Of Sleepy Towns and Charging Bulls

For a brief while before the age of three, I lived with my mother and maternal grandparents in Siliguri, a sleepy town on the northern part of West Bengal. Ma taught at a university here, and we lived in the faculty quarters within its premises.

Much of what I know of Siliguri I know from stories told and retold by my parents and grandparents. I remember our house faintly – a humble, two-storied bungalow overlooking a well-kept garden in front and a wild shrubbery behind. Beyond the garden stood a white picket fence. And beyond the fence and across the road, a vast park.

We lived on the ground floor while another family occupied the upper storey. I don’t recall much about the family, except an elderly woman whom I feared. She was frail and wrinkled, with scruffy grey hair. I remember her face framed by the window, peering down at the world below. I avoided looking directly at her.

I think she might have had a granddaughter, younger than I. 

While Ma was away at work, and Baba wrapping up his PhD in the States, my grandparents looked after me. True to their gender roles, Dida bathed, clothed and fed me, while Dada told me stories and took me out to the park. 

Lunchtime, I’m told was particularly hard for Dida. I was a fussy child with very little interest in food. Dida arranged my meal of rice and lentils in little round balls, apparently to assure me of the amount of food I had to consume. When I threw a fit, she’d say, “Only 4 more balls to go”.

While she fed me, I ran away with a mouthful of food, and Dida chased behind me. Eventually, we seemed to reach some sort of understanding, where I walked around the garden with my ball of food firmly lodged in my cheek, and Dida followed me with my lunch plate. I chewed agonisingly slowly, and the whole exercise lasted a couple of hours.

When our help was around, Dida got some rest. Dida sat on the porch with the plate while the help followed me around, intermittently checking if I’d swallowed my food. As soon as it was clear, she’d shout, “Dida, mukh khali!” (mouth’s empty), whereby Dida would rush in with a second ball of rice and lentils.

I imagine Dida retired to her nap post this torment, and Dada was up next to keep me engaged, having napped during my feeding hours.

Ma returned at 5 pm. On occasion, if her class was delayed or a meeting ran overtime, and she didn’t return sharp at 5 pm, I’m told I’d drag Dada towards the university building to find her. I hadn’t developed a sense of time yet.

The vast university campus was notorious for its wildlife. Its vast expanses of untamed foliage was home to snakes, boars, bulls and even the occasional leopard (or so I was told).

A family of snakes once visited our home, I’m told. They were first spotted in the garden by our help. There was a papa snake, the longest. The mama snake of medium length and a baby snake flanked by its parents on both sides. The security guards were promptly informed, who arranged for the family of snakes to be caught and returned unharmed to the wilderness.

In hindsight, there might have been just that one snake. Or two, at most. And I highly doubt they were a family.

On another occasion, we encountered a bull. Dada and I visited the park across from our house every afternoon. On this particularly windy winter afternoon, it was Dida who had brought me to the park. She sat on the grass basking in the sun, while I played on the slide. A bull grazed nearby, minding his own business.

After a few rounds of climbing up and sliding down, I sat down by Dida. Suddenly, the bull looked up. Dida and I panicked, in particular because I was in a red sweater. The bull then started charging towards us. We began to run. Climbing up the ladder of the slide seemed like the best idea then. We made it to the top of the ladder just in the nick of time. As stood on the platform at the top, the bull circled us, grunting intermittently. Time seemed to stand still while Dida and I stood clutching onto each other, fearing that he might knock down the slide.

After what seemed like an eternity, he lost interest and moved away to greener pastures. Dida and I, shaken by our ordeal, climbed down the ladder and rushed home to narrate the incident to Dada.

This time in their lives, I imagine, would have been really difficult for Ma and Baba. After Baba returned from the States, he worked at a town 4 hours away from us and visited every weekend. The first time I saw him upon his return from the States, I called him kaku (uncle). When he and Ma sat together chatting, I attempted to push him off the couch, being supremely possessive of Ma.

I can’t recall the exact moment I started calling him Baba, but I don’t imagine it to have been quick. I wasn’t exactly a people-person and didn’t take easily to strangers. Back in the States, my parents had thrown a party to mark my 6-month birthday. I cried until I drove the guests away. After that, it was all good. On another occasion, Baba’s friend had taken me out in my stroller. I screamed so much that he had to take me back home, fearing getting arrested on the account of kidnapping a child.

A few months after Baba’s return from the States, my parents landed interviews together at a research institute in Trivandrum. We took the train all the way from Howrah to Trivandrum, marking the beginning of our annual ritual for years to come. During the journey, Baba’s formal shoes for the interview were stolen at Vijayawada, marking a lifelong fear of shoe-theft at train stations and earning Vijayawada its permanent reputation in our family.

Nonetheless, they both made it to the interview, shoes et al. At her interview, Ma was asked if she’d accept the job if Baba wasn’t made an offer. Without a beat, she declined. 

They were both offered positions at par at the institute. And so we moved to Trivandrum, our home for the next 9 years.

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