Seeta’s childhood was spent in a sleepy suburb on the outskirts of Delhi, unremarkable, and no different from any other, except for the fact that her grandparents had an orchard. Their house was the largest house in the entire neighbourhood and their garden was an orchard. The wrought iron gate at the back of the house was rusty but no one looked at it, only at the splendid neem whose gnarled trunk had a peeling bark and a pungent scent.
The gravel path which leads from the tree was used for rollerblading by Seeta and her cousin Golu, but it was grossly inappropriate for it, arms flailing they would inevitably roll down backward crashing into either the gate or the neem.
When they were six years old they went on the terraced roof of the house. It was frequently used for drying pickled lime and home-made chips which would be spread on bed sheets and left under the sun. But the day they went on the roof there was wheat spread out on a white sheet. It was to be sifted through later, and the pebbles or husk which got among the grains had to be separated with a sieve.
They had just emerged from a haven held downstairs and still had semolina pudding in the cups of their hands, but they lost no time in licking their fingers and jumping onto the wheat. They cupped the wheat in their hands and chanted Om Namah Shivaya, letting it fall into the pretend sacrificial pyre they imaged, in imitation of the havan downstairs. First, they let the grains fall in this pretend pyre and only later onto themselves. When their aunt found them a while later the grains were scattered over half the roof glinting in the sunlight and the children themselves were dusted with gold.
They were often reprimanded for mischief. One of their favourite games was standing on the headstand of their grandfather’s bed and leaping flat faced like a starfish onto the mattress as if it was a pool full of water. The game ended the day Seeta jumped a little too far and the bridge of her nose struck against the polished metallic edge of the bed. There was no blood though in later recounting of the incident by Golu profuse blood was added and copious tears that Seeta shed the entire day. The latter bit was true; Seeta had shed tears for the better part of the day. Cartwheels and kala mundi continued though and both the children were adept at it, exhibiting their skills in the garden though Golu cartwheeled into a hedge once and the gardener refused to work in a household where his plants would be subjected to such torture.
They were water children, though none would exhibit this trait more than Seeta’s younger brother Nonu, born when she was six years old. He had a tub in which he would bathe and splash himself with water, till his lips turned blue from the cold and his toes and fingers crinkled as if crepe. He would show them proudly while Seeta rubbed him with a towel and threatened to tell mother. This threat he would laugh at knowing his sister’s soft spot for him - she loved him as she loved no other. Years later she would see strips of Calvin in the newspaper and think how his hair stood on his head like her younger brother’s did.
When her brother was two years old she decided that the games that she devised for him had to be different from those that she played with Golu who was after all of her own age. She decided to try hide and seek. They would play in all the unoccupied rooms of the house. In their own room and in the large drawing room where you could not run and where the table placed in the middle of the room ominous with crystal figurines placed on it was a source of terror. When Seeta spotted where her little brother was hiding he would run and circle around this table delighted that she could not approach for she feared crashing into it and breaking the crystal.
Nonu, would hide behind the heavy thick curtains of the drawing room and wait to be caught. He would peep out from there just when he could be seen and Seeta would close her eyes to prolong the game and make a big show of fruitlessly searching in all the corners of the room - behind sofa’s and under tables. When she finally spotted him peeping out from behind the curtains, she would run to lift him and he would laugh gleeful and swing in her arms.
When they were eight years old, Seeta and Golu decided to try to ride a cycle. They were quick to learn and whenever the cycle wobbled and gave them difficulty they would simply jump off it on to the lawn. This continued for weeks until an uncle of theirs who was visiting showed them a better way.
Their other amusement apart from cycling was playing chess which Seeta’s father had taught her and she tried her level best to induct Golu in the proper moves of the game but was steadfastly ignored. Whenever she would corner the King and shout check he would either start retracting his previous moves or his King would become omnipotent assuming powers usually held by the Queen and would start moving in huge sweeps across the board to avoid the assailant. At this point, the game would end, and Seeta would deliver a monologue on the rules of play and Golu would develop selective hearing and his comprehension skills would suddenly suffer a drastic reduction.
