Today’s generation may find it strange, almost incomprehensible, that when I was growing up during the ’50s and ’60s, avenues for entertainment were severely restricted. International cricket matches and other sports were unavailable on television. Come to think of it, television itself was going through birth pangs. We were big on live commentary on the radio, and in hindsight, listening to the great describers of the game was even more pleasurable than watching it on the box – but that’s just me. My home base was Calcutta, and if a Test Match was being played at the Eden Gardens, obtaining a ticket was akin to seeking the Holy Grail. We were taken to the cinema now and then, provided the genre was wholesome comedy or family drama. Absent Minded Professor, Parent Trap and My Fair Lady spring to mind. The evening show was invariably followed by ‘dinner’ at the homely Hindustan Restaurant on Lindsay Street, specialists in north Indian vegetarian delicacies – a much sought after culinary diversion from our daily rice and sambar routine. A Sivaji Ganesan starrer was a Sunday morning treat at Menoka or Basusree in south Calcutta, theatres that traditionally screened only Bengali or Hindi films.
Being brought up in a Tamil Brahmin environment, Carnatic music concerts by leading artists, whenever they visited the bustling metropolis, was something the family patronized avidly. Madurai ‘Somu’ Somasundaram and violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman were eternal favourites. There was never much else to do other than hanging out with friends, striking up impromptu singalongs featuring Kishore Kumar and Mohd Rafi hits. Pots and pans provided percussion support. In those days, you had to take your pleasures where you could.
The only other diversion was ‘the visit’. This needs explaining. My parents’ friends, collectively dubbed ‘family friends’, tended to live within a 5 km radius of each other. Accessibility was easy, just a short drive or a brisk walk away. All it took was for my father or mother to put a call through to make the appointment. If phone lines were down, which was often the case, we simply barged in. This usually happened over a weekend or a public holiday and the time of the visit was invariably early evening. We would never presume to land up during dinner time. This enabled the host to serve the ubiquitous filter coffee and a plate of toothsome crunchies. Not to forget, the visit had to be reciprocated and eftsoons. That was the etiquette.
All that was fine and dandy. The problem was we children had to be lugged along, like excess baggage. It was a necessary part of the ritual. ‘Nathan Mama and Saraswati Mami are very keen to meet both of you, and you can play with Ravi.’ This Ravi being their teenaged son. Problem was my brother and I found the aforementioned Mama and Mami crashing bores, and they always served the same plateful of stale, ribbon pakodas. And if we politely declined their coffee, you can bet your bottom dollar a tepid tumblerful of Horlicks or ‘Oval’ will be thrust upon you. As for the lad Ravi, he was an obnoxious snob, having stood first in his class for the umpteenth time, the achievement fulsomely repeated by the nauseatingly proud parents. A feat beyond my academic capabilities. Thus, some of these outings were more visitations than visits.
That particular routine, with minor variants, pretty much held sway wherever we landed up. If it was not Nathan Mama, it would be KS or JB Mama. Many of my father’s friends were referred to by their initials. En passant, the terms Mama and Mami generally meant Uncle and Aunty, not necessarily related by blood ties. Once in a way, we would come across an Uncle who would introduce us to Wodehouse or some comedy tapes from the BBC (The Goon Show and Hancock’s Half Hour), which he had brought along from England, and we couldn’t wait to make a beeline to his place. At times he would even offer us a sip of the smooth, brown nectar from Scotland! My mother took a dim view of this corrosive Uncle. People like him were shining exceptions to the rule.
Among the more unsavoury prospects of these visits was that I was invariably called upon to sing. I was learning Carnatic music at the time and was thought to have a penchant for it. Sadly, my reputation had preceded me, not without some gratuitous help from my mother! After much fussing and squirming (‘Don’t be such a fusspot’) I had to face the inevitable. ‘I have a sore throat’ was utterly useless for an excuse. I thus took the easy way out and belted out Cliff Richard’s ‘Dancing Shoes’ or ‘Bachelor Boy’, much shorter and easier to render than, say, ‘Vatapi Ganapatim’ in the raga Hamsadwani! And a fresh plate of stale ribbon pakodas was proffered for my troubles! If you’ll pardon the contradiction in terms.
