How I miss the long summers of childhood: the ‘remembered present’!

Ratnakar Tripathy recalls childhood summers spent in the hot plains of East Champaran, where sweetest memories are of the sourest pickles!

By Ratnakar Tripathy

As is usual with adult amnesia, after growing up I almost forgot about the joys of summer and could only think of them with a sense of impending third degree. Summer became the time for utter and unrelieved suffering. Now it occurs to me that despite having grown up in a hill station, quite absurdly it might seem, I spent most of my summers in the village in the hot plains of what is now East Champaran but used to be plain Champaran.  But as I scan through my adolescent and childhood memories, I do not detect a note of alarm or regret. All I remember is lot of highly involved and engaging fun. It was indeed a busy time spent almost entirely in the village orchards, markets and the fields.

A day in the life of a holidaying kid
The mornings began with a stern reminder from my parents to study. As I dutifully took my seat face to face with Euclid, I was soon distracted by friends who passed my window one after the other, not forgetting to make funny faces through the grill. Most of them ended up never going to a school. But I remember going through bouts of bitter envy as I saw them move beyond the confines of parental supervision. Typically, the boys came swaying on the backs of buffaloes, whereas the girls carried spades and gunny sacks for the grass they were meant to bring home and were often followed by small procession of goats and gamboling kids with tiny bells around their delicate necks. As I saw them go past I got more and more restless, looking for a chance to escape. I remember forwarding the clock once to show my study time was up and got a dirty look from my father. But he also seemed to secretly enjoy the fact that a town bred boy like me felt so much at home in village, even if I seemed way too much at home, at times.

Pickled!
My sweetest memories of such days are the sourest too, sour only in a very literal sense. Our small group of boys and girls was fast turning into a gang of highly skilled pickle makers. I smuggled out some mustard oil and salt, those being my contribution as the rich kid. We ran all over the orchards picking raw mangoes from the ground. These tiny fruits incredibly were skillfully peeled by the girls with the help of large spades. We then found some chilies from here and there. I remember filling my pockets with occasional rice or wheat from home so that we could barter with some sugar from the village grocers, never mind the large black ants buried in the heaps that I removed disgustedly. The tiny mangoes were chopped up into wee pieces, salt and some sugar got mixed, oil got poured – all that into a gamchha [towel]. After the mixing, the boys and girls bundled the mix and swung it around with great vigour, taking turns for after all, we called our delicacy ‘amjhor' [shaken mango]. For obvious reasons, the exercise reminded me of centripetal and centrifugal forces diagrams from my physics text book. But I also remember there was a girl called Janaki from the potters’ caste who acted superior.

‘You need to shake it a bit more’, she would say imperiously, as I drooled with impatience and sweated with happy anticipation.

If we did not manage to lick away our entire stock of amjhor and managed to save some, the next item on the menu were raw sweet potatoes, stolen and hurriedly dug up from the fields of a family not our own. The adults wisely withdrew from the fields to shady trees and verandas, and we were free to roam and poach all over the place.

The friendships I made during the blistering hot summer months became permanent but had to be renewed every year. With each passing year, the boys grew bigger and worldlier before I did, since they took to grueling work and were no longer available for childish sport. The girls grew into women and I could no longer pull their long hair by way of bullying them, nor could they think of biting back in desperate retaliation.

But even now when I go back to the village, the moment they see me they have that special glint in their eyes and occasionally a very wicked grin that seems strangely out of place on solemn grandfatherly faces. Our eyes, I suppose do all the talking and we keep mum about our shared mischief.

Such are memories! They may come from the past but it is the present they truly belong to! As ‘The Remembered present’, which is how the well known neurologist Gerald M. Edelman would put it!

Ratnakar Tripathy edits bihardays.com and is a researcher and writer. He can be contacted at editor@bihardays.com