Back to the Past

I went for a trip down memory lane and needed the help of Google Maps to find my way!

From 1973 to 1986 I lived in Naraina Vihar. A residential colony in West Delhi. My wonder years were spent in this quiet, cozy neighbourhood which was for the working middle class.

Even today, I can see myself in those lanes. Standing at the street corner for my school bus, walking to the Milk depot and the bread shop. Rushing back home after school to finish homework so that I could play in the evening.

Evenings were playtime. We ran in the park carefree. Played hide and seek in the neighbourhood. Hid in the porticos of other homes or behind bushy shrubs in parks. When we got thirsty, we went into any of the homes and asked for water. It didn’t matter if they were known to us or not. The neighbourhood was a family.

The ice-cream seller appeared every evening, half an hour before our playtime ended.  He knew better than coming too early when all of us were caught up in the thrill of playing and would ignore him. He would arrive minutes before our playtime ended and stood near the edge of the park, his cart leaning against the cemented pavement. We finished our game of run & catch or chain-chain or crocodile in the water. Flushed red with all the running, sweaty and hot, the iced lollies were just the thing we wanted. None of us wanted to go home and having an iced orange stick meant being able to hang with the gang for a few minutes more. All of us didn’t get lucky all the time. That was a time when parents didn’t agree to every whim & demand. So, only a few lollies were bought and passed around. We licked till our tongues turned orange and lips went numb.

Even today, the very sight of the orange ice stick takes me back to the wonder years, makes me a child with her hair stuck to the scalp with sweat!

The roads were broad, quiet, and empty. Trees lined on either side, bending towards each other, providing the much-needed cover. Gulmohur trees flowered to bloody red and then fell on the streets, laying a red carpet. My friends and I cycled all around, often venturing far. The roads were safe. Cars were few, tempers were mild, and people weren’t in a hurry all the time.

The houses stood in a row, like friends with interlocked arms. All of them had a similar façade, the same look. Simple, nice and clean. People didn’t really make a big fuss about décor and looks. Each was a unit; a ground floor, a terrace, and a little rectangular portico in the front. Most families had an Ambassador – the great Indian family car that accommodated all and sundry. Many also had scooters, and it didn’t really matter. We were all equal.  

We knew our neighbours, and they knew us. When the elders passed us on the road, we slowed down, wished them and smiled. We offered to carry their shopping bags. They were no home delivery or any of the apps that delivered in a blink.   

The world was a different place then. 40 years ago. Parents didn’t worry about their kids, playing on the sidewalk or cycling around. It was safe and people weren’t as rabid as they are today. The singular nonnegotiable rule my friends and I had to adhere to was to be back before the streetlights came on. That was the start of homework time, study time.

When it rained, we rushed out to the streets and revelled in the first shower. Later, we made paper boats and sailed them in the rushing water. The trees in the park tossed their green heads, enjoying the bath. The leaves shivered as the rain teased them. Mum made fried fritters with gram flour, spiced with chilli powder, and cumin seeds. Dad and I swept the rainwater out of the portico. After the TV arrived in our home, post-rain, we had to straighten the antenna to get the TV running. Papa would go to the terrace and move the antenna, while I scuttled between the living room and the portico; yelling back if it was all right.

Another lasting memory from my childhood is the crazy fun I had with my 2 besties. Leena and Kiran. The former lived in the house next to mine, while Kiran was a few houses ahead. Leena wore dresses stitched by her mother. Many years later, she would start a boutique and be featured in a women’s magazine, but then she was content making dresses for her daughter. Kiran was the short and stubby one. She always felt left out because Leena and I lived next to each other. We had to constantly pacify and assure her of our love. It was tiresome, but we did it.  

Delhi heat in summer is legendary and the summer holidays were long. When we couldn’t go out to play, we read, sketched, and made-up games to keep ourselves entertained. The three of us formed a club. Inspired by the Famous Five, Secret Seven books we gorged on, we decided we must have a name for the three of us. Hence, was born our secret club – the Terrific three. We made badges out of cardboard and stuck a safety pin through them. We were going to be the local detectives and catch crooks. With that resolve, we set out to find a suspicious man. We zeroed in one unsuspecting fellow who was walking down the road, minding his own business, and three of us followed him. After some time the man realized he was being followed. He stopped, turned around and started walking towards us to question why we were following him. Petrified of being reprimanded, we ran like the wind. Since our attempts at playing detective failed, we did the next best thing. Write crime stories. Each of us wrote one story and then read it out to our parents. We were told, this isn’t good at all. This is just a poor copy of the books you read. Be original.

