Culture & Society

Boyhood Diary: A Vintage Charm

Boyhood, a place lost and found many times over, across the dark, dingy attic of my memories

Photo: Getty Images
Remembrance of Things Past: Boyhood is a many-splendoured country one often returns to in memory Photo: Getty Images

A Place, Lost and Found

Boyhood is a many-splendoured country I visit in my mind, a grotesque town I return to often; though ‘remote’, I tend to reach there as soon as I close my eyes and take a deep breath. A place lost and found many times over, across the dark, dingy attic of my memories. Summer noon in boyhood seemed endlessly long, a perfect time for misadventures. Thwarting the efforts of my mother to put me to sleep, I’d sneak out, tiptoeing to join my friends waiting outside. Within minutes we’d find ourselves in the mango grove with branches drooped heavy, laden with raw mangoes. Our rich, hard-earned exploits were meagre mangoes. But during the onset of adolescence when the sinuous vines of sensual desire had just started creeping into our bodies and minds; slices of raw mango laced with salt and red chilli powder provided us the best way to woo girls in the classroom. April sweat beads shining on our foreheads, we braced ourselves to face the horror of exams in May. Growing up in the seventies, a boyhood unsullied by mobile phones, etc. had a vintage charm.

The Dog that I Failed

I had befriended a dog who would wait for my return from school, wagging her tail so fast that her entire skeletal body shook. I used to feed her and her puppies. One day while returning from school I spotted her inside the municipality dog-catcher van. She looked at me and kept wagging her tail from within the cage, little knowing her own fate. I was in tears. She seemed to understand the helplessness of a nine-year-old boy and must have forgiven my incompetence to save her. They dragged away the van creating an earth-shattering noise. I have never forgotten those shining eyes of hers that kept looking at me. That was probably one of my early lessons on the pangs of separation from loved ones.

A Surreal Sight

One of the earliest memories that has remained etched on my mind. Even now it gives me goosebumps. Our school was near a police barrack that frequently saw training camps when platoons of police from other parts of the State pitched tents in rows across the field. A big open-air kitchen was set up beneath a huge banyan tree. During recess, we used to loiter around the area only to be shooed away by the tough, moustached cook, a man with menacing red eyes, beads of sweat gleaming on his bare body. He would pull out a chicken from the coop, his left hand holding the tiny head and the right clutching the rest of the feathered body, would slice the neck with a big kitchen cutter, dropping the severed head in a bucket and releasing the shaking body of the bird into the open. The sight of a headless chicken running around with its decapitated wings for quite some distance before falling down and becoming still, haunts me even now. The very last of the faltering steps the winged bird took virtually resembled the dance of death. It was a gory sight, so spine-chilling to my innocent eyes; also painfully surreal and nightmarish. That was when death, loss, fragility and the utter vulnerability of life began to seep into the soft, impressionable landscape of my consciousness.

Books, Early On

To escape such vicissitudes as life began to unfold slowly before me, and as innocence became the prime casualty of growing up, books became the much-needed ‘emotional anchor’ and kept me in a permanent state of ‘wonder’; an escape, a flight of fancy and imagination. At eleven, my father gave me a slim Macmillan volume of Tales from Tagore which he had bought from a pavement seller at Rs 2. The book survived the massive flood of 1982 that hit our town, Sambalpur; a series of moves, and is still with me, completing forty-odd years. I faintly remember that dreadful August night as a rainstorm kept pounding our roof and the wind rattled the windows; half asleep, I saw my school box floating in knee-deep water. I wasn’t all that concerned about the text books but I was worried about ‘Tagore’ who was in that box, rubbing shoulders with other ‘dry’ course books. Engrossed for hours, reading tearjerkers such as ‘The Postmaster’ and ‘Kabuliwala’ made me feel less alone. I realised that one is never alone in pain, and that someone somewhere, may be far away, is suffering as much, at times, much more than you do.

Durga Prasad Panda is a bilingual poet and critic