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Rated: 13+ · Essay · Contest Entry · #2147619
"Cherish all your happy moments; they make a fine cushion for old age." - Booth Tarkington
"Cherish all your happy moments; they make a fine cushion for old age." - Booth Tarkington

All Words: 2068


Two days ago, my Dad's youngest brother, aged 73, left for Mumbai after visiting us in Bangalore for five days. My Dad, who turns 83 tomorrow, is the seventh of nine brothers, and emotionally closest to his youngest brother.

It was fascinating to listen in to their conversations.

They talked of their mother, who had married their father when she was nine years old and he was 14. Their eldest brother was born when their mother was only eleven.

Dad's earliest memory is of when he was a toddler, and the entire family had driven seven hours in a 7-seater Chevrolet, from the city of Mumbai to a hill station called Mahabaleshwar. "It was really cold. I was in my mother's lap. There was no electricity in Mahabaleshwar, in those days, so the entire family was huddled round a coal fire. The fire was emitting sparks. I was feeling nice and warm in my mother's lap."

Families in India often try to live close to one another. Dad's uncle was a neighbour and tech-savvy for the day. He could make his own home movies. One day, he told Dad (aged about 6) that he would play the role of a child-magician in a movie. "How do I do that?" Dad asked, all agog. His uncle explained. Dad would be given an empty hat to hold. He needed to show that hat to the camera, establishing that there was nothing in it. Then, they would switch the camera off and put an apple in the hat. Uncle would proceed to switch the camera back on, and Dad would hold out the apple. Voila! An apple emerging from an empty hat! Dad's Mom disapproved of his old shirt, for a movie, so he was given a newish silk shirt to put on. It was worn over his shorts, which had the drawstring hanging loose. So Dad, in a bright, too-short silk shirt with the drawstring of his shorts showing underneath, became a magician pulling fruit out of an empty hat.

Dad recalled some nursery rhymes he was taught. One of them loosely translates in to -- "A business man is forever a business man, even if you hit him against a wall." It wasn't frowned upon in those days, to spoof on someone's profession or trade.

The brothers talked of times when India was still under British rule, and Dad participated in a Quit India march, at the age of seven. Young boys marched down the street, to the corner, and burned an effigy of Winston Churchill. Dad had no idea who Churchill was, but was fascinated at being allowed to play with matches to set the straw-figure alight.

He recalled stories of the British trying to speak in Hindi. One story tells of a dhobhi (washerman), who was serving three Britishers. One Englishman lived at the base of the hill, the other somewhere in the middle, and the third right on top. The washerman collected their unwashed clothes, washed them by pounding them against a wet stone, and delivered them to their owners when clean and dry. These deliveries were done on the back of a donkey. However, by the time he had delivered the clothes to the 'sahib' (boss) at the bottom of the hill, and then the middle of the hill, he no longer had a heavy enough load to warrant the use of the donkey. So he carried the rest up himself. The 'sahib' at the top of the hill was upset -- he, apparently, wasn't important enough to have his clothes delivered on the beast's back. Outraged, he yelled at the washerman, in his newly acquired Hindi -- "The man at the bottom of the hill is a donkey, the man in the middle of the hill is a donkey, am I not a donkey, too?" Upon receiving the washerman's assurance that he wasn't, indeed, a donkey, the Englishman grew angry and insisted the washerman call him a donkey, which the bewildered dhobhi finally did.

Conversely, Indian schoolboys, used to communication in their mother-tongue or regional language, found English intriguing. Thus, the nursery rhyme "I hear thunder" was learnt 'by heart', as a series of sounds, rather than as words with meaning. The rhyme goes thus:

I hear thunder, I hear thunder
So do you, so do you
Pitter patter raindrops,
Pitter patter raindrops,
All wet through,
All wet through.

Dad and his classmates couldn't understand a word of that, but imitated the teacher's gestures with great gusto, and rendered it thus:

Aya thanda, aya thanda
So yoooo yooooo so yooo yoooo
Pitta patta randa
Pitta patta randa
All et thooooo
All et thooooo

In Hindi, 'Aya thanda' loosely translates to 'here comes cold', and 'thoo' means to spit ... so the boys thought they were spitting in the cold. Needless to say, the 'thooooo' was done with great enthusiasm and a lot of fake (and some real) spitting!

The same was true of the marches the boys participated in, asking the British for independence. None of them had heard the word 'independence' before, but they knew they had to march on the streets shouting 'We want independence!' The word for fountain-pen (the type of pen you fill up with ink before you can write) was indi-pen. Hence, the children thought they were asking the British to give them fountain pens! During the street-marches, they yelled 'We want indi-pens!" I wonder what they felt when they didn't get the coveted pens. Maybe it urged them to shout louder at the next march.

