Anil’s story- Chapter one:Early years — India — 1944 to 1957
Source: Google photo of writing a biography
If there was a biography about you, what would the title be?
Answer : Story of a lifetime of Anil.
Note: If you use Microsoft Edge as your browser to read this blog then you will see the letter A on top right. If you click on this letter A and select a voice from the menu as American English, it will then read the blog to you if you have reading difficulties.
Note :Just click on the link below or click on the links in other languages below. It is the story of a person who struggled, faced many challenges and lived through war in Vietnam and revolutions in Haiti and Burundi. There are 14 chapters that will take you through 9 countries where he lived and worked. The chapters are written in great detail so they are a bit longer than the average,therefore I have decided to publish one chapter at a time. Later I will do the same in other languages like French, Spanish, German and Japanese and even Russian.
This is the first chapter that includes the prologue. If you like what you read, let me know with comments .I will publish them.
Source : Google photo of looking back at yesteryears
It is very tempting to write something to share with everyone online because it seems that the whole world is connected these days. Still I feel that it is a daunting task given the enormity of the responsibility that comes with the job of writing and baring one’s soul to the unknown people whom I will never meet but who may read what I write and make their own opinions.
But I also feel that it has to be done even if just to say that I do it for our children who have a right to know their parents better. I wish my father had done the same because I know practically nothing about him except that he was very intelligent and peace loving person. I know really nothing about my mother either except that she was a loving mother who sacrificed a great deal to bring us all up. I think we all owe it to our children to let them better understand us and perhaps learn from our mistakes as well as successes.
So one day I started writing. This is not just a biography but an insight into the complex relationships that develop over a period of time among people in our lives and the consequences of those relationships. It is true that I have endured difficult times and met very bad people in my life who have let me down big time but I also met wonderful people in different countries who remain friends after all these years.
So the journey of life has been a most exciting one for me because I was fortunate enough to experience it the way I did and learned many lessons and have written extensively about these experiences , some good and some bad but interesting all the same.I have mentioned good people in details and bad people only in passing because it is better to remember good people who uplift you than the ones who let you down. My opinions are mine but I do understand that others may have their own that are different from mine. If my views offend others who do not agree with them then I should say that my story is not intended that way and should be read with open mind free of prejudices and biases.
I thank all those who have lent me their helping hands during my long journey through life but mostly I thank my parents who brought me up, gave me a proper education and taught me values that are enduring and have served me well.
Lastly, I will say that without Jasmine at my side, this journey would have been less colorful and exciting. She is extraordinary and I am grateful. Our lovely children are our blessings and joy who have made this biography worth writing.
Chapter one : Early years : India -1944–1957
Source : Google photo of of my hometown known for its spirituality
Hello ! I am Anil and this is my story. It starts in 1944 in the placid city of SriRamPur where I was born but that was the year of great tension throughout India . While the World War was raging in Europe and the East, India was engulfed in its own struggle for freedom.
Source : Google photo of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose who fought the British to bring Independence to India
The Indian National Army led by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose fought pitched battle in the east in Burma on their march to Delhi to free India once and for all from the British rule but there was also the non violent protests of Mahatma Gandhi in every town, city and village. Millions marched with him demanding that the British leave and burned huge piles of western clothes in every town square .Often the peaceful marches turned violent when the British police used brutal tactics.
The vast subcontinent stirred like never before and shook the foundation of the British empire while England fought on its soil the war Germany had unleashed .They were not prepared to face the struggle of this proportion in India when they struggled for their own survival in Europe .So it was a historic period to be born in but blissfully I was unaware.
Infact I heard later that mom was not very fit to bring me into this world but fit or not, I had to come. As a result she took to the bed and took a long time to get well. I was born skinny, underweight and sickly and remained so for many years to the chagrin of my parents who tried hard to put some flesh on me. I had bloated stomach and cried a lot so my babysitter sister who was a few years older than me stuffed my mouth with sugar to pacify.
But the reason I cried a lot was because there were foot long worms in my stomach that ate all my food so I was perpetually hungry. This was remedied when I was 10 years old or so but by then the worms had done terrible damage to my constitution.
