This story is especially for Sharmila who ridicules me for scaling the water tank on the terrace at my dad’s building to have wine.
As a backdrop, I need to first explain two generic words used by Bengalis. The first one is “ye”. This is basically a word thrown to mean anything or everything – especially when you cannot remember the real name – or probably ever knew. A common English colloquial equivalent would be “whatchamacallit” or “that thingy”. Hope you get the general drift.
My parents – throughout my childhood – were a tad more conservative than the peer group I grew up with. There were three absolute no-nos for me and my sibling when we were growing up. First was watching Hindi movies (this is where they differed from most all my other friends’ parents I knew) – especially listening to the “laareylappa” songs. Not sure what “laareylappa” truly meant – but I am sure for my dad it translated to “not Rabindrasangeet”. The second prohibition was around smoking cigarettes. The third was around drinking. This might explain why I have never watched Sholay (actually, I do not think I have watched more than three or four Hindi movies in my entire life), never puffed a single puff so far and had my first sip of any alcohol at the age of 32!
And it is that alcohol that brings me to Bengali’s second generic word. You see, for Bengalis till a certain generation – for my parents anyways – the concept of social drinking was non existent. If you drink then you automatically slip down to the lowest rung of society. The whole gamut of your finest bottle of a cabernet to the local potent toddy was summarily dismissed as “mod”. They were all the same source of social evil, thank you very much. The society – according to them anyways – were divided by a deep chasm – the “modo maatals” (drunkards) and the “bhalo chheleys” (otherwise, good guys). You were either destined to be staggering or a staggering success, as it were.
Crossing that chasm was not for the weak of the heart when it came to figuring out how to have a glass of wine or two in Durgapur or Kalyani at my parents’ place. The Durgapur part was relatively simpler – Sharmila and I simply went to “Big Bazar” – name of a shopping mall – which is the excuse we gave to our parents while we went to some local restaurant that served some bad wine. Incidentally, my dad – who grew up with little money and is not exactly aligned with consumerism – was always mighty pleased with Sharmila that in spite of so many evenings being spent shopping in Big Bazar, she never actually bought anything and came home empty handed.
In Kalyani, the problem was a little more subtle. For one, there was no good spot to go and drink. So the solution was to insource the problem. In other words, find some place to drink at home. Dad’s place was ruled out for obvious reasons. Sister’s place was also dicey since mom could walk in any day. Eventually, the problem was solved by hauling our wine bottle and some spicy snacks up to the terrace and then scale the water tank every evening to commence our imbibing. Even if mom came up to the terrace, she would not scale the water tank.
That practice continued for years. And was a constant source for Sharmila to ridicule me and my brother. One fine evening, rains intervened and we had to bundle ourselves back down to my sister’s house. Where we were promptly busted when my mom walked in and saw all of us sitting and having a good time. She made nothing of it. If anything, much to our chagrin, she came and sat among us. Talk of some awkward moments. My brother praising the “soda” we were drinking was at best a noble attempt but a thoroughly unsuccessful one, by my reckoning.
The interesting part is my mom never made a fuss about it and would come and join us every evening after that. You might even remember how she sat with us in the bar of a resort we had taken our parents to one time and had drinks with us (she, of course, had a mocktail). That practice then continued for some time. Everybody knew what was going on. Nobody ever talked about it. You just never explicitly mentioned it by name. And my dad was none the wiser in the bargain.
Finally, we were emboldened to even drink in our dad’s house. Like I said, mom was cool. Dad had no idea.
The crowning glory came yesterday. We were all sitting down with my dad in our veranda outside and were chatting while enjoying the mild wind in an otherwise hot and sultry evening. When my mom walked up and said “Toder “ye”-tar saathey aajkay pniyaji banaabo”. In other words, she offered to make onion fritters for us to go with “that thingy” for the evening. My dad tried asking what she was talking about. She simply brushed him aside.
My brother and I kept looking at each other. Did our mom just encourage us to drink?
Wow! We have come long ways.
So there, Sharmila Roy – you can’t ridicule my brother and me anymore. Our mother makes “pniyaji” to go with that “ye” thing. Let me see you getting your mom to do that now!