Friday, May 30, 2008

Childhood Chocolate Memories

Opting out of a late lunch, I inserted the one dollar bill into the vending machine and watched with fascination as the bar of snickers fell with a thud on the floor. It wasn’t the first time I was using the vending machine as a convenient substitute for skipped meals. I unwrapped the bar, relishing it and licking my fingers with shameless greed till the wrapper was clean. I was a grown up, which meant that I wasn’t accountable or answerable to anyone for a midday meal of a chocolate bar. Yet somehow, this brought back sweet memories from my childhood when chocolates and candies meant so much more.

We never bought chocolates in our family. I am sure none of us did, waiting for the opportune moment as kids when a certain nice uncle would show up, and in the process of drinking tea and gulping sweets, would take out a bar of chocolates from his pocket. It is funny how you noticed the elevated rectangular thing in his pocket all this while, yet you were not allowed to seem too eager or keen. You were supposed to look coyly at your parents, seeking silent permission, when they would accede. Then you would be expected to thank the uncle, accept the chocolate, yet still not open it or eat it in front of the guests. Like a nice kid, you would put it back in the fridge, and forget about it. The uncle wasn’t supposed to know that the moment the door closed behind him (after thanking him again for his kindness and chocolate for the 113th time now), I would spring in action, somersault and jump, cross 7 mountains and 13 rivers, and sprint to reach the fridge and grab that bar of chocolate. Had that uncle been forgetful, he would have witnessed a very nasty scene of chocolate all over my hands and face on his way back to collecting his forgotten umbrella or car keys. Something quite contrary to the image that had been portrayed for the last couple of hours.

Our family used to be unique in another way. Chocolates were never divided among the two siblings. It was always divided equally into 4 shares. 3 out of the 4 shares went to me, my sister, and my dad respectively, while mom would have a bite of her share. Then, she would again distribute her share among us. Our family didn’t believe that chocolate was meant for kids. It was meant for everyone in the family. That included my grandfather as well, till he had all his teeth pulled out at 75.

The taste of chocolates never lingered in our mouths. No sooner did we finish our share (and mom’s share, and anything remaining, depending on who was stronger), we were expected to go brush our teeth. All my milk teeth removed have been attributable to my dental cavities. Last I heard, the dentist had made a small fortune out of the fees my dad paid him, and his son is attending a college in London thus. Yet as an incentive for the painful process of tooth pulling, I always bargained, argued, bickered, and cried for more chocolates.

The taste of chocolates in my childhood used to be much sweeter. This was perhaps because both quantity of consumption and the frequency of buying were powered in the hands of my mom. Even though you knew you had 8 small bars of chocolates in your share, you could not finish it off in one go. You were expected to save it for days till most of it either went to the ants or into the neighbor’s child’s stomach. Self-sacrifice and controlling greed were virtues that always stood with monstrosity against my chocolate munching. Things got worse especially after my little sister sprouted teeth and learnt to talk and complain and cry because after finishing my share, I would always eat her share. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t very fond of chocolates, the chocolates still had to be there every time I opened the fridge just to tempt me and torture me and teach me qualities such as self-restraint.

The chocolates of those days were very different from the chocolates of today. Not only were there less choices and less brands, there was a clear distinction between what chocolates must be had on what occasion. And while I write this, I can’t help but salivate profusely, thinking of the different memories of my childhood these chocolates bring back.

Like I said, we never bought expensive chocolates like Cadbury’s Dairy Milk or Five Star. These were always gifted to us by some generous uncle when he would visit our home and spend hours finishing a week’s worth tea supply and biscuits and sweets and pakore in return. As the protocol has been described earlier, you could not appear too eager to grab that chocolate bar from his pocket and disappear. You were to wish him and smile at him, make small talk, correct him for the umpteen number of time that you were in class 3 and not class 2, and then look at his extended hand shyly, thank him for the chocolate, and put it back in the fridge. If you did not do it, mom would do it for you, shut the fridge door, and hide the key somewhere on planet mars. Cadbury's (and 5 star) was the most expensive brand of chocolates we ever ate. Yet no chocolates were to be eaten in front of guests. I have eaten chocolates under cover, under the bed, inside the bathroom, hiding in the store room. There was a time chocolates used to be kept hidden in my clothes wardrobe and I would burrow my face inside to munch on chocolates at the pretext of taking out clothes.