I was born in a family of seven children but I was not the last. My sister Sushmita came after me and thankfully she was the last. I do not believe my worn out mom could have brought more children to this world after her. She had eight that survived and a few that did not. But this was normal.
The little unhealthy boy was called baby which was not very imaginative but imagination was in short supply when the parents had the boring task of naming babies that kept on coming . We were three brothers and five sisters in the family . Naturally our parents tried to match their son’s names so I was named Anil, my second brother named Kamal and the eldest named Nirmal who disliked the assembly line names but that was the custom in those days.
My sisters fared better and were given more imaginative names . The youngest was named Sushmita, the next in ascending order was Annapurna then Devjani, Parvati and the eldest called Shanti.
People who do not know anything about the Indian and particularly Bengali culture may know that a child in a Hindu family is not given a proper name until the kid is one year old . Then there is a great celebration and fittingly it is called the naming ceremony when the child gets to eat from a silver plate using a silver spoon . It is purely symbolic meaning that the parents wish the child to grow up prosperous and always eat from silver plates .
This naming ceremony is or can be quite an affair depending upon of course the wealth of the parents. Even in the ordinary middle class family such as ours, the baby gets all the attention and eats his first solid meal at this time. The Indian hospitals therefore do not issue a birth certificate with a name of the child which caused no end of trouble when our daughter was born but that story will be told later.
As a baby I was given gold ornaments such as a small crescent moon that my babysitter tied on my hair after making it bunched up on top. The other ornaments included a talisman tied to my waist to ward off evils and my eyes were always daubed with kohl to make them appear bigger. These are typical accoutrements of a child . A dab of kohl on the side of the forehead completes the picture. This was also to ward off evil eyes.
My dad worked as an accountant in the Ministry of Defense and was posted in Sri Ram Pur at the time of my birth but he moved around quite a bit all over India including what is now called Pakistan so various members of our family were born in different places.
I happen to have a good memory. So good in fact that some people think I brag and certainly do not believe me when I say that I remember my first birthday.
Once I told mom that I was dressed in fineries and wearing a garland of scented white flower. I was sitting on an ekka which is a horse drawn carriage and some one was holding me up because I could not sit up straight at that age. She was clearly surprised and said that it was impossible for me to remember because it was my first birthday and we were going to the Kali temple for the traditional blessing .
At another time I told her that I remember she was carrying me and we were walking through a narrow lane somewhere where beggars were on both sides and we entered a small temple of Kali. The image was small but the tongue was huge and made of silver. Then my mother went around the image a few times carrying me in her arms so I must have been very small.
She was incredulous and said that yes she brought me to the famous Kali temple in Kolkata but how could I remember in such detail something that happened when I was but a baby ? I can not answer that but I have never been to that temple in my adult life yet I described in detail the temple, the image and the narrow lane full of beggars.
My early childhood was uneventful and I grew up I suppose just like any other kid down the block although my father was earning more than a middle class person being the chief accountant in an important government office . We were brought up frugally although always well fed and reasonably dressed. Mom saw to it that we always had shoes and clean clothes and she did not have a maid.
So my childhood starts in the rented house in a narrow lane where I spent my first 13 years or so. We lived in a house with tin roof and I remember there were always these naughty monkeys on the roof sitting leisurely preening and picking lice off each other. Often they made menacing gestures at us who mimicked them but ordinarily they meant no harm.
Until one day when Devjani, at that time a lanky 17 year old went up behind a fat big monkey and tried to push it off the ledge. Now she did not know that one can not just push a monkey off any ledge let alone our ledge .But what she also did not know that a monkey when teased can be very vengeful came as a terrible blow to her because the big fat ugly monkey grabbed her shiny black hair and pulled so hard that a bunch came off. She cried hard for a long time and never did mess with the monkeys again
My early childhood was thus spent in the company of other kids of my age in the lane or with my elders. Devjani would soon get married but Annapurna was far behind so she was my company for a while although I sought out kids my age more often than not.
Soon we would transfer to another house nearby where the rooms were bigger and had a flat roof on the third floor. This became my private domain for a while . I used to sit for hours untangling kite threads or repairing kites that always used to land on our roof. Many a times the kite fliers never knew how come their kites landed on our roof but the trick was simple. All I needed was a stone tied to a long string.
