometres away. Oil India Limited found oil fields in Duliajan and established a modern0town with quarters and various other amenities for their employees. I was born in a hospital which had the words Oil India in it. C-Type, our first quarter was a cramped 2-BHK house which was excruciatingly hot during summers, owing to the asbestos roofs above. It was the house where I watched Teletubbies and Kaun Banega Crorepati as a toddler for the first time while my father struggled with the TV antenna outside to get a good signal. Cable hadn’t arrived till then. It was also the house which housed our vomit yellow FIAT Padmini in the cane-walled garage while the red Hero Honda gleamed beside it. Most importantly, it was the house whose walls were abused with crayons by yours truly in such a disgusting way that the occupants after us were traumatised.

 

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Somewhere in Duliajan. Credits: http://dada.theblogbowl.in/2012/11/the-badminton-chronicles.html

 

I was a particularly shy kid, as my parents tell me. Babu Dada was my favourite relative. His mother used to call me out from the back of their gate in the evenings while I stood behind our gate looking like some lost puppy, drooling. Sometimes she opened the gate and advanced to pick me up and that was when I ran inside. They lived opposite to our house. Babu Dada was a teenager at that time and he had a lot of good toys, especially that green truck which was my favourite among the lot. He gave me that truck when we left C-Type as a parting gift. I was ecstatic. I attended a play school for some time before going to Tiny Tots for kindergarten. My father used to haul me up on the petrol tank of our Hero Honda and drop me till the school, which was actually a house. On a hot summer day, the tank used to burn my bum but I seldom paid any attention to it. A few passers-by giggled as they saw me sitting awkwardly on the tank and not on the back seat. I was too young to sit back there without falling off. When my father napped in the afternoons, I used to go near the bike and twist its accelerator while making bike noises. I could never reach the seat. One foot rested on the ground while the other used to stay at the footrest. There is a picture of me doing that when one day my father saw me and got very fascinated. We had a Yashica back then and father used to take a lot of pictures with it.

Outside our quarters, we had a small garden in which big, yellow dahlias bloomed during spring. My mother was fond of gardening and there was space to do all that. We also had a few jasmine plants and chrysanthemums. Then one day, there was a storm. We had been reading the papers that a cyclone was imminent and we were terrified. Father was out of Duliajan for some reason and my mom and sister were even more worried as to what was going to happen. None of us even knew what a cyclonic phenomenon was. There were high-speed winds that day and it rained for hours. We stayed inside and I think my mother was praying now and then, she is immensely scared of thunder and lightning. The cyclone didn’t blow us all away but it decimated the garden outside. It was pitiful to look at all the dismantled flowers which my mother painstakingly grew. She was upset. I had experienced a cyclone for the first time and survived through it.

Father got a promotion and we had to leave C-Type by the time I enrolled into a nursery. We moved to the quarters named DD (pronounced Double D) which were a few kilometres away. DD was resided by people who belonged to the ‘executive classes. We got free gas, free electricity, free water, a maid, and a small patch of a garden, a large 2-BHK house which had a terrace which made the house hot yet again and three families as immediate neighbours in the block. Parul Didi was our maid and she used to take me to Tiny Tots. She was from Andhra Pradesh but she had lived in Duliajan for many years and had learnt Assamese. She used to bathe me, feed me and tolerate all my not-gonna-go-to-school tantrums early in the morning while my mom shouted in the background; I hated school from the very beginning. I walked with her to Tiny Tots for three years. She introduced my mom to idli and even got a cooker from her native place and taught her the process of using it. Back then, my mother was one experimental cook. We got a microwave oven and I was fixated in just opening and closing the damned door of it. It was probably the best invention I had seen till then. Mom even made dhoklas in that oven.

We lived on the first floor and DD-39 had a balcony too. Overlooking the balcony was a badly maintained road and across that was a high concrete wall with barbed wires on top. Beyond the wall lay a stretch of tea plantations which extended all the way to the horizon. Sometimes we saw women and kids plucking tea leaves and they waved at us when we stood in the balcony. I waved back at them but my mother was a bit reluctant to do that for some reason. There was a road on the horizon which went to this place called Tinsukia and the vehicles plying looked like fireflies at night with their headlights. My mother got a lot of potted plants and decorated the balcony to match those of our neighbours. Our neighbours were nice people but I never had the kind of toys their children had. They had Beyblades and Hot Wheels sets while I was only permitted to have a small blue Maruti Zen and a yellow Tata Sumo. Sometimes I felt that gross injustice was done to me but I seldom protested in front of my parents. There was this one incident in Oil Market. Everything in Duliajan had Oil in it, even the market. So, Oil Market was this enclosed bazaar that we frequented. There was a shop named Pick-Me which we crossed on our way to other shops. It had a glass-paned counter and behind that were chocolates. There was one big blue pack of Dairy Milk which I will never forget; it is perhaps the biggest Dairy Milk I have ever seen. I don’t remember how many times I begged my mother to buy me that, but she never did. One time, I got so hysterical that the shopkeepers inside looked surprised as to what was happening outside. My mom, on the other hand, did not budge.

