Oh, the happy days of childhood.
Now, I am not one of those who believe that childhood was a period of unbridled bliss. I remember perfectly well the terrors and tears and finding out the hard way what was right and what was not, what would work and what would not, and who would tolerate you and who would not.
But then, it had its moments.
Most of those moments, the magical moments of childhood, were, in my case, spent in the garden. In those days we were in Chandigarh, and we lived in a sprawling (as I remember it) house with a rambling, overgrown garden at the back and a smaller, neater lawn in front. Apart from the flower bed of blood red poppies, the charms of the front lawn were lost on me. It was the back garden that I loved to wander it. Now that was a real garden – the sort you could get lost in.
It was lined with fruit trees on three sides (the house being on the fourth). Off-hand, I can remember guava (delicious when eaten under-ripe and often un-washed but sprinkled with black salt), mango (a huge spreading tree, lovely to sit in, under or behind), loquat (the only time I saw this tree or ate this fruit), lemon (or something like it), fig (I never liked the looks of this fruit but the tree was easy to climb), litchi (guaranteed to make you sticky in no time when the fruit was ripe), and chickoo (or sapota, which nobody else in the family would go near). There was also a gnarled old frangipani tree in the front, near the gate, with lovely, fragrant flowers, and a grape vine that climbed over the garage wall. A creeper near the front door had grown so old and thick and strong that you could sit in it like a swing. And there was a huge peepal tree near the kitchen door, which eventually had to be cut down because its roots were wreaking havoc under the walls of the building.
The cutting down of this tree was an event in itself. For several days after a truckload of men had come and sawn it down, the bole of the tree lay outside the kitchen door, roots sticking up in any which way. After they had cleared this away, I bravely decided to plant a loquat seed in the same place. Several days after planting the seed, nothing had happened. I think, in my impatience, I was expecting a full-fledged, fruit bearing loquat tree to be evident by then, which it clearly wasn’t. I dug up the seed, and found that it was, in fact, in the process of sending out a shoot, or something like that. I covered it up again, but nothing ever came of it.
At the back of the back garden was a hedge with a barbed wire fence behind it. It was not a very impenetrable hedge and we (my sister and I) used to slip through it with impunity. Of course, we had good reason: it was the only barrier separating us from the Rose Garden.
The Rose Garden was exciting for two reasons. One, it extended the boundaries of our little kingdom manifold, quite apart from opening up a vista of roses. Two, and more importantly, it contained the Ice Cream Stall. On innumerable occasions, having begged a few rupees from our parents, we raced down the garden, through the hedge and across the Rose Garden, straight to the ice cream stall with its tantalizing deep freeze of goodies.
Ice cream and fruit trees apart, I specially remember the April thunderstorms of childhood; nothing in adult life quite rivals the awe and thrill that these would generate in me. First, the wind would roar and howl, banging windows and doors shut and, as often as not, breaking a pane or two of glass. My mother would rush around trying to close everything before the wind got to it. There was quite a lot to close: windows in four bedrooms, a study, living, room, dining room, pantry, and kitchen; two sets of French windows; front and back door. Then, the clothes hung out to dry had to be whipped off the line before they became grey with dust and sopping wet with the rain that would soon follow.
Meanwhile, trees bent and swayed drunkenly, threatening to come crashing down. Dust and leaves were whipped up, whirled around and deposited everywhere. After a few minutes, new elements would be added to the action. There would be crashing thunder and lightening, and the sky would grow dark, cool and ominous. Then suddenly, a hush. Quiet. Stillness. Nature was taking a deep breath, waiting, waiting to unleash a torrent of rain with yet more thunder, lightning and gale force winds.
Amidst all this high drama, I would wander out of the house and roam among the flying leaves and moaning trees in the back garden. Usually, I was holding an endless conversation with my imaginary companions. And when the rain came down, in sheets and blankets, sometimes accompanied by hail, my imaginary friends and I would get thoroughly wet in no time at all and enjoy every moment of it.
That’s why I say that, at times, childhood was a wonderful experience. Nowadays, when it rains, I grumble about the mud and slush and the lousy drainage, am happy that my washed clothes are safe and dry in my tiny covered verandah, don’t have to worry about the windows, which are all closed, or the doors which are wooden. I stand in the covered verandah, warm and dry, holding a cup of something hot, and admire the rain from a safe distance. My imaginary friends have gone to distant places and the garden of my childhood years is nothing more than a happy memory.