Josna Rege

63. Secrecy and Velvet Bugs

In 1960s, Books, Childhood, India, Stories on July 28, 2010 at 10:30 am

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.

from Prisoners of the Sun via

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.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. I remember those red velvet bugs! We collected gorgeous jewel-toned beetles from our neighbour’s bushes. I never found them anywhere else but there. They must have liked the particular kind of bush that made up their hedge. Thinking back I would guess they were what we call a May hedge or even Duranta. I wasn’t paying any attention to the plants when I was 7!
    My dad loved bugs as well although he particularly disliked the taste of fresh coriander (cilantro, here) and he wrinkled up his nose and called it “bug juice”!
    I assumed from that some experience he might have had as a boy when he tasted, or was forced to taste a real bug! Being a very short fellow until he was about 21, I could imagine bullies going after him although he never said anything about that. My brother was also slow to reach his final height when he was very young, and I know that he was bullied horribly in school.

    • How our associations take us from textures to tastes, bugs to bullies! Bullying is a terrible thing. It’s so much harder for boys to be small; I was always small, but because I was a girl, my shrimpy size was more likely to be considered cute.

  2. Josna, thanks for putting the current FB/texting culture of our students into this context…it’s so true–though we were without that technology, I remember how as middle school kids (girls especially) we wrote long notes to each other, both during school and outside of school…and then spent (if our parents didn’t cut us off) hours talking to each other in the evenings…

    • Yes, Sejal–we desperately needed to be connected at all times! Almost nothing was more important. I remember when Nikhil and his friends parted, they all would hug each other as if they were going to be separated for years, not see each other at school the next morning. But I do know how they felt.

  3. I too used to walk my friends home, who would in turn walk me back etc. It was very difficult to part, almost as if some spell might be broken and we’d wake up as strangers to each other the next day. Children don’t simply have a want, but a NEED to spend time with their peers in ‘the world of childhood’.

    • Dear Jan, So true, and beautifully expressed. And it’s not just in the world of childhood that we need our friends. I love having my cousin write on my blog–in fact, I NEED it! Hugs, Jo

  4. Me and my best friend Meera also have similar memories….we had deviced a way to talk without talkin……Teachers would punish us if found talking to anybody in the class. so we would write…just like we wud chat online today….but in a code launguage. We used to find it super cool…..And just like u and ur frnd we also used to keep walking each other and then finally decide to walk half way and then run home….after a while when we had become a little older it had become a habit……wat fun days……Thanks for this story Jojo Atya….

    • Glad that this brought back happy girlhood memories, Pallavi. Yes, those friendships are so very close; and a secret code language that only the two of you share is super-cool. Sadly, I lost touch with my best friend, though I still hope that we may reconnect one of these days. How about you and Meera? Thanks for commenting; I love being able to share these similar stories.

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