My Story, Nov '16
Parents must ensure their children remain in touch with the real world – Pallav Bonerjee continues his series of personal narratives on psychology, people and destiny
The word ‘childhood’ triggers a wave of uninterrupted visuals for me. It starts off with my infancy – not wanting to be separated from my mother even for a few hours at a play school near our house. Teachers trying to gently pull me away from her while I wail at the top of my lungs and cling on to her hair and saree, and then get very angry at her for such betrayal when they eventually get me away from her.
Then the visuals dramatically change to all the fun and games with many new friends made in school and refusing to return home, even after the bell rings for the day. We keep pleading for “a few more minutes” of play time as our parents wait outside the school premises for us and the teachers chase us to pack us off home.
The faces of all the teachers flash in front of my eyes, who were so kind and loving, encouraging us to learn and play with each other, make friends and share toys and games.
It brings back the joy of getting new uniforms and books, pencils, colour crayons, brown papers and labels. The image of my father sitting down to teach my sister and me how to cover the books and notebooks with brown paper, paste the labels neatly and write our names on them clearly in his beautiful cursive handwriting.
It takes me back to the days when my sister and I waited in the evenings for our father to come back from office and ring the door bell and we rushed down the stairs to open the door, competing.
On some days, we were lucky to see some toys for us as well; a small portable carrom board, chocolates, music cassettes, jigsaw puzzles, story books and sketch pens for colouring. We then rushed back up the stairs competing again, this time to reach our mother on the second floor kitchen and announce what we got as gifts!
Visits to our maternal grandparents and cousins were our eternal and never-ending desire. Most our holidays – summer, winter and Durga Puja – were spent there. It gave us great delight in planning what clothes and games to take with us, along with our holiday homework from school. There were plenty of cousins to play and occasionally fight with.
Playing cricket on the terrace in the evenings was a ritual that was considered sacred and no one dared suggest otherwise. On a very few occasions, we also tried football, tennis with badminton racquets and ping-pong ball, table tennis, skating, cycling and hide and seek.
Every so often, the ball was sent for a six across the terrace wall, all the way to the other side of the road on which our building stood. And the fun would begin. We pleaded from the terrace on the fourth floor to passersby to throw the ball back to us. A few took their chances. It was a tall order to reach the ball all the way up to us. Some people accumulated around the brave-heart and encouraged him to give his best shot, while we screamed from the terrace to egg him on. In case he managed, we called him a ‘hero’ or ‘boss’ and clap for him to boost his self-esteem. And in case nobody managed, we took turns to go down to fetch the ball. Needless to say that we all hated that task and tried to avoid it, if possible by putting it onto the youngest member of the group!
Evenings at my granny’s were also pretty well structured. There would be a little time spent on the school homework for everyone, followed by angry altercations to decide on the film of the day. Having finally come to a conclusion, we would all get busy borrowing money from our parents to rush to the nearest shop which rented out VHS film tapes. The shopkeeper knew all our names. We were possibly his biggest clientele and he greatly respected and indulged us.
On the way back, with the money that we saved, there would be a religious visit to a ‘roll shop’ along with the procurement of a large bottle of fizzy drink of choice. In all, there would be almost a dozen of us watching the film, sipping colas and munching snacks all evening. Sometimes my uncles and aunts joined us for the film screening.
We saw countless films in this format and returned to our schools at the end of the vacations with great knowledge about them, much to the dismay of our teachers who expected us to have shown some degree of enthusiasm for academics as well.
The other chunk of my vivid childhood reflections takes me back to the time when my father initiated us to outdoor sports of diverse kinds. He started us on swimming first and then eventually tennis and finally horse-back riding.
Playing sports on a regular basis helped us become more confident as individuals, increased our strength and endurance, kept us fit physically and emotionally and also helped build a great network of friends from different backgrounds. I believe it also made us more tolerant and patient and helped us respect the opinions and feelings of others in a group.