When it rained the children would develop other amusements. Nonu was not allowed to play in the rain as he caught a cold too quickly but the others could not be restrained. Whenever it rained the spouts would gush out water and they would wade barefoot under them. One day it rained so much that the drains near the house were overflowing with muddy water and Seeta staged an accident while playing catch me if you can - Her cousin panicked and said that he couldn’t find Seeta and everyone assumed that she had fallen in the drain. The whole house was in an uproar. Attention seeking Seeta who was hiding behind a tree was spotted by a neighbour who mercifully shouted out her location over the wall. Her mother beat her with a ruler later because she was so angry - and that was what made Seeta grow out of practical jokes.
Playing with the mud in the rain was such an enjoyable past time that it outstripped all others as the favourite. One day the children took it to an extreme. They had been travelling by car and were headed back home - when they spotted a mountain of cement near the roadside. It was raining and some of it had turned to slush. They insisted so much that they wanted to roll in it despite being told repeatedly that they couldn’t be left near the road. At last the adults grew tired, told them to get out of the car and drove off. They had intended to come back by the U-turn which was ahead in the road and were only trying to scare the children. After all the children were not the only one who could play practical jokes; as a ploy it was brilliant and they succeeded in scaring the children so much that as the car was driving off - Golu and Seeta who had jumped out with much enthusiasm stood stock still and ashen with alarm. They were still silent when three minutes later the car circled back and they quietly clambered in speechless for the rest of the way.
Seeta’s father who was in the Merchant Navy used to be home for three months in a year and away for the rest. When he was home he would tutor his child in mathematics. He was brilliant at mathematics – he had never taken an examination in mathematics in his entire life in which he had not managed to secure full marks. This talent had not passed on to his poetic and dreamy daughter who did not even like classical music because of the beats it involved, and this despite being told several times by those who knew about such things, that she sang like an angel.
Every morning the poor man would move a wooden table in the middle of the verandah and place two chairs opposite each other. Brilliant at maths he might have been but at disciplining his daughter he was a total failure who would wrench the hairs on the arm of her father to amuse herself. He could never raise his voice at her and even when he did it was in so distraught a voice as if it hurt him to do this that she took the entire proceedings as a joke. But she loved him and for his sake did the study. She got a distinction in the final examinations against the expectations of her mother who predicted after witnessing the studies on the verandah that she would fail.
As a present, her father swung her in his arms and she floated light in the air and jumped right on to his feet whenever he tried to put her down. Her father could not believe the sadism of his child. Anyway he had other things to worry about - he worried that his daughter had a slight squint - a wide eye it was called, and used to drive her to Meerut every day for reiki and acupuncture. Both of them loved eating potato chips and her father used to buy two packets, one for them each. He would only eat half of his and the rest was passed on to Seeta.
This policy was buying two separate packets was encouraged by her father because of an incident famed in their household. The family had been to Rotterdam where her father’s ship was docking and was walking along the port, Seeta three years old and with a bag of crisps. Her father put his hand in the packet without asking her, and she was so infuriated at sharing the tomato flavoured chips that she threw the entire packet on the road. The gulls swooped down immediately seeing the chips scattered to the wind and the sea. After this, no one ever dared ask Seeta for any crisps and were hesitant to accept even if she offered them voluntarily.
Her father stayed the entire winter - and decided to inculcate the values of physical exercise in her. He thought she read too much and that this should be balanced with daily morning walks. They would get up at the crack of dawn and walk kilometers. She could only measure the passage of time by the fact that when they set out the sun was nowhere to be seen and now it gleamed brightly in the sky. She had been feeding small stray puppies with rotis all through summer but now they had grown and big. Whenever they saw her they would lope towards her in affection and expecting food but now she shrank away from them - they had grown too large and had big teeth, they no longer seemed small and vulnerable.
One morning when they set out under what was still a starry sky, they spotted the cord of a radiator in the driveway of their home. It was from the car her father said. The bonnets were opened and sure enough, they had been burgled. She tried to inspect for clues later in the afternoon feeling like a detective but could not find any.
After her father left Seeta was at a loss as to what to do with her mornings. This feeling of unoccupied time and heart lasted a very short while though as her cousin had learnt how to build a swing out of ropes. He swung these over the neem tree and knotted them together. One had to sit on the rope and kick at the ground with one’s feet. A cushion was provided for Seeta who refused to sit without one. They spent many long afternoons at the swing. When it got too hot they would get some neembupani for themselves but they would not go inside.
