As I look back at my childhood days, it feels like a dream! Sometimes it seems as if those days were not in this lifetime! My daughters have no idea that I ever lived that kind of a life, went to a school that operated out of a government residential building, sat on the floor and went barefoot since no one else wore shoes.
In 1977 Bapi got transferred from Rourkela to Cuttack. I was admitted in a small primary school in grade 5. Cuttack had its own charm. It was the biggest town of Odisha and also the place of my ancestral home. Both my parents were from Cuttack. However it was the first time I was living there.
There was a delay in Bapi getting an official bungalow in Cuttack. So for a couple of years we lived in a rented house in the outskirts of the town, beyond the bus stand.
The area was full of paddy fields, with farmers growing all kinds of vegetables. There was a well in the backyard of our house. The boundary wall of the house overlooked a paddy field. It belonged to one very friendly and elderly farmer. We called him ‘Mausa’ (uncle). He would often come home to sell his home grown vegetables. Many times Maa would ask me to get some vegetables from Mausa. I would drag a stool next to the wall, climb on it and place the order by shouting it out to Mausa working in the field. Buying vegetables over the wall was a regular event.
There was a pond inside the boundary wall of our house. It would often overflow in monsoon. The path from the gate till the doorway would be submerged under water. We would put blocks of bricks and make an elevated pathway to save our feet from getting wet. Small fish would swim around the brick blocks. Couple of times we saw snakes swimming around those brick blocks and sliding down inside the pond. One day I took a strainer and caught some small fish in it. When I came back home overjoyed with my possession, my mother started screaming at me – ‘they are not fish. They are tadpoles that you have caught!!!’
In 6th Grade, I moved to high school. The school was around 40 minutes’ walk from home. My sister and I used to walk down to the school along with other kids from the neighbourhood in a big group, chatting all the way. It was special fun to walk in heavy rain and reach the school all drenched only to wait expectantly for the headmaster to declare a rainy day holiday. After a while my sister and I were given a new raincoat each. I still remember the colours – one was blue and the other one green. After getting the raincoats, we would eagerly pray for rain everyday so that we could wear them.
Parents used to be exceptionally strict at our times. I remember a friend refusing to attend school one day since she did not have an umbrella. Her father would not listen to any such excuses. I distinctly remember her walking along with us wearing a cane headgear and us laughing all the way. It looked something like this (pic below J). Life was such a simple affair then.
Eventually we moved to the government bungalow. It was a big bungalow with a big garden with all types of flowers, Kamini, Madhabi Lata and many others. Mahanadi was just at the back of our house, at a walking distance. It looked beautiful and serene; full of greenery and small deltas in it. Many times we three sisters went for strolls along the river.
Once Bapi planned to teach us photography using his German Agfa camera. He took all of us to the old Barabati fort. Three of us started taking pictures of the river, trees and various other scenery. It was then that I spotted two ponies grazing in the nearby field. I wanted to be photographed with them at the background. I asked my eldest sister to click the picture. As I kept getting closer to the ponies, she warned me – “Don’t go too close. Ponies have the habit of kicking with their rear feet”. But it was too late. As I was posing with the brown pony peacefully grazing with its face down, I experienced a sudden jolt and extreme pain on my right thigh. Through the corner of my eyes I saw the pony had raised both its rear feet together and had kicked me! It was not only painful, but humiliating for a 10 year old to have been kicked by a pony. My sisters came running towards me asking if I was alright. The kick was so quick that they were not sure if it really happened or not. With a straight face I assured them that no such thing has ever happened. I admitted to them only at night when the pain became unbearable and I could hardly walk without a limp. Till date I remain the only member in the family to have been kicked by a pony.
While in Rourkela, I remember having a friend in school in 4th grade. She had an unusual name. Her name was Muna Panda. We were great friends. However she was very embarrassed about her name. She would make great effort to explain how her father had come to the school without her and got her admitted. Since he did not know her good name (which was Anjali), he wrote her pet name on the register. It was quite believable in those days when many dads didn’t know their kid’s formal names or which grade they studied in. I left Rourkela at the end of 4th grade and never came to know if Muna Panda got to change her name at a later stage.