There was also a 5 feet by 6 feet room on the roof where was our playpen. The monkeys were always there on the roof watching us or waiting for us to leave a book or magazine by mistake. Not that they were great readers, they nevertheless took perverse pleasure in ripping up books just out of our reach. My first book of reading was thus a victim of these naughty monkeys.
There was a second problem with the monkeys there. I often thought that it was a joke that the landlord built the outhouse on the roof and a cruel joke at that because woe to you if you forgot to bring a stick with you. We kids suffered the most as we were always in a hurry to go to the outhouse.
The fat monkeys sat on the wall facing the outhouse when they knew that we did not have a stick and menaced us with all their canines and grunts .Our doleful cries could of course not be heard by anyone downstairs.
Before I was five years old, Nirmal, Kamal, Annapurna and myself went to the village of our father in Bengal during our summer vacation. This was my first train ride so it was interesting. The narrow gauge train of Martin Burn Co. from Kolkata was also a load of fun until we reached a small town where we had to take a ferry to cross the big river.
Now the boats in Sri Ram Pur are nice and have a cover for the rain but the boats here were flat and had no cover. To make the matter worse, it rained cats and dogs and we were soaked and cold. To get on the boat ,one had to walk on a narrow plank that the boatmen laid on the shore because of knee deep mud so it was very difficult to walk on the board made slippery with mud . We were scared but Nirmal being the eldest put on a brave face although he too was nervous.
Then the boat fought nasty waves and stank of fish as scores of fishermen brought in their baskets. All of this was very traumatic to a five year old but somehow we crossed the river and were home.
My paternal grandmother was in her eighties at that time and not a very pleasant woman. That was the last time I saw her and I never talked to her. She did not like children and sat on a big bed shouting orders that had to be obeyed instantly. She always had grapes, biscuits and many other things but never shared with anyone and often forgot to eat so they spoiled and were thrown away. I avoided her room like many other kids but her presence was felt due to her crankiness.
It looked as if their farm was doing well judging from the huge rice granaries that were always filled to the brim and they were prosperous although it was only partially true. There was plenty of rice and fruits from the garden to eat but no one had money. My grandfather had planted a huge mango orchard of choice varieties that produced tons of mangoes each summer. We kids had great fun always eating mangoes or duhat . Most of the mangoes were used to make mango candy so the women of the house had to extract the juice and spread it over huge grass mats.
After several coatings and drying in the sun, they were peeled off, cut into smaller pieces and stored in big clay jars. The sweet brown sugar made from the sap of date trees was another delight for us kids who never could have enough of it.
I was mostly left alone so I spent my time making tiny clay figurines of cows and turtles or do whatever I wanted to do like climbing trees or bathe in the stream near the house in the company of other kids.
Back in Sri Ram Pur I started my first grade schooling at a girl’s school where boys and girls were admitted up to a certain grade. That is where Shanti also started schooling after the death of her husband when she was only 18 and with a small baby. I often sat in her class next to her after my lessons were over and had to endure the unwashed smell of older girls until the time came to return home. I could not go home alone at that age because there was this huge black bull with fierce temper that often blocked the narrow lane we had to pass through so Shanti was my protection.
There is nothing remarkable about the first grade except that I learned to count and multiply by rote ,the Hindi alphabets and a few other things. The class teacher would let one kid recite the multiplication table that she wrote on the blackboard and the whole class had to repeat over and over .
It reminds me of the Italian movie Cinema Paradiso where Giancaldo kids did the same but could not remember what was five times five . We had to remember . The lunch was packed by mom in a small cigarette can and consisted of one roti with a bit of sugar and ghee and rolled like a burrito.
At home dad taught me the Bengali alphabets so I grew up bilingual like most kids of our age. The slate and graphite chalk was used .At this time Pa also taught us simple math and English alphabets.
I skipped the second grade and was admitted to the third grade in a different school which was for boys only. There was a huge play ground but the classrooms leaked during the monsoon rains and the playground flooded but on the whole this school was better and I made progress from grade to grade always at the top of the class .