Their garden also had two big mango trees, a lemon tree, and a guava tree. The guava tree was just the right size for Seeta to climb up. She would sit on the lowest branch and read Wuthering Heights and Swami and Friends. One day engaged while reading the former book she fell into a dreamy doze and was about to topple off the tree. She did topple, in fact, but was saved by her trousers which got caught in another branch and she hung upside down screaming for help while everyone inside the house was snoozing on this dull Sunday. Left to her own resourcefulness she reached out to another lower branch and managed to hoist herself to on to it. This adventure had cost her the trousers but Seeta never grudged anything gone into the making of a story. She had a splendid tale to recount to her grandparents in the evening when they sat together to drink chai and so she was happy.
That night there was a storm, the heat was relieved by electrical currents in the air. In the morning Seeta found a ladybird in the grass. Her uncle and aunt had been examining the damage done to the trees but Seeta could only look at the ladybird on the leaf-strewn lawn. The bougainvillea tree with its white blossoms had been swept away, the other one bearing magenta flowers was still there but the loss was still mourned. The nightingale shrub, the jasmine was still there to spread its scent in the nights to come and one could thus be grateful for what remained.
The festivals were an occasion of great joy to them. The ones they loved best were those of Holi and Diwali. On Diwali they would light diyas, Seeta was such a purist that she would scorn candles only using them sometimes to light lanterns when their long stems would come useful. Her cousin who could not let the candles go to waste would place them, also in a cluster and use his father’s lighter to light them instead of a matchstick. He had flair and was careful of exhibiting a touch of glamour in all things he did.
He would light bombs too; slim paper coated rolls with short wicks. He would light them at the flame of the candles and then throw them wherever he felt like it – they would explode in the air with loud bursts of noise. Once he threw them on the saree of a visiting relative - it burst in her lap. It was a harmless bomb except for the noise which it caused but her cousin was under strict supervision for the rest of the festival and Seeta had to plead on his behalf.
It was Holi though when they were really in their element. So were the uncles in their household - who would revert to adolescence on the day and would fling everyone who came with mithai to their house in the mudpit before they greeted them. Sometimes the boxes of gunjiya would be soaked in the mud along with the unsuspecting guest and Seeta and Golu lamented the loss of the sweets.
But Golu and Seeta did their own preparations before the festival. All of them devious and foolproof. Like the digging of the pit filled with mud was done the evening before, they too used a water pistol to fill balloons with water which they stored in buckets. They also rubbed their skins with castor oil so that any colour or ointment which their friends or foes would rub on them would have no effect.
One memorable Holi they had made so many balloons that they wondered what to do with those that were left over. Golu had an idea - to go to the terrace and throw them from there on to people driving scooters and motorcycles. Seeta would never manage to duck out of sight fast enough. The motorists would see her peeping out from over the wall and hurl abuse. They managed to make a lanky fellow on a dilapidated bike almost skid but such successes were intermittent. Golu was not a very good shot and the ones Seeta would throw would be so limply thrown that they were bouncing on the road without bursting.
Often their other cousins, Dhruv and Shivira would come for Holi and would stay on longer. On these visits, there would be endless board games and they would play dumb charades at which the girls excelled. The boys were better at badminton but luckily for the girls preferred cricket. Seeta and Shivira would play badminton till the shuttle got lost in the hedges when they would take to playing catch me if you can and hide and seek.
One evening when they were playing one of these games it got very dark and they found that there was no moon in the sky. The hiding places got easier but they could not be found no matter how hard they were sought and so it got rather tiresome. Bored and gloomy they were walking to the outhouse where they could try hopscotch. Suddenly they saw a disembodied hand throw a brick over the wall. Three of them screamed and Dhruv who didn’t claim that he had been too stunned. What they claimed to have seen later varied only in particulars - Golu who had been the nearest to the wall had been startled by a brick landing at his feet. Seeta and Shivira swore that it came from over the wall and that they had seen a hand in a white sleeve throwing it. Dhruv said that he just saw it dropping out of the sky but that he heard an eerie moaning sound.
The plot next to their house was vacant but a little preliminary construction had been going on and labourers sometimes camped over there. But after an hour of discussion when they got a ladder and peeped over the wall they saw no one over there, not even a light. And after all, why would a labourer throw a brick? Dhruv said that he had goosebumps seeing the brick, Seeta said that she too had been rooted to the spot - there had been something uncanny in it. Shivira elaborated at length the starched white sleeve with had swung with a flourish but disagreed with Seeta about the colour of his fingers. They all agreed that it had been a ghost and that they were lucky to escape with their lives.