Besides attending Carnatic music concerts, as and when music soirees were held, the South Indian community had their own clubs and associations that periodically staged plays. Mostly in Tamil, given the largeness of the expatriate Tamilian diaspora in the city. Oftentimes, well-known drama companies from Chennai were invited to perform. We were regaled by a feast of plays in various genres like Comedy, Satire, Historical, Social etc. The likes of the late Cho Ramaswamy’s troupe were a massive attraction and the halls would be jam-packed for days together. Stage sets and choreography were primitive with microphones hanging from the rafters atop and across the stage, which the actors would inadvertently bump into, providing unintended mirth. The make-up, to say the least, was garish with a tendency to smudge in the non-air conditioned halls and extreme humidity of Calcutta. As we didn’t know any better, our enjoyment of the fare on offer was not diminished.
Religious discourses by famed messiahs were another big attraction for most of the families. I well remember attending a few lectures by the entertaining godman, the late Swami Chinmayananda (not to be confused with the present Chinmayanand, the swami with the glad eye), who was spreading the good word across the length and breadth of the country. Though I drew the line when my parents insisted that we should touch his feet and seek his blessing. My protests, however, fell on stony ground as the Good Book says. Kicking and screaming (metaphorically speaking), I duly prostrated before the great man while being shoved from the back by an interminable queue of ecstatic ‘blessing seekers.’ That I came down with a severe bout of viral flu the same evening, and was declared hors de combat for the next fortnight may or may not have been down to the Swamiji, but I continue to harbour dark suspicions.
That was pretty much the way it was, till I entered college. We are talking early ’70s now. University campus exposed us to a slightly more eclectic and cosmopolitan circle of friends. All of a sudden, one was being invited to the odd party at somebody’s place which necessarily involved returning home late. My mother’s interpretation of ‘coming home late’ was 9 pm at the very outside. It was a gargantuan struggle to make her understand that the party hadn’t even started before 9.30 pm! The thought of her lying in the drawing room, pretending to be asleep, eyes tightly shut while I stealthily let myself in through the front door well past midnight, was hardly conducive to my having a good time. A frosty grunt was as much as I could expect by way of a greeting. To her credit, she did not insist on a breathalyzer test. The generation gap never narrows, only widens.
In college, we strutted about in faded blue jeans, puffing on our Charms, talking of Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen. When it came to books, we were into Kafka, Camus and Salinger, but that was more to impress the Eng. Lit. girls from the neighbouring colleges. (‘In the room, the women come and go / Talking of Michaelangelo’). Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Jimi Hendrix were considered more ‘in’ than The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. Also, early exposure to Hindustani classical music with the likes of Bhimsen Joshi, Vilayat Khan and Kumar Gandharva provided an alternative take on Indian classical music.
It was about now that we kids were, mercifully, kept out of having to visit our parents’ friends. Grown to man’s estate, as it were, the parental apron strings were gently severed. Which is not to say that I was completely averse to tagging along if I particularly liked a family whose personnel were good company, across the age spectrum. And if they had children, so much the better. Sometimes, we kids were invited to spend the night at their place, if the next day was a holiday. Whether it was the novelty of sleeping somewhere else or what I am not sure, but there was a peculiar thrill attached to the prospect of a long night of gossip and waking up late in a strange ambience. Can’t put a finger on it but there it was.
Times have changed. Most kids are quite happy being alone, with their smartphones, Facetime, online groupies – truth is, you’re never alone these days. To answer Elvis Presley’s plaintive question, ‘Are you lonesome tonight?’ No Elvis, we may be alone but never lonesome.