Then again, there were candies that you could always bargain for whenever mom took you out with her for grocery shopping. The Mango Mood in its yellow wrapper seemed tastier than the real mangoes. As much as I hated munching paan, I loved Pan Pasand, more so because of the red coating it left in the tongue. Believe it or not, even at the age of 26, I fight with friends over my share of pan pasand. Still reminds me of Archana Joglekar and her “Shaadi aur tumse? Kabhi nahi”. The éclairs were yummiciously delicious, but a little more expensive (50 paisa each), hence usually the choice for birthday celebrations in class. The wrapper was an orange one, and not the golden one it is now. Maha Lacto used to be another of the favorites. I didn’t like Kismi Toffee Bar much. The genre of Amul chocolates was a cheaper substitute for dairy milk (Amul chocolates were still Rs.7.50 a bar while dairy milk was Rs.10.00). I especially loved the orange flavored bars. Another favorite was the Campco milk chocolate bar, perhaps the only white chocolate bar I knew of. Later when I discovered the bliss of Nestle Milkmaid, a brand of condensed milk, it tasted the same. Then there was the age old favorite Poppins, a cylindrical treat of colorful delight (I hated the green ones and loved the pineapple flavored yellow ones). Rola Cola was a later introduced cola flavored version of poppins.

The house of Cadburys itself held so many treats for me. Other than the bar and the five star, there were Gems that I loved to munch on in mouthfuls. Then there was another chocolate I forget the name of, probably Mr.Pops or something akin that was a chocolate version of a lollypop. Wafer chocolates had come much later in my life, and that is probably why I do not associated myself much with wafer chocolates like Kit Kat.

Chocolates and candies were not always chocolaty or sweet. There was this candy called Swad that made your eyes pop out of their sockets and corroded the upper surface of your palate. I still salivate profusely when I think of that jar of Hajmola granny would keep out of my reach, that farty smell whenever the lid was opened, and how you wanted to finish the entire bottle once you started munching on them. Then there were pillow packs of Hajmola Candy- Khatti Imli and Raseela Aam, mango being clearly my favorite. One of the memories I associate with my childhood is that ad of a little boy hiding under the bed, holding out a bottle to the stern looking teacher and saying- “Hajmola Sir”.

Much later in life, when elder siblings, their boyfriends and friends of friends of friends started to leave for the US and send things back, I actually learnt of chocolates like Snickers and Twix and Toblerone and Godiva. I had no knowledge of these as a kid. Hence even now that I am in the US, my hand always reaches out to that bottle of Pan Pasand or Hajmola Candy while shopping at the Indian grocery store. Like I said, I have very fond childhood memories of these. Childhood flew by, but even as a seemingly sensible and mature adult, the mind jumps with joy whenever a friend takes out a bar of chocolate from her bag. All the more if it is the good old dairy milk from the childhood Cadbury's days. Like I said, snickers and twix are always available in the vending machine. But whenever it comes to chocolaty matters, I'll always remain a desi at heart.


Monday, May 12, 2008


When I was little, we used to live in a palatial house. It was an old building built during the British era, painted an unblemished white with a huge pond in the front. Our house used to stand out even from a distance. Our landlord was a famous doctor who had made quite a name for himself, and as it happens in small towns, everyone knew our house.

The ceilings were some 25-30 feet high, and it would remind you more of those havelis in the Ramsay movies. No matter how much you tried to maintain it, there would always be cobwebs in the remote corners of the wall, and a musty, damp smell whenever it rained. There were skylights the size of present day windows, and French windows double the size of present day doors. There were some 8-10 rooms on each floor, and the ground floor was always locked and dark. Truth be told, I’d often get goose bumps every time someone knocked and I had to go downstairs to open the main door.

There were many grey pigeons that lived in the skylights. As a kid, I had my normal share of curiosity. Back from school, I’d happily jump flapping my hands and see them fly out of the skylights. I would often try to get close, observing the way they blinked their lidless eyes, trying not to scare them, yet never really getting close enough to touch them. They made peculiar sounds and as a 6 year old, I would happily mimic them. Sometimes when I cleaned the walls of cobwebs as a part of my routine weekend fun, I would chase the pigeons with the long pole and derive wicked pleasure in seeing them helplessly flap their wings, too afraid and confused to find an open window to fly out of. When I was tired of my running around with the pole and scaring them chore, I would let them fly away, and then close the windows to see how they found their way back. And as always, they would find an open window, some open nook from where they would re-enter the house. They often pooped and made the floors and the walls dirty and our cleaning maid mad, and believe it or not, I have spent hours positioning myself obscurely to witness the exact moment when white poop emerged out of their rectal opening and fell with a soft thud on the floor.

The most exciting phase for me was when these birds were getting ready to lay eggs. Weeks before, they would start making their nests, spending days working hard, carrying back and forth pieces of twigs, small branches, and dried leaves in their beaks. They probably glued it with their saliva, for the nests would be very compact and whitish in appearance. I would spend weekends not doing my homework but observing them fly out and bring back paraphernalia to build their homes. And then the female would lay eggs, sitting on them for days till they hatched. As a 6 year old, I knew nothing of parental behavior and nesting, yet it was such fun watching them make homes and babies.

