The way we were
Childhood summers with Tintin, cricket, a new ice lolly
Summer vacations were spent at my maternal grandmother’s home — a house full of cousins, a neighbourhood full of friends. We spent the mornings playing, but the quiet and humid summer afternoons were meant not for a nap, but for sitting in the ground floor balcony, reading Tintin comics while the whole world dozed.
I think I must have surreptitiously devoured a whole tree worth of mango pickle during those afternoons, and I also made friends with the people we called pheriwallah — the travelling vendors who magically appeared on those quite afternoon. The woman with a dimple and gorgeous silver jewellery who sold utensils in exchange for old clothes, and the wrinkled face of the fake Kwality Walls ice-cream seller (it was called ‘Rwality Walls’ with the R disguised as a K). Their faces and impromptu conversations remain with me even though the lazy afternoons are gone. Madhusree Ghosh
If there is one thing I cannot explain from my past, it is my love for cricket matches in peak Kolkata summer. They started in the morning when the sun was just saying hello to the unending green of the maidan in the heart of the city; by lunch it was shining right on our heads. The players in peak action on the pitch didn’t even have the luxury of the long-on or third-man fielder who shifted a bit to the left or right to find some shade. The only bright side was that catching the ball as it came at you didn’t hurt quite as much as it did in winter (I’ll never forget the ache of a cold, hard ball hitting you, wherever). And then after the innings, the players would suck on 1 ₹frozen colas that I would not touch now. In the end everyone left overestimating their performances, saying their goodbyes as they hopped on to buses where other passengers gave annoyed looks to the sweating, loud boys with huge kits.
Summer in a glass
As a kid, I knew summer had arrived when my mother got a packet of Rasna with her monthly grocery. [Coke and Pepsi were yet to flood the Indian market; and while many preferred Rooh Afza or lemon or orange squash, Rasna was the preferred cold drink at my house because I was partial to it.] Those afternoons with my mother, making Rasna in the kitchen – the drink came as a powder in a sachet which had to be mixed in water along with sugar – are among my favourite childhood memories. It would be put in the refrigerator to be cooled, and in the evening when my father returned from work, my mother would pour out glasses of Rasna for us and tell my dad I had practically made it on my own. How thrilled I would be when father took a sip and told me it was the best he had ever tasted!
There are other things which remind me of past summers – the fragrant garlands of white bela sold at Delhi’s Pandara Road market and other places, for example; my mother would break off a few from the bushes in our garden everyday, soak them in little China dishes and set them around the house we lived in then, so that it would be filled with its perfume. The summer heat must have been as scorching then as now. But somehow I slept better in my childhood bedroom, cooled by the loud whirring air-cooler which my father used to fill with refrigerated water everyday, than in my air-conditioned room today.
Sweating it out
If it’s Parel and it’s a summer evening in the 1980s, it must be movie time. St Paul’s Road would be cleared (the cars, all three of them would be parked elsewhere). Households would scrounge up ₹5 each towards expenses. A white sheet, two storeys high, would be hung between two buildings, laundry fit for a giant. A projector and speakers would be rigged up to screen a movie everyone had watched but no one minded watching again. We spread out a mat or placed low stools right on the tarred road. Viewers seated on the reverse of the screen would joke, “Now we can read Hindi like Urdu and Urdu like Hindi!” We cheered for Bachchan in Satte Pe Satta. We cried with Rajesh Khanna in Anand. Those close to the screen watched from their balconies. But no matter where we sat, they were the best seats in the house.
Mangoes on the terrace
For years, summer was all about mangoes. Fresh, ripe mangoes for breakfast, the only time I was allowed to get my hands dirty at the table. Then, before lunch, watching my mother dice mangoes neatly (something I’ve never been able to master) for a fruit salad. My favourites were those rare ocassions when my father, mother and I would sneak out after dinner (we lived in a joint family) and have our last helping of mangoes on the terrace, atop a little water tank, enjoying the summer breeze. It’s where my father would go on about aeroplanes (a topic he can talk about endlessly) as we watched them trail across the sky. It was our little family time. I no longer live at home. I’ve never bought myself mangoes in this new city. And I’ve never told my parents what this memory means to me. But now I guess I should.
Summer afternoons in our school days were all about sitting on a stone floor, learning needlework with friends and cousins at Biji’s (she was our neighbour). “Needlework helps develop your brain,” Biji would say. She was a middle-aged woman who was very particular about the stitches. if we got the stitch right in the first go, we were treated to Banta soda. She always had plenty of bottles of it around. I remember running from my home to hers so I be the first there, and get a seat near the air cooler. I once dropped off while trying a new stitch; the cool breeze blowing on my face was not a good idea after all. Biji also told us stories. Stories of Surpanakha from the Ramayan, tales of Savitribai Phule and Rani Laxmibai. She told us that we can always choose life for ourselves and live the way we want to, but maybe only after we got the stitch right!
Interning at a zoo
I’ll never forget the summer of 2008. It was the year I did a two-month internship at the Mysore Zoo. I call it an internship but it was actually me barging into the director’s office and demanding they let me help out. Those were simpler times; I don’t see them entertaining such a demand now. As the sun bore down on me, I spent my days “assisting” the vets (cutting the end of a suture on the injured paw of a sedated tiger) and the mahouts (cleaning up elephant poop, after which they thought me worthy enough to bottle-feed, under supervision, the only baby elephant on the premises), and handing over steel mugs full of coffee to the chimpanzees. I watched with a broken heart as the zoo’s singles – a king vulture, a brown bear, and the country’s only gorilla – sat forlorn in their enclosures. I didn’t know then that those would be my last days as a resident of Mysore, my last days as a carefree child. By the end of the summer I had moved to Bengaluru, then Mumbai, never really to return. If I’d known, I would have taken a moment to memorise everything about the sleepy old city where I grew up.
There’s a pool of wild yellow flowers beneath a tree that stands bang in front of my house, and I know it is summer. In the scorching heat, my brother and I would drench handkerchiefs in a bucket of water swilling with ice cubes, wring then out and drape them over our foreheads. We would fill our Holi water guns and go out in the building compound to ‘shoot’ at each other, while the cuckoo set a melodious background score. Most afternoons I would be busy with crafts or playing mock reality show games with my friends. Evenings were my favourite part of the day. This was the only time of year when my father and mother would join us and play badminton. In those times, they seemed no different from us. After dinner, we would go for ice-cream walks. My father would always pick an orange or lemon bar, my mother a Cornetto, and my brother and I would look for the most bizarre flavours to experiment with. Back home, we’d play board games and sometimes all four of us were so tired by then that we’d drop off with the lights on. My grandma would then sneak in, put everything in its place, cover us with blankets and leave. That’s the one thing that hasn’t changed about summers yet.
A new ice candy
Summer meant hatching plans to eat one of the most forbidden items in the Viegas household: The gola. I liked mine in the kala khatta and orange flavours, which also meant a visibly black or orange tongue and that was enough for an earful from my mother. On the other hand, my funds were limited – ₹10 per day, which had to be carefully divided between hiring a bicycle and eating a snack. I almost always ended up forgoing everything for the ice candy, without thinking twice. Until one day a friend introduced me to the most underrated and misunderstood flavours of gola - the Milkmaid gola, which she willingly shared so we could split the cost. It was perfect, a little over my budget (but I managed), didn’t leave any colour on my tongue, and was better than anything I had ever tasted! It was my gateway drug into the world of desserts. I was eventually ratted out by a neigbour. The gola-wala was banished from my neighbourhood. I never dared taste it again. I can eat it all I like now. I don’t, but I can’t remember craving anything as much.