This is the time when we used to wait for the nip in the air. It would come, touching the inside of our skin with a soft shiver, like a tangible touch, and we knew that it has arrived. We loved it when it came for the first time, this slightly chilly nip in the air. And along with it, the dark nocturnal expanse, the evening fog like apparitions, the scary ghost stories, the hidden secrets under the stairs, the nuanced, the unstated mysteries, the Enid Blyton famous five books, smelling of bark, leaves, petals and lavender, and, inside the bed under the rajai, the cushioned, cosy warmth of a cold winter night.
At the old railway station in Saharanpur, in Western UP, the passing train at midnight is still whistling the same old night song, like a daily lullaby, putting us in deeper, sheltered sleep. We, my friend and I, both schoolchildren, would sleep with a certain excitement pulsating in our hearts. In the early hours of the Sunday morning next day, we would hear, volumes lowered, while the whole house sleeps, the cricket commentary from far away West Indies, on our big Murphy Radio with one soft light blinking, as if a wonderful human being is inside, telling us stories.
It’s like playing a cricket match with unknown opponents in the sprawling Railway Ground next to the railway quarters where children from the same family wear the identical clothes tailored from one bolt of cloth, dressed alike in printed or polka dot dresses, looking almost alike, like the cartoon characters from our favourite comic strips. Every time there was a cricket match to play the next morning, sleep would elude; in our dreams we would make field placements, scoring copy-book, off-side shots, fielding close and brave at silly-point and taking difficult, diving catches, and, sometimes, deceiving the lazy umpire and bowling the typically small-town 8-ball ‘Australian’ over instead of the six-ball over. No Leg Before Wicket (LBW) or Run-Outs were ever allowed, and no one had ever heard of ‘No Ball’ or ‘Wide Ball’.
Those days it was a game of passion and patience, not over-stuffed with piles and piles of money with the same predictable pattern of fours and sixes dominating the insatiable catharsis of crass commercialisation. Our rooms were full of posters of cricketers from all over the world: Imran Khan, Zaheer Abbas, Gundappa Vishwanath, Eknath Solkar, Gary Sobers, Doug Walters, Vivian Richards, even the brilliant players from South Africa who were then banned from international cricket due to its government’s apartheid policies and racism: Barry Richards, Graeme and Peter Pollock, among others.
As a child, I vividly remember the 1969 trip of the formidable Australian cricket team to India, with the entire nation hooked to the radio commentary by Melville De Mellow, Jasdev Singh and others. They were equally good at hockey commentary. Those days the Indian hockey team was full of legends, and was one of the best in the world. The cricket team was led by a shrewd Bill Lawry, while girls in India fell in love with a shy Paul Shehan and his sweet smile, a handsome young lad and a brilliant close-in fielder. The team had some incredible players: Doug Walters, Ian Redpath, Ian Chappel, Keith Stackpole, Graham McCenzie, and Ashley Mallet, the tall spinner. Australia squarely defeated India, led by Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. Sunil Gavaskar was still to arrive in the big league. Soon after, they went to South Africa to play, and they were roundly condemned for it by all cricketing nations. So fantastic was the South African all-white team, that unbeatable Australia got a sound drubbing: losing 5-0 in all the five tests.
The highlight of the Test series in India was the arrival of a batting genius: a classical, sublime and lazy musician at the crease, from Karnataka: Gundappa Vishwanath. In his first debut innings, arriving at two down, he scored zero. Everybody thought his career is over. In the second innings, he scored a slow, painstaking, exquisitely crafted century, with strokes which became a synthesis of a painter’s brush, a conductor’s orchestra, a violinist’s symphony, and a pianist’s fingers.
Since then, he scored again and again, often against all odds, playing like a lethargic musician, the original ‘god of the offside’. His 97 not out in Madras, with googly baller Chandrashekhar the last man out, against perhaps the best and most ferocious pace attack in the world, that of the West Indies, is perhaps one of the greatest and bravest innings, crafted with superb finesse, in the history of the game.
Those childhood days were real outdoor days, not digitalised, impersonal, virtual, monotonous, ‘hooked-on-mobile’ days of relentless, holed up, ghettoised and insular addiction – 24X7. Childhood was like a racy dream flying on the wings of daily desire. There was no time to lose; little time to pause.
Early morning cricket with tattered pads and a cork ball, three stumps made with bricks, an old cricket bat; hockey with wooden sticks; badminton with sad shuttle cocks, not feathery anymore; table tennis on just about any wooden board available. And no regrets at all!