I spent seven years there until I passed high school which was my first board exam .It was scary and also exciting. We had to practice the exams by answering five questions in exactly two and half hours and leave the remaining 30 minutes to review all the answers. We had to learn to write in big bold and very legible letters and always write PTO at the bottom of the page. The exams went well until the last day when I had to take the geography part II exam starting at 3 pm .
In the April heat I pedaled my bicycle furiously against a strong opposing wind and reached the school late to find that the gate was closed and the exam already started. In panic I pounded the gate until a kindhearted guard let me in and I rushed to the room and sat down very worried that I had lost so much time. On top of that my nose started bleeding because the hot air had dehydrated the inside.
The worried invigilator poured cold water on my head until the bleeding stopped and I got on with my exam. I passed all the subjects with good grade and with distinction in Sanskrit to the great joy of my teacher.
Those seven years were great fun .I was a boy scout which meant that often we had to stand by the roadside whenever some fatcat politician came to town so that part was not fun. Once we had stood waiting for Indira Gandhi for hours when she came campaigning for her father in a slum of untouchables . She did not even look at us but the kind untouchables offered food and drinks to us dehydrated kids. The teachers would not let us.
We were high born and were not to take anything from those people although at that age we did not understand the caste system well and played with everyone . What was fun though was the weekend cinema of Laurel Hardy and Walt Disney that the mobile vans always showed in the school and we could sit on both side of the bed sheet that was strung up as screen.
Then there were boy scout camp fires where we sat around singing scout songs or learned how to make messages by arranging pebbles on the sand or by using hand signals or flags. The school provided the scarf, buckle, brown keds shoes and a beret with red feathers. Our khaki shirt and shorts were always to be pressed very nicely.
I remember when I was in grade six , an accident happened. I used to be the class monitor keeping discipline while the teacher snoozed or went somewhere .The bullies did not like this because they were often punished. On that day I was suddenly pushed by one and my left hand landed on a spinning takli that a kid was using in our spinning and weaving class. The sharp end of the takli pierced my palm and nearly came out the other side which caused a great commotion in the entire school compound.
Everyone was terrified and soon the teacher came to see what all the racket was about. He was more shocked than I to see my hand crucified like that and immediately took me to a doctor to extract the spike. I never cried and shed any tears although it was quite painful. So with that thing dangling from my hand ,I was taken to a doctor who started showing me some paintings on the wall and while I looked , he suddenly yanked the takli out in one swift motion . I winced in pain but still did not cry.
Today I know that the doctor was indeed a good one because had he pulled the takli in a wrong way ,the hook at the end would have severed nerves to render my left hand useless for life. But he was good and gave me an injection , bandaged my hand and called me a brave boy.
The schoolmates waited to see if I would cry but were disappointed. My parents were shocked and very worried but a teacher came with a vial of antibiotic injection every now and then and took me to the doctor for checkup . Finally the wound healed and left a small trace.
I also had songs, drama and music lessons. In fact I was part of a team that brought back many certificates from the all district competitions. Later in the seventh grade I was chosen to go to Jhansi all state rally as part of the Sri Ram Pur contingent where I also won a third prize singing the national anthem in 52 seconds.
Jhansi was so much fun because I was a bit older to understand many things now and the long overnight train ride, the seven glorious days of competition , sight seeing in the Jhansi fort ,playing , eating and messing around without restraint was a great novelty for a young kid . Sadly all the certificates that I brought home collected dust as no one took any interest in them and were finally lost but that is another story.
It must be said that I was a serious student from the start. I took my studies so seriously that I would come home from school, do my home work for the next day before I would venture out to play . I was to be the top notcher in every class up until the ninth grade when some other kid took that position but I was never far from the top even in college years later.
I usually bought old books from senior classmates and sold my books to pay for most of them. I seldom had new books even in college and always bought papers in the market that sold by kilos to save money. I was very conscious about expenses and did not want to ask from my father unless it was absolutely necessary. I was never given any pocket money but I never resented it and always packed my roti and curry in the cigarette can for lunch even during the college days.
Once a year we had to paint the classrooms with lime that scorched our tender hands but we did it and decorated the walls with slogans of all sorts cut with stencil and a team of teachers would later visit all the class rooms to judge which was the most decorated and painted well.