It was a time when parents didn’t mince words and didn’t believe in mollycoddling kids. My friends gave up writing, but I continued, determined to get it right. It would take me more than 40 years to publish my first book.

The reality of changing times hit hard when PM Indira Gandhi was shot dead and people turned against the Sikh community. Curfew was imposed. Cops patrolled the streets, and we weren’t allowed to step out. Hushed whispers passed from one home to another about people being burned alive, beaten to death. I remember the night when Papa and some other uncles stopped a mob from entering the house of a Sikh family who lived a few houses away. But things went back to normal soon enough, or so I thought. I was too young to understand that this was the start of something dangerous. Picking out people of a different community, singling them out and persecuting them.

I had other things to worry about. Algebra, Hindi test and the pimply boy I had a crush on. It was my duty to water the plants in the evening before going out to play and the fellow cycled down the road at the same time. Our eyes met for half a second, the stolen look and the hidden smile… that was eagerly awaited.

Today as I drove down outer ring road, I was confident about finding my way. But I couldn’t. I kept going round and round in circles till my driver said, “Madam, please switch on Google maps.” It felt so odd. I needed Google Maps to find my way to my old neighbourhood. In my defence, the roads today are unrecognizable. The lanes look smaller. The houses are larger and they loom on both sides. Flashy cars stand defiantly bumper to bumper. All balconies have split AC units. My eyes searched for the familiar but found none. I was going back after 1987. Though I have been living in Gurgaon since 2013 end I hadn’t found the time and opportunity to make the trip. Life kept me occupied.

As I stood before G219, flanked by my parents, who are now a pale and quivering shadow of their former exuberant selves; I looked at the house and tried to go back in time. I couldn’t. Google maps took me to the road and the house, but that’s as far as it can. It’s no time machine. I tried to imagine my aged granny sitting outside the gate in the winters, on a folding chair, peeling oranges and dosing. She is long gone. My friends — Kiran and Leena — they waited with their cycles for me. They are lost in the world somewhere. I haven’t been able to find them on FB. The pimply boy… I do not know where he is. People come into your life and then they leave… or do we walk away? Life takes everyone on a different path.  

The house looks completely different today. Had it not been for the number plate stuck on the gate that said G 219, I would have thought the house didn’t exist. It’s a huge 3 storey one now, like all the others on the lane and everywhere else in the neighbourhood.

There’s no terrace or barsati. No place for kids to lounge and dream and form a club called terrific three. Kids today are busy playing on their tablets, texting friends or watching one of the 500 or more channels available on their individual TV sets. Each room has one. The parks look smaller. The roads seem to have shrunk. I was dazed and horrified…then I realized that the park and roads haven’t changed. The houses have become bigger. There are more cars on the road. Bigger cars. These have dwarfed the parks.

Three of us walked around for a bit, trying to find the memory of a happy simple past. We couldn’t. People walking by stared at us, wondering why we were walking around, staring at the houses. Every block has an iron gate and a security guard manning it. The park looks forlorn. Kids probably don’t play there anymore. Cars clog the road, honking impatiently. Everyone is in a hurry today.

We got back into our car, drove around for a while and then drove away.

I had gone to the old neighbourhood with a memory in my heart and with the hope of reliving the past. But the past is… well, past. Long gone and the present is so far removed from what was that it hurts. Sometimes the past is best left in our memory, rosy, happy, and lovely.

I will go back to my old neighbourhood again but this time it’ll be in my thoughts, in my dreams and probably in my writing. And for this, I wouldn’t need the assistance of Google Maps.

2 thoughts on “Back to the Past

  1. You describe your childhood neighborhood so well, Kanchana. I was almost there, reliving my own childhood years spent in a middle-class locality in Delhi. My late father was the manager of Golcha Cinema and we lived in a cinema quarter in Darya Ganj. Those days, it was a happening place and we often saw the cars of the foreign dignitaries from the window of our apartment. Thanks for taking me back to the happy hours spent playing with my friends at the Hindi Park every evening. The roads were broader and greener and the air fresher back then. Decades later, when I visited the place with my husband, the place had changed beyond recognition. Overcome with shock and disappointment, I felt suffocated in those crowded lanes. That’s why I could very well relate to your own experience. You’re so right when you say, “Sometimes the past is best left behind in our memories

    1. I’m so happy you read and liked the post. Yes, sometimes the past seems beautiful and we want to relive it, hoping to relive the wonderful bygone as they were. But, alas what is past is gone forever and it’s best left in our memories.

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