The Eastern Years

“Every time I go home,” says my friend, “I see your house, and Sangeeta’s, and Alaap’s, and Debraj’s. All of you have left, but my parents are still here. You can’t imagine how nostalgic that makes me feel.”

Bokaro feels very distant now. I was six and a half when we first moved there, not quite caring that we were leaving behind a town we had spent six years in. I didn’t know what attachment meant at that age. A transfer was about adventure- a new town, new friends, new school. I joined after the term had already started, and on the first day made two new “best friends”- which meant that, when the English teacher asked us to write a paragraph titled “My Best Friend”, I ended up writing about two new friends. The teacher wasn’t happy and I had to write it again.

But the real best friend was somewhere else. We first met at the bus stop and started talking to each other, realising that we lived close enough for me to join her group at the playground every evening. We were in the same class but not the same section and barely saw each other at school, but we spent a lot of time together in the evening, playing, sharing our secrets, getting our dolls married. Life was as easy and happy as it could be. Exams came and went, but we had other important things to worry about it- which birthday parties should we attend? What gifts did we want to give? I distinctly remember some pink-and-green Milton water bottles being very popular.

It didn’t really bother us then that where we lived wasn’t considered safe. People avoided going out after dark as far as possible- why risk getting mugged? One morning we heard that a man had been murdered at our bus stop. I don’t know if it really happened: 24X7 news channels didn’t exist then. Cable TV was expensive but we had it because there was little else to do- of course, there didn’t seem to be much except endless re-runs of The Bold and the Beautiful, occasionally The Crystal Maze on Star TV. Zee TV had a loud version of Snakes and Ladders, Antakshari and dubbed telecasts of a serial called Celeste. My friend next door refused to come to play on Sunday mornings because he wanted to watch Chandrakanta. My own special TV time was Sunday afternoons- remember when the Bournvita Quiz Contest had the Bookworm and a special guest on every episode? The present version isn’t half as interesting or competitive.

My father bought me my first can of Coca Cola in Bokaro. It was quite a novelty in that little town, almost an event, to be a part of this act of ‘economic liberalisation’. Come to think of it, things were so different then. We didn’t have a telephone at home and would go to the STD booth on the main road to call my Grandmother- only at a particular hour, though, to make calls at one-third the usual rate. Until then, we had communicated with her and other family only through letters. For all our relatives in the south knew, we were on the other end of the planet. They didn’t know what Chhath or Teej was, or why Walls ice cream on trips to Hyderabad was such an exotic delicacy for me. I only wish I’d been old enough then to understand the culture of Bihar (or Jharkhand) better.

Bokaro gave me the first taste of winter- not that it wasn’t cold in Madhya Pradesh, but I remember this better because of the nice bottle-green scarves and gloves, and eventually the blazers that we were allowed to wear once we were all grown-up and in Class 4. Until then, we depended on being extra nice to the senior girls so they would let us wear their blazers on the bus rides home: such a status symbol!

I left Bokaro in 1996. I stayed in touch with just one friend, who kept writing to me even when I was ridiculously lazy and sent me cards on my birthday. We never spoke much about other people because having been in different sections, we didn’t have many friends in common. Then one day, an impulsive search on Facebook brought me back in touch with many classmates from all those years ago, and I was really surprised to learn that they had remembered me- I saw myself only as this person who had drifted in and out of their lives without staying for the momentous occasions. I had once competed fiercely with them for ranks in class- it is a little amusing now that we’re all grown up to think that we had such skirmishes over marks. Getting back in touch with them, it wasn’t like nearly 15 years had passed- all of a sudden, it just didn’t matter that we were all responsible (?) adults.

Having moved around a fair bit, I’ve never had the chance to feel like I’ve put out roots anywhere. However, knowing that these friends from childhood are still around, even though I know little about them, is reassuring. I am probably meant to have a nomadic life for some reason- I’ve studied and worked in six different cities in the past five years. And when you’re caught in the turmoil that constant change can cause (which seems inevitable now), it’s nice to know that you can call someone after six months or two years and pick up where you left off.

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