Little was more. Less was enough. In our soiled, humble clothes, our bruises on the same finger again and again and on our knees, our empty pockets, unable to even buy an ice cream made of sweet ice – we were joyful and happy. And our parents never told us – no, don’t play; never!
Many years later when I passed out of school, I was given a colourful, hand-made farewell card by my juniors. It said: Rain, Rain Go Away… Little Amit Wants to Play… Cricket, Cricket All Day.
So, as children, there we were, playing ‘stapu’ with the girls, pitthu and ice-pice with everyone in the mohalla, gulli danda with the neighbourhood kids, and flying kites all the time. Sometimes we would take our ‘gulels’ to hunt for mangoes and lichis in the nearby forest. At other times, we would steal salted slices of raw mangos from various courtyards, which mothers had laid out in the sun to make pickles.
At other times, we would listen to ghost stories in the night.
The terraces would move into each other like a spiral of fairy tales woven in an imagined homeland. In the summer nights, as much as on cold winter nights, the children would assemble from across the terrace, and the ghost stories would continue. The fear, the excitement, the leap of mystery, the possibility that the ghosts would come one day in our life, perhaps on this very night, oh, the fantastic fantasies – and the full moon and the stars in the sky were our sole witnesses.
I continued the tradition when I became a journalist and would return home during the festive season or in summers when my little nieces and nephews too would land up from distant parts of the country. This too was their childhood home. So, once I had taken them to the market in a procession, and allowed them to gorge on whatever they had fantasised to eat and were not able to do so due to parental control, I would take them to the terrace. Then the ghost stories would begin – like a leap of collective faith. In the end, one of them would refuse to go downstairs to use the toilet, controlling the urge with sheer will-power, while the others would have a sleepless night, thinking of the ghosts in the courtyard under the huge Guava tree, or perhaps, right under their beds.
On these terraces, sometimes, the films division would arrive and fix a huge white sheet. And then the entire mohalla would collect as darkness would fall. I still remember watching Chetan Anand’s black and white film, Haqeeqat, on the Chinese invasion of 1962, with soulful songs. By the end, almost the entire audience was crying as that poignant Mohammad Rafi song played in the background: Kar chale hum fida jaano tan saathiyo, ab tumhare hawaale watan saathiyo…
Well, and then there was the radio. Apart from the Binaca Geet Mala every Wednesday at 8 pm, anchored by that incredible genius with an incredible voice, Ameen Sayani, the All India Urdu Service would fill us with sensuality, nostalgia and a strange, sweet sentimentality with its late night songs. We would lie inside the mosquito nets on the terrace or in the open-to-sky courtyard, on cool sheets, gazing at the stars, lost in the world of innocence and dream. The songs of childhood, embedded inside my soul and consciousness, like a melody which can never be forgotten. Until I die.
Deepawali and Durga Puja are arriving yet again this winter. And then will arrive Christmas, the New Year and other festivals of all communities: Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and others. Festivals are indeed a celebration for children. They love it and enjoy it the most with their spontaneous urge for joy and festivity. During Deepawali, Lakshmi would be worshipped, and her beautiful little feet will be drawn on the ground with rice powder. Rangolis will be made like a circular and vibrant work of art in colour. Even the poorest house, still jobless perhaps, still suffering the condemnations of the pandemic and lockdown under an insensitive regime, will light a flickering diya.
The arrival of the Goddess
On the day Durga will arrive on earth, with her brief and beautiful presence, in the early hours when the darkness is still tangible and dense, and the moist dew-soaked dawn is waiting patiently in the next by-lane near a water pond flanked by coconut and banana trees, she will be welcomed on the radio by the magically liberating narrative called ‘Mahalaya’. The recitation would move like a rippling river in full-moon tide, with its ebb and flow, celebrating the infinite joy of her arrival, and teaching humanity the lessons they have yet again forgotten. As children, even in our sleep, we knew that Ma Durga is coming. And with her coming, will also arrive, new clothes, delicious food, song, dance, music and sharing.
And, of course, also will arrive, the nip in the air. The slightly chilly, secretive wave of nuanced winter, which would enter inside our shirts, touch our soft skin, and our soul, with a shy message: here comes winter yet again. Bring out your warm clothes and ‘rajais’ from the trunks immersed with the fragrance of camphor and naphthalene balls! Bring out the ghost stories and the comic strips.
This is because, with winter will also arrive that old Beatles song, which would bathe us with its light, warmth and affection, like enduring love and deep friendship: Here comes the sun…. and I say… It’s alright….