Wednesday, November 26, 2008

My Piano Teacher

My piano teacher in Calcutta was a little old lady called Mrs. Beresford-Scott. She was one of the ‘Staying On’ (like the book by Paul Scott) Britishers. She lived in a small flat in an old apartment block on Park Street, very close to Flury’s the bakery of the time. It was a tiny flat. Her sitting room—where she held her music classes, had the piano, and a couple of sofas and a lovely bay window with some seating in the window. She gave piano lessons as well as voice lessons. I only went to her for piano lessons. But I remember a lady built along operatic lines, coming to her for voice training.
She was a strict, but good teacher. She really taught me to express the feeling in a piece of music. Though I got rapped on my knuckles occasionally, I was very fond of her. Sometimes, she played a piece for us, and she played with feeling, although her hands were old and gnarled.
Once a month, Mrs. Scott would go to the hairdresser (as I can recall). There she would be with her white hair freshly blued and set in determined waves. Those were the days of big rollers, large hair drying hoods and plenty of hair-spray. The day after the visit to the hairdresser, she would occasionally use a little rouge too, apart from her usual lipstick.
Occasionally, if she was pleased with her students, she would send one of us down to Flury’s to buy a pastry for each for us, as a special treat. I knew she was fond of me, because I practised regularly, even scales. I just loved playing and she knew that. So I was a recipient of the pastries quite a few times.
I went to music class with her for at least 4 years. But we never went into any other part of her flat. I don’t ever remember even using the bathroom there. Just the one time, she sent me into her bedroom to get something. It was a tiny bedroom, crammed with furniture. There were a few photographs around and I was dying to look at them closely, but was scared that she might come looking for me, if I took too much time. I remember seeing these pictures on a dresser, of a young man in uniform. I couldn’t resist looking at that photograph closely, as it was at eye level. I wondered whether it was her son. She never spoke of family—husband or children. Never once in those 4 years, did I ever see any visitors in her flat.
Many years later, my sister was living in Calcutta, on Park Street, not far from where Mrs. Beresford-Scott had lived and my sister found out that she had passed away quite a few years before. May she have found music aplenty on the other side.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

My pet squirrel

The sight of a hamster recently, reminded me of the squirrel(chipmunk really) I had as a pet for a while, when I was maybe 13. This was in Calcutta.
One evening, I remember going for a walk--with whom I can't remember. We lived off Camac Street then and when we turned into one of the darker streets, we saw this man selling baby squirrels. He had 3 with him. The price for one was 50 paise. Since that fit in well with my budget, I bought one. The squirrel was absolutely tiny. The man who sold it to me said that it would have to be fed milk as it was too tiny to eat.

(Image courtesy Wikimedia-animal photos.)

I remember I took it home and then made a nest in a shoe box, lining it with cotton wool and maybe bits of cloth. I laid the little thing carefully inside and tried to feed it with an ink dropper with milk. But it was too small and weak even for that. Then I dipped some cotton wool in milk and made a little teat with one end and put it into the little squirrel's mouth. It happily sucked that. Now when I think about it, it must have been my persistence and sheer love of the animal that this little thing survived.
I can't remember what I named the animal (can't remember if it was male or female even). But very soon it learnt it's name and would come when I called. By this time Chippy (for convenience I'll call it Chippy and assume it's female) was too big for the shoe box and was allowed the run of the house. When I went to school in the morning, Chippy would run up the curtains in my room and stay there. I would leave a bit of food in her shoe box. When I returned from school and called out her name, Chippy would come down chattering away, and then she would be with me till my bedtime, either on my lap, or in the pocket of my skirt, or on my head. I had long, thick hair then, which hung in 2 braids and the squirrel's absolutely favourite place was to climb up and sit on my head just under a braid. Chippy came with me to the dining table, in spite of my mother's grumbles. But then she too got used to it, because Chippy really was so well behaved.
Once I took Chippy to school without telling my mother. On looking back, I can't imagine how I had the guts to do that--smuggling a squirrel out of the house and into school--because I was basically very law-abiding; not at all one of those wild rebellious kinds. Anyway Chippy came with me and I hid her in my desk during each lesson period. We had those old-fashioned wooden desks with lift-up lids. I kept the lid a teeny-weeny bit open with my eraser, so that Chippy would have air. In between the lessons I let her out. For one lesson, I couldn't push her back into my desk; instead she sat quietly on my head, under my braid with only her tail hanging down. But since said tail was well hidden by my hair, we didn't get caught! It was a relief to get back home without any incident. I was heroine of the class for the day :)
I guess the fact that it was an all girls school made for the peaceful day. I bet if there had been boys in the class, some tamasha would have taken place and Chippy and I would have been caught.
One day when I returned from school, there was no Chippy. I called and called but she was nowhere to be found. The only explanation I have is that the window was open that day and either one of the cats came in and caught her, or she decided to go back to nature. But I fear it must have been the former, because otherwise I am sure Chippy would have come back to the window at least once to see me.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Sounds I loved

