Nita hesitated slightly, then pursing her lips, walked through the ornate black columns of the entrance to 6 May fair road, Owner’s Court, a sprawling complex housing two identical apartment buildings back-to-back. She had lived in one of the apartments, in the front facing building for six years, between 1977-1983. She had been eleven when her father took up a job with a new company and they moved to the residential colony attached to the factory site, on the fringes of the city. That was where she had done most of her growing up but this apartment in the posh centre of the city was where she had memories of her early childhood.
As she approached the lounge with its uniformed doorman, her eyes peered hopeful of seeing Vimal Uncle the moustached hirsute day time guard. Whose uncle , the already balding pate she recalled from thirty years ago must probably have passed on to the other world.
The guard was new, a prim and proper clean shaven youth, judging by his features, from the Northern hill states. Nita went red in the face explaining she had lived here as a child and was hoping to take a peek at her old home. The earliest one she had clear recollections of.
“We were on the first floor, flat number 24B, it had a black door,’ she blurted the last sentence out in desperation as the guard looked unresponsive and somewhat wary.
‘Do the krishnanis still live on the penthouse floor?’, Nita enquired in a moment of inspiration, to earn the guard’s trust. She knew very well they did. They were owners of the flat and from a prominent Sindhi business family that had made Calcutta their home. Her elder brother keptin touch with the two Krishnani boys still.
The guard now suddenly became alert and made her a hasty gesture of salute. He offered to accompany her to the Krishnani’s tenth floor flat, but she politely declined, saying she would take the elevator. “First, I would like to look at my old home, if I may. Don’t worry, I will just ring the doorbell and introduce myself and see if the new owners will mind me taking a peek.”
The guard said to call for him if she needed help.
Nita climbed up the stairs gently tracing her fingers on the smooth silver steel balustrade intact from her childhood. The entrance lounge had changed into a heavily furnished and elaborate waiting area.
But the stairs took her back to an enchanted past immediately.
Nita jumped the stairs three at a time, in her skimpy pink shorts and her yellow tee shirt, which daddy had bought for her from the novel new air-conditioned market that had opened on Theatre road. She pretended that the landing was a deep crocodile infested river, the stairs were safe land and harbour. All the children played this game in the evening, running up and down the stairs, the appointed crocodile rushing to grab the unwary child who had stepped down to the landing, tarrying a moment too long in the ‘river.’
She played alone because it was only 8 am, a bright sunshiny October morning of their fortnight’s worth of fall holidays. A time when all over India festivities were in full swing. In the east goddess Durga was invoked, for ten days, and in the north, it was Rama felicitated as the ideal Indian king and divine avatar of Lord Vishnu, through the nine days Ram-Navami. So Nita jumped up from bed brushed her teeth, bathed and donned her best casuals, playing on the stairs and the landing by herself after a quick cup of warm Horlicks.
The shining super smooth balustrade was broad and inviting, soon she was using it as a slide to slither down at a satisfying speed jumping off at each landing till, she reached the lounge. Where Vimal uncle smiled but hollered at her, ‘Don’t fall down little girl!’
Nita wouldn’t have, light and adept little monkey that she was. Anyways her portion of this makeshift slide was only two floors in length, first to ground, then ground to the lounge.
Her big brother, the Kukreja and Krishnani boys slid from the penthouse apartment landing till ten floors below.
‘Nita darling, why aren’t you wearing a party frock child?’, a warm voice suddenly enquired from behind her, as she climbed back up the stairs to her landing. It was mother’s youngest sister Moon mashi (Aunt) who was still in college. In her hands was a gift-wrapped package and Nita could make out there were Cadburys inside, her eyes brightened, and she said, ‘Moon Mashi, come in, Ma is making breakfast, Ma look who’s here!’
Her kind dimpled round faced mother beamed her pleasure at seeing her beloved kid sister, as moon mashi asked, ‘Rangadi, (Elder sister), why isn’t Nita wearing the birthday frock ma stitched for her? Oh, Ma will come in time for lunch with some items she is cooking for Nita’s birthday.’
“Oh no. we forgot the date.’ Ma’s face clouded in dismay, as she rushed to ring up her husband at his workplace. A much pampered and secure Nita watched her mother’s guilty demeanour in amusement. ‘Why were birthdays such a big deal?’, she wondered. Except for a grand fifth birthday bash, they usually celebrated with a birthday cake, rice pudding and a good dinner within the family. Gifts were not a must but given sometimes, the cake was consumed with gusto. This year her birthday, which was in October had fallen on the same day as the day after the end of Durga Puja, (which lasted ten days), so it must have been a bit of an anti-climax for her parents. They had plumb forgotten the celebrations of their daughter’s birthday.
Dad arrived home by 5 pm with a whopping big chocolate cake from Flury’s and by then mother and grandmother had cooked up some delicious fragrant dishes as well, and a hastily concocted list of guests had been prepared, then invited over the telephone.
The two-bedroom apartment, even with its spacious drawing and dining room opening into a grilled balcony was overflowing. The guests were mostly daddy’s office colleagues with children, Shiraz and his parents and twin girls belonging to an aunty, who was daddy’s personal secretary. There were a few friends of her collegiate mashi who petted her and plied her with candy and toys. A neighbour who was Nita’s mother’s friend, who brought a shy five-year-old daughter in tow.