However sometimes, there would be an accident. One of the many eggs would fall off and break, leaving watery yolk on the floor and the unbearable stench. Sometimes the babies would fall off and die, and our maid would give us a hard time agreeing to clean it up. Whenever an egg or a little one fell down and died, the parent pigeons spent days mourning by the corpse. The sadness would be evident, and despite me getting close to them, they would refuse to fly away. These would be the unbearably sad moments for me, for no longer I would use my cobweb cleaning pole to run after them and chase them away. Sometimes, the entire nest with its next generation content would fall and be destroyed. But with time, they would start making nests again, and lay more eggs. The resilience and the ability to move on in life these little birds showed always amazed me.

Today, I feel like a pigeon. My close friend, who was about to deliver twins in 4 weeks, had one healthy baby die unexpectedly inside the womb. As I read her husband’s email, I sat like a rock, unable to bring myself to face it. When she delivers in a month, it will be one live baby and one dead corpse. I have spent a good few hours crying my heart out till I gathered enough courage to talk to her. My eyes are all puffed up now. Since blogging is my way of releasing pent up emotions, I am typing my pains out here. And after more than 20 years, all I can think of at the moment is about those pigeons, the way they were my childhood friends, the way they built their nests, and their faces every time their babies fell from the skylights and died.


Friday, May 09, 2008

Sunshine Is Sadness Today

My aunt in India passed away last night. Somewhere in her late fifties, in an advanced stage of cancer. Bereft of life support system. Mom sounded very upset, particularly since she happened to be one of her closer cousins. And I lay on my bed in the darkness and listened to her on the phone, so many happy memories from a different era drifting in front of me.
The trip we had to Orissa together. The way she always praised me saying what a good student I was. The onion pakoras and the goat meat curry she always made for me. The way she always chewed on betel leaves, leaving a distinct odor I always associated with her. My first badminton racket that she had gifted me in the seventh grade.

In the last few years that I have been here, so many members of my extended family have passed away. A couple of aunts and uncles, my grandfather’s brother and his wife, and a couple more. It is weird how mom would tell me on the phone, and I would lie on bed for an eternity, thinking of all those childhood memories, of the fun things we did together as family, of the trips we went to, of the family weddings we met at despite living far away, of those various pujas and religious festivals when we saw each other. The past, thankfully immutable, leaves me with these treasured memories while I realize that I will never see them in person again.

People like me who live thousands of miles away from the family will know what I am talking about. When we choose to be away from our families, we do so with the implicit understanding that there are people in our close and extended family whom we may never see again. We all know that death is coming, eventually. Yet we never seem to be prepared enough for it. 

My maternal grandparents, my only grandparents alive, are getting old. When I talk to them, I feel the helplessness in their voice, knowing well that they think they may never see me again. Even when my cool grandma updates me on the new bollywood movies (she is a big fan of bollywood), I cannot help but feel the uncertainty in her voice. I wish that they could visit me in the US someday. I wish I could go back and spend weeks with them, just like the good old days. Yet practicality expects us to move on with our lives, no matter how much we wish to change things.

It doesn’t matter how much I love my family, I know that they will not be there with me forever, and it is just a matter of time. What I absolutely hate is being informed on the phone, and then spending hours remembering the good old days, knowing that the dead will never come back. I know it is something I cannot change, but the pain of living away from family shall never leave me.

You will be missed, very dearly.


Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Hey Baby !!!!

I was on the bus, as usual running short on time. As usual, tired after the days work. As usual, stressed and pissed off. As usual, frowning involuntarily, wondering how many work hours to put more before the people higher up in the hierarchy would be happy. I was holding a book, yet not really reading it.

And then I saw you. Not more than a feet tall, holding tight to your daddy’s chest, yet flailing your arms, fearless of the laws of gravitation. A mop of thick, curly hair over your face, huge almond eyes, pink lips, drooling happily.

And then you looked at me with those wide, innocent, almond eyes, as if the world never ceased to fascinate you. And then, you gave me your sweetest giggle. I don’t know if my frowning face seemed funny to you, but the moment I saw you, I smiled back. I spotted two tiny little teeth in the lower gum, the upper ones still without teeth. You giggled at me as if there was no sadness in the world, nothing to worry about, no one to bother you. You flailed your limbs happily, oblivious to anything else. That was the sweetest smile I had seen.

You made my day !


Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Run And Earn

From the daily newspaper today:

"Get paid to be my jogging partner. $10/hour, 2hours/day, Monday to Friday 6-8 am and/or 5-7 pm. Flexible.

[Place] [Contact number] [Name]"

Wow….. Like I said, this world will never cease to amuse me.