My favorite game was seven stones but we also played gulli danda, marbles or tamarind seeds that we exchanged for marbles . There were other games as well like volley ball and cricket or football . I was given a small bat to play cricket because of my age and the bowlers threw condescending balls at me that I managed to miss but it was great fun all the same . It is quite unfortunate that I quit all sports when I entered college because of pressure of studies and lack of time.
The bully boys in high school tried to corner me now and then but even then I knew that some day I will defeat them in life by excelling in everything I did although I did not know how or when .
Since I am still writing about those early days, I might as well write about the park that became so much a part of my early life.
It is a lovely park full of trees and flowers and a white marble monument in the middle of acres of garden. The monument had four sides and each side had the head of a British Royalty like Queen Victoria, King George fifth etc and the walls were inscribed with something that we used to try to memorize. This was our favorite playground.
We had a gang of kids from our lane and every evening we used to go there and play and climb trees, jump over the neatly cut hedges or just fool around to the eternal dismay of the gardeners. There were a few girls of my age and I got to know some of them . One was called Anna and the other Priti.
Priti lived near our house and was my playmate for many years until we left the lane and moved to our new house. Her elder sister used to tease us by saying that Priti and I will one day get married but we as children did not understand such teasing or mind it very much.
She was a wonderful girl although not above naughtiness once in a while. She was once trying to impress me by her balancing act on the bench in the park when she fell and hurt herself. I panicked and tried to stop her bleeding by putting on chewed marigold leaves that I knew to be coagulant and expected a scolding from her father but he was nice . We often played together which caused jealousy among other kids down the lane but we ignored.
The park is near the great river where dad used to go fishing every Saturday . Later I would become his constant companion in fishing although I did not catch any fish worth mention. It was just fun to be with my father who talked to me and often asked how I was doing in school etc. I had to prepare all his rods and the baits. I had to go far to look for the earthworms every week and I learned how to tie a fish hook with silk threads or adjust the depth of the bobber. The peacock feathers made excellent bobber so I went to the central park where there were many peacocks .
In our lane lived a fellow who had a huge goat .He tied a bag on her udder but we kids often got hold of his free foraging goat and sucked the milk out. The fellow naturally got very angry when he tried milking his goat but he never found out the culprits, one of them the son of our landlord.
Then there was a fellow who was a confirmed bachelor and went out everyday at the same time being very punctual but what was funny about him was that he always left his house as if some one had kicked his butt which was a spectacle we kids never missed.
The joys of growing up were many in that lane and I suppose we did what everyone did although I do not know how many kids messed around with very nasty hornets. We caught them and tied a thread on the middle to let them fly as kite and we kept them in match boxes in our pockets.
The hornets did not like it one bit and often stung but that was the price to pay. We often exchanged hornets for marbles or other things.
There were many community festivals like Holi which is the national color festival in March and Durgapooja which happens in October but our lane was where the Dodhikando or Dhakando as we kids called it started every year. It was indeed the highlight of the year when the huge silver howdas came out of the storage and were polished all day while the elephants munched the sugarcane stalks.
We often got to ride on the elephants as a treat by our landlord who was the chief organizer of the event. A small girl was given an extensive makeup for several hours to look like Sita and another to look like Ram. After the blessing of the kids in the temple they mounted the silver howdah and the elephants moved out the lane majestically dragging behind generators that lit up the howdahs and other elephants. This was an annual event that created a lot of excitement. The crowds cheered and threw rose petals at Ram and Sita and many prayed .
The parade included the acrobats, jugglers, lathi wielding warriors and many more and made a grand tour of the entire city. The poor kids endured the heat, the noise and most of all their terrible makeup of glued sequins bravely as it was a great honor to be chosen as Ram and Sita.
Then there were fairs like Guria mela which is a doll’s fair and Siukoti fair that we never missed. Mom made a lot of sweets at those times as well as many other delicious dishes but for the Bengalis, the Durga Pooja was a great event that lasted 4 glorious days.
