They had two sons and twin girls. A year after my twin sister's demise in 1957, my father was appointed commandant of the National Defence Academy in Khadakvasla, Poona. It was a proud homecoming for 'the Poona lad' and my first introduction to the city of his childhood. He and his nine siblings—four boys and five girls—although now living in Bombay, had always spoken of Poona with nostalgia. In 1958, Poona was still a lovely little town, with shops like Kayani Bakery that first introduced me to the 'true' smell of freshly baked bread and buttery biscuits.
Moving from Bombay to Poona was a smooth transition, like going to a home away from home. But Khadakvasla wasn't really Poona—the academy was actually a world unto itself, a self-sufficient colony of officers and academic staff of the army, navy and air force. It became 'the place of my childhood', pushing both Bombay and Poona into the recesses of my memory for over four years. Yet, I was attached to all three at the time, by many delicate threads of relationship with relatives, people and events.
‘Kalakshetra, a place of great simplicity and tranquillity. We hardly ever went to town, save for the odd sabha in Mylapore’
The academy not only put cadets 'through their paces', but equally every officer and his wife, their children, ayahs and every tinker, tailor and candle-stick maker that lived there. Situated in a shallow valley surrounded by a range of mountains, Khadakvasla looked down on a beautiful lake on one side, across which, on a clear morning, you felt you could touch one of Shivaji's fortresses called Simhgarh perched on the next range of mountains. At the base of this mountain was the Film Institute of India, which had just been set up.
As little children, we studied in a teeny school in Khadakvasla, run by a rotund and jolly German priest, called Father Reihm. The teachers were wives of officers or teaching staff of the academy. Later, when Poona began to grow, we were sent to a convent halfway to Poona, in an army truck. School, as I knew it, occupied only a very small part of my day. The rest was spent in the swimming pool learning the right strokes, at the stables learning to trot, or learning rowing and sailing on the lake, or cycling around the vast campus. At the activity class in the club, a quaint master would come from Poona twice a week, to teach us Bharatanatyam! Spending the day with friends in their homes was part of NDA life. The whole community was one big family.
In 1962 the Chinese aggression took place. So real was the threat to our officers and cadets that I would have disturbing dreams of being stranded on a hill full of snakes, with the enemy dropping from the skies, from planes and helicopters. Every woman in Khadakvasla was knitting sweaters to send out to our jawans on the border, who were dying in the cold. Among those who left for the front was my father's ADC, a young army officer called Rajan. It was Rajan who had told my parents about the Besant School in Adyar where he had studied, and about Kalakshetra where I could learn to dance. A few months later, he was killed in that war, leaving my family with a lasting burden of guilt about the parting gift he gave me—a gift that I can perhaps repay only in my next life.
My father was part of the Bene-Israelites who came to India two millennia ago
And so I moved to Madras, to live in Kalakshetra in Adyar, a place of great simplicity and tranquillity. We hardly ever went to town, except to attend a sabha in Mylapore, or to the early sadas at the Music Academy in December, or to Fort St George where my local guardian was the commanding officer. The only time we hit reality was when we visited Kalanjiam Brothers in Paris Corner for our dance jewellery, or attended the annual utsavam around the Mylapore tank, or went to the railway station when we left for home once a year.
Looking back these many years later, I wonder which of these cities—Bombay, Poona/Khadakvasla, and Madras—I love the most. The truth is I love all three! You cannot live 'the service life' without getting attached to the soil of the place you are in. So many memories, so much joy, so much to be grateful for. It was the best life a child could have in India. The services taught us tolerance—actually tolerance was not a word in our dictionary then; it was more like a deep bond of affection, a feeling of true camaraderie and brotherhood with people of diverse social class, region and religion. And there was no self-consciousness about it. We felt as close to our jawan brothers as we did to our parents' colleagues. Everyone participated together in celebration and sorrow. It was like the seamless yet distinct lines of a patterned blanket.
I love the Poona/Khadakvasla of my idyllic childhood. I love the Bombay of my youthful college days. I love Madras too. It will probably be my home for this lifetime. I have felt the pulse of these cities and feel connected to them by many little, yet strong strings of attachment, and see myself tied to the earth of these places like the friendly giant was by the Lilliputians. But it is Madras that I feel attached to in ways beyond explanation; to energies that I cannot identify in words, to a spirit of other lives, perhaps. How else can I explain the connections I have made here?
(Noted Bharatanatyam dancer Leela Samson is the director of Kalakshetra Academy in Chennai, where she had once been a student.)