Dil dhoondhta hai phir wahi fursat ke raat din…
(The heart seeks the days of leisure gone by…)
Back then, the seasons were not spring, summer, monsoon, autumn, winter. It was the cycling season, or stapoo (much later I learnt city kids call it hopscotch); the season of long evening walks till the Aashiqui Mod where some young boys would always be sitting, or the season of endless best-of-three table tennis matches at the club.
During summer vacations, without fail, it was the season of mid-night hide-and-seek on the deserted streets of the small hill township, Jyotipuram (about 100-kms from Jammu in J&K), where I grew up.
The fear of strangers, or threat of molestation was unknown, as everyone knew everybody else. There were no motor vehicles, except an occasional jeep. The hill town was so quiet we could hear the jeep come from a long distance. And, by just looking at the jeep we knew which Uncle was sitting inside it. Depending on his temperament (everyone knew everybody else), we either shouted and waved at him, or pretended to be heading back home.
Main doors of houses were rarely locked and no eyebrows were raised if someone walked into your house without informing you in advance. In fact, informing you and then coming was almost an insult, as it took away the feeling of apnapan. Children had the liberty to walk into houses without even ringing the doorbell. Most knew where the kitchen and the refrigerator were, to wet their parched throats during break time in Block A vs Block B cricket matches.
There was only one way to reach school. Walk. Uphill and downhill with school bags hanging from your shoulders. School started at 9am and it was common to leave home at 8.50am. With breakfast in hand and legs in running position, mother repeating: “Why don’t you ever wake up on time?”.
Then there was the additional pressure of your friends waiting on the road, in front of their houses for you, to join in the run to school. If you got late, they got late, and every one had to stand at the back during the morning assembly. This was also the litmus test of true friendship — being willing to wait at the roadside in the morning even if it meant embarrassment during the morning assembly.
But, here comes the best thing about our hill school — hot lunch at home. Yes, no carrying tiffin to school and eating cold food. During lunch break, it was common for students to walk to their homes — uphill and downhill — eat freshly cooked hot meals and return to school just before the school bell rang and the gates closed.
The school had no canteen.
Hot lunch at home inspired us to find the shortest of short-cuts between school and home — which lane to avoid, which steep staircase to adopt, whose garden to silently creep across without spoiling the flowerbeds.
There was only one market and it had about 10 shops. My favourite was the stationary shop. The joy of buying new books, opening and smelling them (I do that even now when Amazon delivers books to me). The bakery shop was the second favourite. Every evening the baker made crisp bakarkhani, which tasted best when had with desi chai (also known as pink tea).
A single baker in the entire township meant all the children had the same cake on their birthdays — a white rectangular vanilla cake with a thick layer of cream and some colourful flowers on top. Red jam paste was used to inscribe “Happy birthday XYZ” on the top.
Birthday menus were also fixed — puri, chole, chutney, gulabjamun, wafers.
Like the birthday parties, life was also simple. And fun.
Hanging around in the hills of Jammu region, we never got the morning newspaper in the morning. It arrived in the market, at the lone stationary shop, at 5 pm. My father’s day was incomplete without reading the daily paper, which he read till late in the night. So, it was my duty to walk to the market every evening and pick up the daily paper and bring it home. There were no home deliveries.
This offered a daily opportunity to catch up with friends who would be walking to the market to pick up their respective papers. A limited number of newspaper copies reached our township, with quarter numbers clearly mentioned at the top. You couldn’t just walk into the shop and ask for a copy of the daily paper, as there were no extra copies!
If the newspaper never reached in the morning, it should be no surprise to know there was no cinema hall in the township. Initially, the movies were projected on a huge white sheet of cloth hanging from a wall with people sitting on heavy grey-coloured metal folding chairs. As ‘development’ reached us, video cassettes made inroads into our lives and special screenings were held on the colour TV at our (only) club.
Now, I have three multiplexes within walking distance from my house in Mumbai. But, I still yearn for those special screenings.
Jyotipuram offered a breathtaking view. Surrounded by hills on three sides and Chenab river meandering far away. Based on the shape of the hills, they were named Camel’s Back and Sleeping Beauty.
As soon as some whiteness (snow) appeared on the tip of Camel’s Back, we knew winter was coming. The melting of that snow signalled summer. The monsoon often brought floods which turned the water of the Chenab red.
Back then, we had all the time in the world to sit on parapets and watch the sun go down behind Sleeping Beauty. The yellowish blue skyline turned orangish to orangish red as the bright dot hid behind the hills allowing darkness to descend for a night.
Those sunsets were so much a part of our daily lives I never realised how special those moments were till I moved out of the township and settled in the city where the sun mostly settles behind tall buildings. And stuck in the traffic, no one has the time or the energy to appreciate the everyday beauty of Nature.
Twenty-seven years ago, I left the warmth and security of Jyotipuram to pursue a higher education. But often, when I am alone, I sink into my bean bag and travel back in time to play langadi taang, or stapoo. Or, enjoy the long walk to Aashiqui Mod on a pleasant early summer evening.
To enjoy the sunsets, I visit Juhu beach in Mumbai and watch the sun go down behind the sea waves, while my kids play in the sand. But, I still miss the bright dot sinking slowly behind Sleeping Beauty.
A thing of beauty is a joy forever! And I have that joy in my life.