We didn’t have television until I was fourteen, and went to the movies only very occasionally. Though we had a telephone, we rarely used it, and in any case all our family was too far away to call; if we received a long-distance call we panicked, assuming that it was bringing bad news. And of course, without computers or the internet we couldn’t use email, instant messaging, social networking sites, or any of the channels children use to communicate with each other today, neither could we download music or order stuff online. But we had our own ways of entertaining ourselves, communicating with our friends, and keeping secrets from adults.
As parents and educators, we struggle to decipher the shorthand of young people’s e-mails and text-messages. But as children, we too developed elaborate secret codes. At the age of ten, my best friend Puttu and I didn’t just mess around with Pig-Latin, we mastered it. Coming from our mouths it sounded so fluent that it could and did pass for a real language. We’d tell people that we were cousins and that we were speaking Russian. No one challenged us, which was surprising, come to think of it, since there were several visiting scholars from the Soviet Union on the IIT campus in the sixties. Perhaps we spoke with such assurance that it never occurred to anyone to doubt us; or if they doubted, they didn’t dare question us, because together we were a force to be reckoned with. But Mitu and some of our other friends could exclude me by speaking the Bengali equivalent of pig-Latin. Bengali was my third language in school, and though I could more-or-less get the gist of a conversation if it was spoken slowly, I didn’t have a chance with rapid-fire Bangla in code.
Parents today worry about our children playing phone or internet pranks, stalking or being stalked by strangers online. But as children we stalked complete strangers in the flesh, just for the fun of it. Once Puttu and I climbed over the courtyard wall and sneaked into Mitu’s house while her family was entertaining guests, just to prove that we could. At first they were completely unaware of us, but as we were congratulating ourselves on our success, they heard something, and let the dogs out. We managed to get away, by the skin of our teeth, but I never ran so fast in my life, heart pounding, terrified not only that we would be mauled, but that we would be caught and publicly shamed.
Teachers are despairing as their students surreptitiously check Facebook and send texts in class, holding their phones below desk level and pulling their baseball caps down low so that their eyes do not betray them. But I would read surreptitiously during class, holding my book below desk level and listening to the teacher with half an ear in case I was called on. In the monsoons when thousands of little red velvet bugs came out after a rain, we would collect them and bring them to school in pencil cases and empty biscuit tins filled with moist earth, lifting up our hinged desk lids to check on them during class.
Chronically unable to sleep during the daytime, I read my way through the long, hot afternoons. Every few months my parents would let me go through the latest Penguin Books catalog for the new Puffin titles, and I could order half a dozen or so. What a thrill when the delicious brown-paper parcel arrived, and I had hours of pleasure to look forward to, as I entered and became completely absorbed in myriad other worlds. Some of the younger children’s books we read aloud, my Dad doing all the different voices. He particularly delighted in doing a mock French accent in Anatole and the Cat, “Quelle horreur!” becoming a favorite exclamation in our household, along with “billions of blue blistering barnacles!” and other colorful expletives from Tin-Tin’s Captain Haddock.
Friends would gather at our house and my mother would organize activities for us. One winter vacation we rehearsed and performed her adaptation of Amahl and the Night Visitors. At other times Mum gave us word games to play. We actually enjoyed doing exercises from Ronald Ridout’s English Today, a textbook my parents had picked up for me in London along with history, Latin, and social studies texts, to supplement my convent-school curriculum in Kharagpur. It may be hard now to imagine how much pleasure we extracted from that one book. In a typical exercise, we had to come up with as many different action verbs as possible to use in a series of sentences instead of the verbs “to walk” or “to run,” substituting, say, trot, amble, waddle, hobble, limp, shuffle, skip, saunter, bound, or harry, as appropriate. Sound lame? It was such fun.
As parents and teachers we wonder at young people’s need to be constantly in touch, texting each other obsessively 24/7. But we too couldn’t bear to part with our friends. Puttu and I lived at opposite ends of the same short but lonely street. At night I would walk her home, then she would walk me back, then I would walk her home again. Finally, we would walk halfway down the street together, stop, turn, and race back to our respective houses in the dark.