Recently I was thinking about the sounds that I grew up with and that I had loved, while growing up--in both Bombay and Calcutta.
There were the early morning Bhajans, if you woke up early enough; there was the Muslim Call to prayer, beautiful and haunting; then, as the day went by, various vendors with such musical calls--'Appoos, appoos (Bombay during mango season); the man seliing seetmeats door--to-door, the chiudawalla (selling spicy crispies)the knife sharpening man with his humming, flying wheel; the key repair man going 'chinnkk, chinnk, chinnk' as he swung the big ring with all the keys on it; then there was the man who fluffed the cotton in one's pillows and mattresses with and instrument I don't the name of but was shaped like a big single string musical instrument. You heard the low 'boing, boing, boing' and knew who it was. Along with this was of course the ice-cream and kulfi cart. I also vaguely remember in Bombay, the gaiwalla--milkman--who came with his herd, maybe a couple of buffaloes and a cow, and stood outside folk's gates and milked the animal of choice in front of you and gave you the milk so you knew you weren't being cheated.
When I got married and came to live in Kerala I realised how much I missed these sounds. But then those sounds were replaced by the sounds of local vendors. Here, now if I get up early enough, I do sometimes get to hear the early morning prayer from the nearest temple and occasionally a very faint Muslim call to prayer in the evening. Besides, as I am working, I no longer heard the regular day sounds because I am not at home anymore at the time when the vendors go by. Ah well, time goes on and the world has changed.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Recently, when tidying the topmost shelf of my cupboard, I came across a diary I had kept in 1966 (yes I still have it). It was the year I was in the 11th standard in school, the last year of school, when I did my Senior Cambridge exams.
Reading the diary brought back so many memories of school and my growing up days in Calcutta.  It brought back to me so many of my favourite places --School (on Middleton Row), Oxford Book store, which was then a library too and was one of my totally fave places; my piano lessons from a little old Scottish lady, who lived in a small flat near Flury's; the antiques stores on Park Street outside which I window shopped so much; Victoria Memorial, St. Paul's Cathedral, where I sang in the choir; New Market; the Alipore Zoo, so loved, and frequently visited.
Along with these should also be added favourite foods from Cal days--pastries from Flury's; pattice, meat puffs, from Nahum's in New Market; kathi rolls outside New Market; rock candy sticks from New Market (haven't seen them anywhere else); puchhkas from the man outside school or from in front of Victoria Memorial; black salt pieces, carefully wrapped and licked surreptitiously during break; lovely Gujarati food provided by a sweet old couple in school; Kalimpong Dairy farm stuff; Chinese food from somewhere on Park Street or sometimes from Free School Street (still about the best Indian Chinese I've eaten); mishti doi, rasgullas, sandesh, from wherever (can't decide which I like more); what's more here, where I am in Kerala, it's impossible to get authentic versions of any of the above *sigh*.
I was able to go back to Calcutta quite a few times after my children were born, maybe not for the best of reasons (my eldest son used to be taken there to see an orthopaedic doctor), but I still enjoyed myself and my children also got to love some of these foods.  But I haven't been for several years now--maybe around 15 years or more.  I guess I should schedule a trip for myself to see what Kolkata looks like now as against my Calcutta.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Unfortunately my sharpest memory of boarding school is not very pleasant. I contracted Hepatitis A in my second year there, and it was a pretty bad attack. I remember being repeatedly sick and being put in the infirmary (yes, that's what our sick room was called). The worst thing about Hep A during it's worst stages, is the total lack of interest in food and the puking! The time I got it was near Easter and my mother had ordered for a big chocolate Easter egg to be delivered to me. The sisters very kindly brought me a piece of the egg. I took a bite of it, more because my eyes were hungry, and probably brought it all up! I couldn't look at chocolate Easter eggs for quite a while.