My sister and I were encouraged to participate in various sporting events and my parents made it a point to attend them and cheer for us irrespective of the outcome.
Our school would have an annual fest during Christmas every year and it would be a great time for all of us! The preparations started early and most students in middle and senior classes were involved in some activity or the other. The most sought after event used to be the Christmas carols choir. It was almost an exclusive club. Many children would volunteer to participate and eventually be selected or not by a group of teachers.
I had the proud privilege of being a part of the choir team a few times and it was fantastic. We met every day for practice after school hours and learned a host of beautiful songs. They were not limited to Christmas carols only and included popular songs by artists like the Beatles, ABBA, Boney M, Carpenters and Simon & Garfunkel. We were also taught a few songs in French and German!
Those songs have stayed with me ever since and whenever I hear them being played anywhere I am immediately transported back to my merry school days. On the day of the fest, we would proudly sing our songs in front of a packed audience of parents and teachers and be rewarded with loud claps and cheers!
Childhood also brings back a few heartbreaks! Every time we shifted our residence (and we did that quite a bit because of my father’s transferable job), I lost some friends. All the promises of keeping in touch no matter what faded away with time and their faces became fuzzy in my mind. A few letters were indeed sent along with occasional phone calls and birthday cards, but they were not enough.
There were a few instances also of being turned down in love! I look back now and thank god for all the girls who had the strength to say “No!” to my innocent proposals. But it was a great time indeed. No Facebook, no Instagram and no Twitter. Everything had to happen in person. Most of my creative ideas to impress girls would stem from watching Kevin Arnold in The Wonder Years! Unfortunately, many others were watching it too.
My paternal grandfather was entrusted with the duty to drop off my sister and me to school every morning in our old Ambassador car. Sometimes we also had a few friends from the neighbourhood hitching a ride with us. It was a mini car pool service that my grandfather ran informally and he loved this job. Strangely, he also had this unique habit of going to the toilet right at the time that we were about to climb down the stairs to get into the car. We would get restless and kept honking for him in the car. He would appear suddenly, as if everything was under control and get in the car and zoom out with us. We were never late because of him.
By the way, he loved breaking traffic rules, and we loved him for it! Every time he was caught by the traffic police, he calmly took out his diplomatic identity card and flaunted it. The poor policeman would break into a sweat and allow us to pass with a crisp salute!
The other immensely joyous activity that I did with my grandfather was to visit the annual book fair in Kolkata. He would gladly drive me there and never say no to any book that I wanted to buy. I would spend hours there and accumulate a treasure chest full of books that ranged from the Classics to Enid Blytons and Agatha Christies, all the way to The Adventures of Tintin series!
The day wouldn’t end there. We would drive to the New Market and hit the famous cake shop Nahoum's and buy pastries and bread for home.
Looking back, my childhood may not have been perfect, but it was certainly a rewarding experience. I am sure many others my age may feel the same way about their childhood as well. Just thinking about it de-stresses me. However, when I talk to parents professionally these days, I can’t help but feel extremely concerned. Our society is undergoing a massive change and technology has a major role to play in it. Ideally this change is supposed to help us, or so we believe. And yet, the number of children with mental and physical health issues seems to be growing at an alarming rate today.
These issues range from learning disorders to developmental disabilities, body image issues, anxiety and depression, obesity and even diabetes. There may be many specific interventions that one can plan to address some of these challenges. However, I strongly feel that the quantum of time that parents spend with their children on a regular basis is a very strong variable which is under-emphasized these days.
The second important variable is frequency and duration of access to technology. If left unsupervised, this may end up with a detrimental effect on children, both physically and emotionally. As parents, we need to be more aware of these variables and take adequate measures to address them. Only then will our children also be able to look back into their childhood days with a glimmer in their eyes.
About the main photo: Author (right) with his sister in childhood – photograph from the author’s family album (also published in November 2015 issue of Varta).