Sometimes she would go and visit her maternal grandparents too who had a bit of wild country behind their house. One weekend, her mother’s brother was also on a visit and had bought his daughter. She and her cousin decided to play with the son of the watchman at the gate and had told him to come and look for them after counting to fifty. In the meantime, they had found two trees with the thickest of shrubbery around them and were hiding there. Suddenly Seeta saw a snake approaching her cousin - it was a thin brown snake but with a wide fan; a cobra and it was coiled but stealthily inching towards her cousin with its fan spread wide. Seeta who had only seen snakes on the discovery channel before, stood looking at it, she wasn’t sure if its posture was one of attack though she did know that snakes did not harm unless threatened. It glinted in the sunlight and left marks in the sand which had accumulated on the gravel path. She shouted loudly to her cousin, ‘Run, there’s a snake’ and they both took off almost at the same moment towards the verandah. Later, they found out from the watchman’s son that some snakes did live in that area burrowing holes in the sand between the rocks and that is why he did not play there much. For the rest of the spring holidays, Seeta made her cousin run errands for her, it was a debt the cousin had to pay since Seeta had saved her life!
She had brought a book of stamps and a pouch of coins. These were her father’s. He had collected these multi-coloured stamps on various journeys to foreign lands and the coins too. Seeta would show them to anyone who would care to see and all her cousins were as dazzled by it as she was. But the book was stolen that spring, stolen or lost; it could not be conclusively determined what had happened. But Seeta, when it wasn’t found anywhere, could not be induced to broach the subject anymore and spent much of the evenings moping. Only the birds in the trees whom she loved to listen to in the evenings and the peacock’s feathers she found one day comforted her - for there were peacocks too in that area who would roam on the lawn when it was not inhabited by humans and would shed their feathers as an offering, a gift. She presented these feathers to her mother in a bunch with great solemnity, who placed them on the mantelpiece. But they must have fallen from there on to the ground for they were swept by the cleaning lady, along with the dust, straight into the dustbins placed behind the kitchen.
That summer her father said that he would not be home for the holidays, when he would finally manage to come home she was told, she would have started school and would not have any mornings free to spend with him. Seeta, who used to walk in her father’s shoes, oversized and smelly and comforting, and who loved her father dearly was furious. He promised her a present as compensation. She said she wanted a bookcase which would hold all her books. He said he would build her one himself, with sliding glass panes and drawers at the bottom. She turned thirteen that summer and it was the arrival of the bookcase which signaled the end of her childhood. She discovered books, where they were no garden, but there were stories which opened her mind to things she never knew - to enchanted lands and wondrous places. Along with the Atlas, Roget’s Thesaurus, a small book of idioms, the Dorling Kindersley science encyclopaedia, Wren and Martin, the Lord of the Rings was the first book to be placed in the case and she did not feel what she had lost, the comfort of an orchard and the idyllic past times because of the bookcase.
At school, she was doing well now, especially in the subjects traditionally grouped under the label ‘the humanities.’ One day when she was found not wearing a tie, yet again, this was the third time in a row that it had happened, her class teacher who taught languages asked her to write a poem on the ‘benefits of wearing a tie.’ How would she write a poem, her classmates asked? How would she make it rhyme? She did write one perfectly rhymed, with cadences that came from having a poet’s ear, but which was subversive, it ended with the lines – ‘I’ll never wear a tie, I’ll never wear a tie!’ She had composed it by the end of the school day and when their teacher came to collect them for lunch, handed it into her. She was asked to read it aloud in class and all her friends marvelled, gathered and clustered around her. How is it done? they asked. But Seeta did not know the answer to that herself. The processes of composition were mysterious.
Her habit of reading and writing and her love of music were to remain with her for the next four years after which she went to college, a law school, and was inducted into the practical and straight-laced realities of life. But that is a tale told elsewhere, that tale does not belong here. Here, she sat with her grandmother in the verandah shelling peas, while the monkeys tried to wear her shirt which she had slung on the washing line without plastic clips. Here in memory, it was always summer.