By Firoz Bakht Ahmed*
We never forget the flavors and sensations of childhood. As in a dream, we reach out to touch them. Yet always they are just a little beyond our grasp. Our memories of that time are really of events as much as of feelings and emotions of something lost, something forgotten; a fragment, a piece of puzzle in which we can glimpse our lives.
Childhood—that magic tragic time of life—peopled with dragons and fairies, one instinctively treads softly in taking about them with people. For these memories are fragile dreams indeed. Some readily trace their moments of alacrity; others trace memories warily.
Happiness is as much part of childhood as it is opposite. Lawyer and friend Atyab Siddiqui who studied at Mussorrie’s Oak Grove Boys’ School, remembers how devastated he felt when his friendship with companions Khalid Akhtar and Ajay Gupta broke. Decades later, his sense of isolation and betrayal is still strong.
Of course, how can I forget the ebulliant Harish Ahuja, the fidgety Ashok Sharma, the Rambo Pramod Kapoor, the bossy Raj Kumar Sharma, the wily Naseer Ahmed Ansari, the tricky Subuktgin, the lotus eyed-Neelam Grover, ‘Daddy’ Deepak Nayar, the Crafty Kamal, hock-eyed Gurpreet, ‘Mr Sober’ Javed, ‘Kitabi Keeda’ Sanjay Grover, ‘Mr Pleasant’ late Vijay Hooja, the vivacious Benu Jain, ‘The huge flamboyant Matreja family-Namdev nee Naveen, Draupadi, Gita, Lakshmi and others, ‘Shri Baniya’ Sanjay Kapoor, ‘Touch me not’ Surinder Rana, the bubbling Bubbly Kapoor, the jittery Anil Wason, the bossy Praveen Dagar and Raja Rajinder Singh Bhatia!! Right from Delhi, they are spread in each nook and cranny of the world.
“Bereft of their company, I focussed entirely on my studies, getting excellent marks,” Siddiqui recalls as he traces his need to seek acceptance and approval through academic brilliance to this period. Going on to study history in Delhi University and topping and later doing the same at the Law Faculty, Atyab says, “ The need to do well and even merit, is a lonely route to acceptance, fostered by the pressure of performing par excellence in a competitive field of cut throat competition..
So too Sunil Narula, now an ex-scribe of “The Times of India” and “Outlook”, returns to his childhood, a phase, he — like his father — believes, that God is closest to a person. Narula, now based in Yugoslavia, relates his own experience.
As a child of twelve, he had a miserable day at his school Sardar Patel Vidyalaya. His class test had gone badly; as goalie he had conceded many goals and got caught on the very first ball he tried to lift out of the field while playing cricket. Coming home brought no relief. The youngest in the family and the butt off all the teasing, feeling lonely and miserable, he quarreled with his mother.
That evening his father suggested that he should accompany him to the Tibetan Buddhist monastery he was visiting. Reluctantly the young Narula agreed. Entering the monastery, his father sat down to meditate, telling him to sit quietly with closed eyes. The chanting, the atmosphere of peace, calm and serenity, conveyed itself to the restless, disturbed boy, so that stepping out he realised, “I was no longer in the state of turmoil. From that day onwards, I meditate half an hour each day.” In fact it is true as being my classmate at Kirorimal College, Delhi, he was often found meditating in the class of Prof. Badri Raina who taught us Shakespeare or in Prof. T.A.P. Singh’s class of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Of course, how can I forget the phase when my Urdu teacher, Bano aunty taught me to write the Urdu alphabets, “Alif”, “Bay”, “Tay” “Say” up to “Bari Yeh” and I used to write these on a “takhti” wooden slate, meshed with “Multani mitti” (smoothing mud) with a “sarkanday ka qalam” (reed pen) and ink made with water and black crystals. The words written with qalam became masterpieces adorned by measured strokes with the help of dark viscous liquid known as siyahi. Every time I put my pen to the “takhti”, a letter was deftly carved and with each one having its own individual shape and curvatures, it seemed so alive!
Besides, I remember that in my own childhood, I had a prnchant for writing for the various children’s magazines in Hindi, Urdu and English like “Khilauna”, “Toffee”, “Payem-e-Taleem”, “Parag”, “Indrajal Comics”, “Nandan”,”Ghuncha”, Chandanagri”, “Chandamama”, “Champak”, “Raja Bhaiya”, “Milind”, “Lot Pot”, “Childern’s World”, “Madhu Muskan” etc.
I remember how intently I used to wait for the newspaper hawker who used to deliver these magazines early in the morning along with a copy of “The Statesman”, “The Hindustan Times” and “Al-Jamiat”newspapers that my mother used to cater to. The Urdu monthly “Khilauna” was my favorite and on the first of every month I used to be at the doorstep waiting for the arrival of the magazine. Those days the craze to be the editor of a children’s magazine was so great that I used to make the magazine for the gali children myself. Now that’s history and today’s editors do not accept my pieces any more!
When the thirst for more reading arose, we used to hire story books from mohalla libraries for ten paisa per day. In Naya Mohalla, the locality just adjacent to ours, I mean, Ahata Kaley Sahab, one Khan Saab used to manage that library in his basement in whose back portion was his one-room accommodation. We hired, children’s storybooks and novels, like, Chaand ki Chori” (by Prakash Pandit), “Khaufnak Jazeera (by Siraj Anwar)”, “Choohon ki Hukemat” (by Aadil Rasheed), “Kali Duniya” (by Siraj Anwar), “Neeli Duniya”, “Ghareeb Shehzadi” (by Masood Jahan), “Sitaron ke Qaidi” (by Zafar Payami), “Hamaraa Ghar” (by Krishna Chander)“Heeron ka Saudagar” (by Ishrat Rehmani) etc.
Besides, the games like — “Patangbaazi”, “Kora Jamal Shahi, “Poshampa Bhai Poshampa”, “Pakram Pakrai”, “Oonch Neech ka Pahada”, “Maram Pitti”, “Lattu”, Chakai”, “Gilli Danda”, “Kancha”, “Pannion ka Khel”, “Lottery” — were purely desi games. However, we also were Jack of all, playing cricket, football, hockey, table tennis, badminton and wrestling, apart from others. No one of my age group can forget the plush grounds amidst the sylvan green of Company Bagh (named after the East India Company but today, known as Gandhi Ground) just behind the Town Hall of Chandni Chowk, where we people mostly played football, cricket and at times, even hockey besides the besides the “desi” games mentioned above.
At the Town Hall, there were two boats. They were kept there. We used to row them amidst the threatening warnings of the “chowkidaar” (guard), after torrential rains in Delhi. In our childhood, continuous rains were there for days on, known as “jhari”. Even our school uniform used to remain wet and we had to use iron to dry it. In our street below the house and at the “Phaatak” (gateway entrance), waterlogging upto our knees used to be there and we used to float paper boats, singing, “Yeh kaghaz ki kashti, yeh barish ka pani!”
The only truth that past conveys to us is that we cannot escape our childhood, nor can change it. Perhaps what is possible, though, to accept our childhood, and once reconciled to it, we can begin to live in the present. In these Covid-19 days, the golden phase of childhood has been the best companion! I hope children, who are in today’s phase of childhood, come out of it to tell the tales of Corona!
*The author is the chancellor of Maulana Azad National Urdu University, grandnephew of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, community worker and columnist