Our neighbours included our family to the executive life by taking us to Zaloni Club. The place was a hangout place for many of the people in our colony and others. It had a movie theatre which was also an auditorium, a swimming pool, tennis and squash courts, a bar, a restaurant, a canteen, open space with a stage for events that happened, a gym, a place for aerobics, a venue for table tennis, a small cricket pitch and a lot of rooms behind which I don’t know what lay. None of us had seen a place like this and we were surprised by the openness of culture over there. Kids were roaming around in shorts, speaking fluent English because they were from DPS (I was in KV and there was a rivalry with them) while their mothers walked around in high heels with short hair and smeared themselves with red lipstick. All the kids in my neighbourhood did some kind of coaching in Zaloni Club, some did tennis, others did squash or swimming or TT. Naturally, my parents expected me to do something as well. My father joined the gym and found his long lost love for swimming and so did my sister. Mom joined aerobics and gym for a short time as well. Everyone lived a very healthy, active lifestyle. I tried swimming but failed miserably due to hydrophobia and I screamed and wailed in the swimming pool and made life hell for my father. “I am not taking this good-for-nothing back there again”, he told my mom one day. I enrolled for TT instead because tennis was beyond my physical capabilities. I was the only noobie in the TT department and the coach ignored me because he already had some ten kids who were playing quite well and deserved more attention. I learnt some of the basics but failed to catch the attention of the coach. My first time of watching a movie in the theatre happened here as well. It was The Polar Express which was screened as part of Club Week, a week long fiesta involving a lot of food, games, competitions and other upper-class stuff like flower shows and all. Most of my friends in the neighbourhood went there while I was forbidden to do so. Kids were allowed to buy ice cream by just signing a coupon and writing their parents’ name. They didn’t have to pay money because it got deducted automatically from the parents’ bank account. I was strictly forbidden to do this as well.

In the Club Week of the year 2004, I decided to take part in a children marathon race. It started from Zaloni Club went through the DX quarters, took a U-Turn, beside the Golf Course and back to the starting point. It was a beautiful stretch, shady with trees and shrubs along the side of the road. There was a kid who lived in a couple of blocks from us named Riki. Now, the news was floating that Riki had been practising for the event with his father in the Golf Course every evening. Everyone in the neighbourhood was sure that he will bag the first prize. I didn’t do any practising but my father gave me a couple of tips. Start slow, keep your stamina for the final 400 meters, let everyone pass you first but they would eventually die out, regulate your breathing and do not open your mouth at any cost. I did the same, I was in the third position for quite a long time and was content with that. The organisers gave everyone Center Fresh before the race. That’s when I got greedy. I stopped and my fingers went into the pocket to get my chewing gum. I looked back and saw a few kids but they were far. I forgot the last rule my father said and ate the gum and started running. Naturally, I inhaled from my mouth and that’s when my lungs got tired and the lactic acid crept in. There was a shooting pain and I lost my speed. There was still around 300 meters to cover and my breath was gone. I saw a kid run past me and then another until some four kids crossed me. Ricky was in the first place as expected and he won. I sipped the glucose which was given after the race dejectedly, cursing myself. Back home, I told my parents what happened and they face-palmed themselves on my stupidity.

Duliajan was one terrific place. After father got a transfer and we shifted to Tezpur, I and my sister got a tremendous culture shock. We had to leave our executive lives behind and move to a place which was ordinary and mundane, didn’t have clubs or swimming pools or round-the-day electricity. It took me around six months to assimilate with the new place but I missed Duliajan a lot. Many years down the line, I occasionally gave a thought as to how life would have been like if I grew up in Duliajan as a teenager. It would have been exciting and active and fun-filled maybe. But in some ways, I was also glad that I was able to grow up in a much humbler setting than Duliajan, amidst the common folk. I left Duliajan in 2005 and haven’t seen it ever since. From what I have heard, things are pretty much the same. There are still Club Weeks and other stuff which happen every year. Many of the kids I knew played with are doing different things in different places. Duliajan was my hometown for nine years but it gave me moments worth writing for.