Ringing the doorbell to her old home, forty-one-year-old Nita smiled at the memory of that evening. Guests sprawling everywhere, Shiraz’s dad Khan uncle nursing a drink, while PD Paul uncle was banished to the balcony with other smokers, their children herded together in Nita and her brother’s pastel blue bedroom, eyeing each other shyly. Nita’s fifteen-year-old brother Sumit, far from shy, took charge, of the children, swiftly organizing board games of monopoly and Ludo. After getting everyone to introduce themselves. She still remembered Ishani, their five-year-old neighbour who had tagged along mercilessly after Nita since that evening, right till they had left the flat around January 1984. It had been a strange four-month friendship between her and the little girl.
Nita stared at the black varnished front door with a lump in her throat, it looked unchanged as if when the door opened, she would see her moon-faced pretty mother in a paisley nightdress, with a tomato red house coat on top, pass the potted plant at the entrance and enter the airy cream and beige drawing room, with its wall-to-wall lime green brocade curtains.
She thought of their then brand-new sofa couch in its elegant French design, which had relegated the old lumpy green brocade upholstered sofa set to other corners, the eggshell white Formica table on its tapering ebony legs, where she had sat dangling her skinny legs and nursing her warm Horlicks. Regarding the soft boiled or poached egg that was her usual breakfast with a bored air. Wishing secretly for an omelette. Piling jam on her toast till mommy snatched away the jam jar.
The front door opened, and there stood a somewhat full-figured lady in a batik print voluminous kaftan, with a shiny black plait and a nose stud. She looked a little harried and did not smile. Nita closed her eyes briefly in shamefaced awkwardness. “I am so sorry for disturbing you like this ma’am,’ she finally opened her eyes, smiled and ventured, ‘I lived here in between 1977-84, from the ages of five till eleven, and it holds some of my fondest memories, of growing up, of my parents. I was just passing by, and on an impulse, I thought,
Perhaps I could drop in for just a peek at my childhood home?’
Nita’s eyes widened in a soft unspoken plea, and as the other lady scrutinized her, she smiled and said, pointing inside, ‘our little piano shaped telephone table used to stand there, and our telephone number was 471943.’
The lady smiled, ‘Well that has changed.’ Her grin broadened, ‘The area code has added a 2 before the 47, please come in my dear. But on one condition, you won’t leave your childhood home without taking some refreshments at least. How about a lemonade or iced tea?’
Nita acquiesced, feeling overwhelmed, both by the lady’s hospitality and that her wild shot in the dark had paid off. Secretly she had been dreading having the door slammed shut on her face as if she was a pesky salesperson.
The spacious front hall had been painted with dual colours. The lengths facing each other was still a pleasing cream, but the opposing breadths were a dramatic brick red, with flowery silk cream curtains shading the balcony from her view. All the furniture was extremely posh, and a stately light cream chaise lounge sofa took up the wall space with a varnished gold mahogany centre table at one end, resting on an artistic tangle of cunningly carved, fibrous root like feet. At the balcony end was a dark slim rosewood table with the telephone and a small crystal chandelier study lamp.
The lady who had introduced herself as Nilofer came back from the kitchen with a silver tray on which there were two crystal glasses of iced tea, and a platter of lemon cheese and honey, English crackers. The dining table was similar enough, white like their Formica topped oval wooden one, but it was rectangular and made of wrought iron. The chairs had an intricacy of floral pattern, and the tabletop was covered in lace doilies under which there was a lacy tablecloth. It was all so dainty and feminine, so tastefully done up.
It was not home.
Home had been a little less coordinated, with slightly dusty furniture surfaces, heavy wooden comfortable beds, and bookshelves crammed with encyclopaedias, bound volumes of daddy’s Time magazine and mommy’s Reader’s digests and the children’s Twinkle and Chanda Mama comics.
As Nilofer went to answer a sudden telephone call, Nita went into a trance where she was eight years old again, in the same space set in another time, where she was sitting sleepily at the dining table after breakfast, watching tiny intrepid sparrows thread their way across their light green and cream flowered carpet foraging for breadcrumbs. One flew right up to the tabletop, surveyed the child Nita with inquisitive beady brown eyeballs before pecking busily at the available crumbs. The moment mommy returned from the kitchen with a steaming saucepan of hot chicken curry, the brave bird took wings and was gone in a heartbeat through a gap in the glass paned sliding white wooden doors to the balcony.
Which adult Nita now fastened her eyes upon sipping her cool glass of delicious iced tea, nibbling on a melt in the mouth English cracker, so delicious with its drizzle of honey and lemon flavoured cheese. Nilofer was really a warm and kind hostess, a lovely lady who deserved to be the occupant of Flat 24B of Owner’s Court, on 6 Mayfair road. Her childhood castle, her parental palace and her isle of safety in an increasingly uncertain grown-up world.
A world where innocent glass paned welcoming white wooden doors to an open sunlit balcony was eschewed in favour of one, with one way dark tinted glass doors, which cautiously measured the light it allowed inside and hid its occupants from the view of casual onlookers or foraging sparrows.
(c) Amrita Valan 2021