Dad giggled as he talked of his 'thread' ceremony. This is a ceremony held for boys between 7 and 11 years of age, to signify their readiness for a formal education. They have to pretend that they're going to leave their parents' house to seek a 'guru' (teacher), and the parents have to try to stop them from leaving. What Dad did was -- he actually ran away from the ceremonial hall, in to a getaway car he had waiting with the family chauffeur at the wheel. He got the chauffeur to drive him to a call-box, made a call to the hall's reception desk (this was before the days of mobile phones, remember) and told his frantic family he wouldn't return unless he was given a whole bunch of gifts. (I think he actually got one of them -- a pen.)

This is a photo of my friend's son's thread ceremony. You can see the priest, the boy and the boy's father. Note that the boy's father is wearing his sacred 'thread' ... he'd have been through this ceremony as a child.

Thread ceremony

With great hilarity, my Dad and his brother recalled the time they went for a haircut to the barber-shop. Dad must've been about eight years old then. The barber asked them whether they wanted a shampoo as well as a haircut. They hadn't the foggiest notion what a shampoo was, but it sounded interesting, and they replied in the affirmative. Their heads were then put in a sink and unceremoniously splashed with water -- at which both boys yelled, "Oh, he's washing our hair," in realization.

On 15 August 1947, India's independence day, Dad and some of his brothers piled in to the car at midnight and were driven around town by their father, to see the decorations. At one point, the road was too narrow for the car to turn around comfortably, and my grandfather requested some pavement-dwellers to wake up and move so he could turn the car around. Some of them obliged, but one homeless man snapped, "Hey, rich guy, it might be independence day for you, but it isn't for us poor folk." Until then, the brothers had probably not realised their privileged status, in a society of great inequality of income.

Dad had penpals from all over the world. Letters, in those days, took about two weeks each way. Dad swapped stamps with his penpals -- waiting a month for the stamps to come back in exchange! "I wonder if today's kids even understand this. We hardly used telephones for calls across cities or countries. We communicated by ordinary post, what is now referred to as snail-mail. We wrote letters by hand or typed them out on a manual typewriter, using carbon-paper for copies."

Dad at typewriter

Dad and his brother talked of their days in the US of A. Dad was in UCLA from 1952 to 1957, and has played bit-roles in Hollywood films. He has even had lunch at the 20th Century Fox cafeteria with the legendary Marilyn Monroe, whom he refers to as Norma Jean.

He has no pictures of his dates with Norma Jean, but there are other photos. Photos of family picnics. Photos of wedding ceremonies with 2,000 guests, asked to pose in groups of maybe fifteen or twenty, peering self-consciously at the camera. Photos of young men driving cars through the countryside -- my grandfather loved buying cars and his sons loved taking long drives in them. (That's my Dad, leaning against the car. His elder brother is at the wheel.)

Teenage Dad with older brother at the wheel

And this is where things became more fascinating, when new technology met old memories.

The two brothers, 73 and 83 years old, huddled together, digital camera in hand and desk-top computer on desk. Slowly, old, yellowing black-and-white photographs were converted to digital format. Collages were made, linking people or themes. Emails were sent out to the family e-group, resulting in a flood of responses from sisters-in-law and cousins, adding their two-bits' worth to an anecdote.

Dad took a smartphone class, to learn how to Whatsapp some of these pictures. Here he is, creating a group to share memories across four generations of smartphone users.

Dad smartphone class

My Dad and his brothers have seen history being made. Their memories evoke another era, another way of life. And today, when arthritis makes it difficult for him to travel, he can use modern technology to pass these memories on to future generations.

My generation, my niece's generation, and my niece's daughters' generation -- all of us marvel at the memories they share. The days before ready-made shirts were available in India (all clothes had to be specifically tailored, here, you couldn't buy them off the rack). Dad's third-eldest brother went to the state of Goa, then under Portuguese rule, and came back bearing shirts, which were displayed to the whole family. "Not cloth, I bought shirts, just like that!" he told the awestruck family. He also described driving on the 'wrong' (right!) side of the road, in Goa. Indians drive on the left side, the Portuguese drive on the right side.

My Dad emails the family e-group with anecdotes about food. "I was about six years old and got hungry while playing with the neighbourhood kids. So I came home and asked my aunt for a snack. She had nothing on hand to give me, so she handed over a 1 paisa coin. 1 paisa was 1/64th of a rupee, the lowest coin you could get in those days. I went to the shop on the ground floor of our apartment house. For that 1 paisa, I asked for chivda , and was given so much chivda that I could share it with my four playmates and still have some left over!"

In the meantime, in Mumbai, my Dad's grand-niece listens to the memories of others in my Dad's generation. She is part of the Citizens' Archive of India, and they're attempting to preserve memories for posterity. She has everyone from army generals to homemakers describing their childhoods.

Read more about the Citizens' Archive of India here:


And there's a group that is bringing grandparents' stories to 'grandchildren' in remote areas. The Storywallahs believe that storytellers need listeners, and that the generation gap can be bridged with stories. They've set up a project to record the elderly folk narrating stories (complete with sound effects and props like puppets), and they bring these stories to schoolchildren miles away.

See the grandparents sharing their stories here:


So, in India, memories from a bygone day are revived and nurtured -- and shared, thanks to modern technology, creating a bridge between generations and a treasure for the future.

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