 

A Childhood Curiosity

His mother always told him that boys seldom paid attention to their appearance. That, the dressing table was only meant for the ladies in the house while the men were occasional visitors who came to put a bit of moisturiser or comb their hair, whenever necessary. Men looked good the way they naturally were and didn’t spend time in front of the dressing table like women did, she remarked. It somehow created an air of mystery for our boy Philip here. The more his mother told him about the dressing table, the more he was intrigued to open all the individual drawers and peer into the secrets that they held. But alas, all the drawers were kept locked in the only wooden dressing table his house had. Apart from the regular cold creams, perfumes and combs that were kept outside, he couldn’t see the rest which were locked away safely. Fortunately, he went to his relatives’ house quite often. Thus, a childhood curiosity was born.

People usually do not pay attention to kids when they are drinking a cup of tea and munching on snacks. Usually, this was the time when Philip used to sneak into the bedrooms of his relatives’ house. Every bedroom had a dressing table by default, their appearances and configurations varied. Some were tall and made out of dark brown wood while others had a combination of wood and sun mica or even metal. Some had few drawers while others had many; all of them had one mirror which was the only similarity. Philip used to quietly open the drawers and marvel at the belongings inside. It had everything ranging from combs, cheap plastic bangles, kumkum and bindis, buttons and earrings, needles and threads, strands of hair to cotton balls, tablets and cough syrups, kajal, ear cleaning swabs.

There was a certain sweet smell which used to emanate from all these drawers. It was more of a damp, woody smell mixed with varnish that lined the walls of the drawer. Somehow, the contents inside lost their individual smells and got mixed with this smell giving the entire drawer one single, collective smell. Philip never took anything from all the drawers that he opened, he just used to look and poke around with the contents inside. Sure, he used to open the moisturizer bottles and perfumes to check what they smelt like, maybe use the perfume or deodrant once in a while if it was really good, but that was it. Sometimes, there were moisturisers having ingredients like Shea butter which smelt so good that Philip felt like eating a bit to see if they were actually sweet. But, he never did that because they were never sweet to taste. He was never caught during any of his inspections and always made sure that he kept things the way they were after he was done with everything.

There was always one drawer that was locked in every dressing table. When Philip was young and new in the vocation of opening drawers, he felt that the locked drawer had the most valuable secrets. He didn’t know what but he was very curious to know. At one time, he even felt that his mother hid all the cream biscuits in that drawer, considering the way in which he pillaged biscuits in the household. He still does though. But when he grew up a bit more, he got glimpses of that drawer’s contents whenever his mother used to get dressed to go out for occasions. Philip eventually came to know that the locked drawer contained jewellery which were precious and could not be kept out in the open or in unlocked drawers. As he grew older a bit more, he started to inspect the drawer’s contents in detail. It wasn’t a surprise for him that the drawer smelt the same like every other. It was just that the contents inside were of higher importance and demanded to be handle with care. Philip was conscious about this and always held everything with the utmost concentration. Sometimes, he used to put on his mother’s golden bangles which dangled awkwardly on his wrists. He used to feel the texture of those velvety red and purple square boxes inside which lay necklaces and other pendants.

Eventually, Philip grew up to become a young man and this childhood curiosity eventually got lost but what stayed with him was that woody smell. A close synonym for that smell would be musk probably.

 

Memories of Pujo

One of the few events which I always look forward to is Durga Puja. It’s this time of the year which makes me immensely happy. A big reason for this is linked to my childhood. A lot of memories and experiences are associated with this festival which in some way made my childhood memorable. Thinking about all this while sitting on my desk with long form journalism articles in front of me creates an air of nostalgia mixed with equal amounts of sadness.

The earliest memory which I have relating to Durga Puja is how we used to visit my grandparents’ place during this time of the year. My grandparents’ place was located in a small village in Jorhat, which is one of the most prominent towns situated in what is known as Upper Assam. Before we shifted to Tezpur in 2005, we used to live in Duliajan; also known as the oil town of Assam. Durga Puja was the time when we used to travel to Jorhat to meet my grandparents and my uncle and cousins. It was the time when the family used to re-unite for four days and those four days were something which I eagerly waited for. The road trip from Duliajan to Jorhat, spanning around four hours was something I miss to this very day. I remember how I couldn’t sleep at night before the day of the journey, thinking about the fun times and excitement that lay ahead. The whole trip was always exhilarating and I remember how I used to jump around inside the car, sometimes so much that I pissed my parents off. I always had my sister as company, although she wasn’t as volatile as me.