We all got new clothes and shoes at this time and although the old tailor Suleiman always made the clothes from the same bolt and buttonholes too small, we did not mind. Durga Pooja was fun time. One old chap used to give a select few of us satin badges that we proudly wore and whipped other truant kids who made trouble during the night shows. After all we were monitors for nothing if we did not play the part.
Annapurna developed the talent for acting so she was always in the lead role in the dramas that were always performed during the DurgaPooja. She brought home many silver medals . Nirmal was also talented and became a good artist .He won a prize in an art competition in Mumbai which was called Bombay in those days. He built a beautiful image of Saraswati one time when he was only a high schooler so indeed he was talented.He made clay figurines of great beauty that people just took away and he later learned to play electric guitar very well.
But the most neglected child of the family Kamal was a genius . He played bamboo flute so well that many people came to admire him though my folks never gave him much credit. I remember winning a prize in the elocution contest for which Annapurna drilled me endlessly .In general the whole household participated in the DurgaPooja festival because my father was very active in the committee. We collected so many sweets during the Bijoya Dashmi that followed the great Pooja that we ate for weeks afterwards. Visiting house to house was the tradition which sadly now has weakened.
Our eldest sister Shanti of whom I had written earlier was very good in embroidery and painting . Mom was always teaching the daughters the art of carpet making, embroidery, crochet and home making but only some of them learned it well and some like Annapurna not very much.
The accident that made my father partially limping was a very sorrowful event . I think I was about ten years old at that time. We were going to a place when his rickshaw overturned on a particularly bad road and he fell hard on the sidewalk breaking his hipbone. I was also hurt but not badly. He stayed prostate for over a year while the fracture healed but never could walk properly later or ride his bicycle again.
But before I close this chapter on my childhood and leave the lane for our new house elsewhere , I do like to mention that the life in that lane was never dull .We had plenty of playmates and many mischief to make so after all is said and done the fact remains that my childhood was very normal in every sense of the word . Annapurna played with her dolls and got them married and prepared a feast now and then but then she was training for an adult life that would include her marriage and cooking . But we did not play together that much and I usually sought kids of my own age and similar hankering for mischief like flying the hornets.
I think a childhood specially a happy one has a lasting effect on the adult life later . Life is like a building block at the foundation of which lies the childhood. Our home was peaceful because dad was a very peace loving person and seldom spanked or scolded us. He was content with his weekend fishing and card games while mom handled the rest of us. She was a very good mother who always starched our clothes and polished our shoes. She was also a very hard working mother who had to put up with dad’s whims when he would go to the village and bring home to raise a cousin or two.
Our uncles were dirt poor and they always demanded my father’s help in raising their kids. These cousins although lived with us for many years were always aloof and distant . Some spent nearly ten years under dad’s care but mom never complained about the expenses.
Now the same cousins avoid us and say that we got to college but they did not. I think this was very ungrateful of them because certainly they could have gone to college if they had first finished high school which they didn’t so they bitched and complained . The fact was that they were not very smart.
My parents sacrificed a great deal of time and money for them but they were total parasites who were ungrateful to boot. I never liked them because they were a fault finding lot and always jealous for no apparent reason.
I must say that among his brothers, my father was the most intelligent and most successful so they took full advantage of him. Such was his love for his poor brothers that he never complained. My dad was a saint but so was mom. She was very smart although she never went to school beyond grade three and was married at the age of 13.
Temperamentally we sibling were all different from each other but that difference did not show until we were much older. Kamal was of fierce temperament and perhaps suffered the most for it to the extent that once he ran away from home at a very tender age.
No one knew where he went and how he survived those long days he was away but one day he showed up to everyone’s relief. I knew that I could never have the courage he had at that age and was awed by him.
Thus my childhood memories are as vivid as that followed later but what was memorable about those early years so long ago was that the fact that I was happy. Dad never gave me any pocket money but it never occurred to me to ask either. We were happy without toys or nice clothes and shoes and made our own toys or games and we never complained.
I guess what made my childhood happy was that I had many playmates like Priti or Nantu in or out of school and a lovely park nearby. But I think it was more than that. I think it was the feeling that I was secure and had a stable home with rock solid parents who cared. My childhood ends here .It was fun while it lasted but now I must tell you about my college years .
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