After about 10 days there, (so it seems to me now), my mother landed up all the way from Bombay, to take care of her very sick chick. What a relief it was to see her! She promptly got permission for me to leave the hostel till the doctor certified me free of the Hep A. She then stayed with me somewhere nearby for around 2 weeks, by which time I could atleast look at food without loathing. She then brought me down to Kerala for our traditional treatment of Hep A. But by then I was rid of the Hep A virus. I went back to school around a week later.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The whole boarding school way of life was still quite Brit at that time (remember it was only 13 years after Independence). I was there only for 2 years. I went in in the 4th standard(grade) and was moved to the 5th in the middle of the year (what was called a double-promotion). When I moved to the 6th it was the 1st Form(yes, as in Enid Blyton & the England of those days).
I remember among my chosen extra-curricular activities were ballet and riding. I like watching ballet and love ballet music, but I realised, pretty early, that I was too clumsy to be good at it.
But riding I loved, more because I love animals I think. We were taught on sturdy ponies, who had all been used to having green kids, try to control them. So they were very gentle. I so loved their horsey smell and the brushing them afterwards. I remember once, as a special treat, I was allowed to ride our instructor's horse, a beautiful big, black horse and the thrill of it. Incidentally, our riding instructor was an English woman, one of those who had decided to stay on. There were quite a few of them in Ooty, and the horse was her own. All the ponies were for hire from the men who kept them for tourists near Ooty Lake. Of course, after leaving Ooty there's been no chance to ride.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I went off to Boarding school in Ooty when I was 8, which should make it '60 January. I can't remember the logic for being sent off to boarding school except that both my elder brothers had been in boarding school--in Ooty. There was also the fact that my mother probably found it difficult to manage the 3 of us younger children together. Anyway, whatever the reasons, I went.
I remember getting together all the requisite clothes and my mother getting name tags--my name, machine stitched on a tape roll kind of thing. It was pretty easy to get something like that done in Bombay of that time. Then my mother took me to the book store in Flora Fountain and brought me 'The Naughtiest Girl in School' by Enid Blyton and a sequel, writing on the inside cover 'I hope you won't be the naughtiest girl'. [I loved the book and the character, but I was never like the heroine, being the sort who almost always followed rules and was rebellious only in my mind!]
The next most important thing was getting one's tuck box ready. For that, one was expected to have a box, into which all the food items from home were to be packed. These were then given into the custody of the nun who was one of those associated with the dining room & kitchens. What I remember most was a raspberry shaped sweet (like the orange shaped ones), pink in colour and sour-sweet, which I loved. There were certainly some of these in the tuck box. Any medicines that were needed were also to be specified. I was, in general, a healthy 8 year old. But it was usual to be given a multi-vitamin tonic and the in one in those days was Feradol, a sort of malty concoction. In the cooler weather of Ooty it got thick and was somehow much tastier and so almost and addition to the tuck box :).
I remember the day I was to leave, all of us girls who were part of the Bombay party, had to assemble at the Villa Theresa convent and all our luggage--box of clothes, tuck box and bedroll, given to the nuns. After that we all headed for the station, where there was a whole first class carriage reserved for us. I think I was one of the very few South Indians. Most of the other girls were Parsis. Anyway, we were all asked to take our places in our assigned compartments, after saying our good byes. Now my mother, having been brought up as a good Anglican, was very stiff-upper-lip, in the old Brit style. So she shed not a tear, which made me also hold my tears in. Besides this whole 'travelling in a gang' thing was exciting. I was fine through the 3 day journey. I enjoyed every bit of it---the carriage being shunted into a lay-by at Madras station, the day trip out to Madras, the changing of trains at Mettupalayam for the small Nilgiris Blue Train, the putting on of cardigans as the weather grew cooler at the higher altitudes--were all new and interesting experiences. I didn't cry even on the first night after getting to school. What finally did me in was when after about 3 days I woke up in the night to hear one of our school nannies snoring in exactly the same tone as my mother's snore! That brought the tears in earnest and I cried enough to make up for the past week I think. I can say I settled down and was very happy. But that's not really true. I stuck it out in a fairly well adjusted manner, but I was deeply homesick. Luckily it was only for 2 years. More on that later.