We used to inform my grandpa the day before we were to arrive and the happiness which he used to get from that piece of news is something difficult to express. My grandparents lived a simple and solitary life in the village with the cows that we had and Bahadur kai, the family helper for the last 17 years. My father’s ancestral home was built by my grandfather some 50 years ago and although it was dilapidated, my grandfather never went for repair. Living a luxurious life wasn’t his mantra and although my father proposed this multiple times, he never let anyone touch his house. Bahadur kai used to take us around the village, bought candy for us, tell us stories, pluck fruits from the trees in the compound, help us climb the age-old amla tree near the gates of the house and bear our constant pestering. The only time the household beamed up with liveliness was when the whole family came together. This used to happen twice in a year. The other time was during Bohag Bihu in April. Relatives and passersby from around the village used to gaze towards our unquiet house in wonder, which usually used to be quiet the rest of the year. I never asked my grandparents but I am pretty sure now that they used to look forward for the time of the year to arrive more than anyone else. My grandfather used to wait near the gate, looking out for our car to arrive. Those gleaming eyes of his when he used to see us is a picture which will forever be vivid in my mind. He used to give us a tour of the land and the crops which were being grown, he used to point us the fruits which were growing on the trees, show us the water level of the small pond which we had near the house, he used to talk to the cows; telling them about our arrival. I feel the animals understood every word he said.

I used to get a new toy only twice in a year. Sometimes, it used to downsize to only one toy per year. My choice of a toy was always a vehicle of some sort. Throughout my childhood, I rarely had any other toy that wasn’t a car or a truck or something along those lines. Durga Puja was the time when I got to buy the toy of my choice and I used to plan months in advance for the vehicle type that I was going to buy that year. It was kind of a yearly rite. If this year was a tanker truck, next year would’ve been a Tata Sumo. My cousin brother on the other hand, had a thing for toy guns. Those guns used to look exquisite but no matter how much I cried, pleaded or begged, my mother never allowed me to get a gun. She had a weird philosophy that buying guns would induce negative behavior within me and strictly prohibited my father to get one for me. I used to feel jealous looking at my brother who used to get whatever he wished for. But somehow, I was happy with my choice of toy as well. Right after Durga Puja, I used to plan and imagine about what I was going to get the next year. Sometimes, things didn’t go as per plans.

As you have known by now, Durga Puja is one of the most important festivals for all of Eastern and North Eastern India.  Although celebrated extensively in West Bengal, we in Assam also celebrate it with great pomp. The entire streetscape of cities gets a makeover for those four days with thousands of people pouring out to the streets to visit hundreds of pandals scattered around the city. Bangaloreans will find it hard to visualize this image. Simply put, it’s the crowd that moves you forward.

As I grew up, toys changed into other commodities but the practice of buying something during Durga Puja, except clothes, remained for quite some time. It slowly transitioned from toys to my first MP3 Player, my first pen drive, a digital wrist watch until I stopped getting anything special every year. Approaching teenage life prompted me to abandon my toys and resort to other things in life. Necessities changed over time. But I still managed to love this festival and that yearly journey, while it lasted.

All of this changed after my grandfather’s death. This happened when I was in class 9th. My grandmother moved in with us. The family home in Jorhat was locked down. Bahadur kai lived there and looked after the land and the cows. The house got even more dilapidated, and rats took refuge inside it. The weeds grew and the mangoes were left unpicked from the ground. Nothing was the same again. The year my grandfather died, we didn’t celebrate any festival, as the customs are. And from the next year, we ceased to visit Jorhat during our puja holidays.  Sometimes my uncle used to visit us in Tezpur but that was about it. Somehow it felt like the fragile link, which was there till my grandfather lived, was broken. In all the years that came, we lived in Tezpur during Durga Puja and I used to go out with my friends. I stopped roaming around with my parents like I used to.  Although Tezpur is my hometown, I didn’t like the celebration of Durga Puja over there. It never matched the experience which I had in Jorhat, it was never the same anymore. In Tezpur, it was always about roaming around with friends and having a late dinner in some cheap restaurant.

It can never match the atmosphere of Jorhat. The chants from the namghar in our village, the payasam and rasgulla given on Maha Ashtami, the feast of the nearby temple in Baligaon, the sea of people in the city walking under the pitch black sky, the variety of street food available, the neon lights of shops and hotels, the irresistible temptation to buy toys from countless toy shops, my mother’s love for balloons, the practice of eating jalebis on Vijaya Dashami and the spectacle of the goddess being given a farewell for one more year; these weren’t a part of me while I stayed in Tezpur.

And now, I write this from a place where Durga Puja isn’t even celebrated properly. Today is Maha Ashtami and my neighborhood is calm. It feels just like any other, regular day in Bangalore. This place is devoid of that air of festivity. This is the first time I am not in my home during puja. The nearest puja pandal is some 10 kilometers away, from what I have heard. Somehow, I feel like not venturing out today. I should get back to those long form journalism pieces.