Ruminations: The Courtyard, some Cricket and a Piece of Sky by Anwesha Basu
In this personal essay, Anwesha Basu dwells on the courtyard of her childhood home in which she has fond memories with her brother and how as they grow up those memories become distant.
The first fifteen years of my life were spent at our rented apartment in Amherst Street, Kolkata. The façade of the hundred year old building was almost peeling away, while intertwined telephone and electrical wires crisscrossed across it. It resembled your average Central Calcutta buildings; aging early due to lack of maintenance. Our ground floor apartment in this building was nothing like the 2 bhk flats we see today. Think of an inverted-U shaped apartment, with a corridor running around its borders. The two vertical arms of the inverted-U housed the rooms, whereas the horizontal strip on top was the small ‘uthoon’ (the common Bengali word for courtyard). For both my brother and I, this uthoon was our favourite part of the house. It was the only place from where one could see a bright blue rectangular portion of the sky.
From early childhood to adolescence, the uthoon was the centre of most activities in our family. As babies our red, plastic bathtub with colourful beads on its sides, was carefully placed in that part of the uthoon where sunlight streamed in abundance, Ma acutely aware of the importance of vitamin D in the otherwise damp rooms. From the photographs carefully preserved by my parents, I can gather that the one year old me did have a gala bath time playing with those sun kissed bubbles. The first vivid memory I have of my baby brother was the day I was allowed to push his pram around the uthoon. I have always been able to recall that moment so clearly: his gurgling laughter, Ma’s anxious face and even the strong smell of ‘panch foron’ (Bengali five spices) being fried in mustard oil wafting in through the kitchen. I wonder if it had actually taken place or was it a dream constructed conveniently by my brain from a concoction of myriad related memories.
The uthoon was witness to all the afternoon cricket matches, hop skip jump contests and heated arguments between us two siblings. On one particular summer vacation, when I was nine years old and my brother was six, we came up with our own version of a sports tournament. It was a four day long affair. We kick started the tournament with “catch-catch”, a simple game, where the opponent gets rewarded a point if you drop the ball instead of catching it. The score was being maintained on a piece of slate which we had hung in the corridor for everyone to see. While Day One started smoothly, things began heating up from Day Two. Cricket was on the agenda and in the absence of a neutral umpire, all hell broke loose. Blind eyes were turned to clear LBWs, sixes were counted as fours and dropped catches were declared to be legitimate ones. The scoreboard indicated a close contest and any semblance of sportsmanship spirit in either of us went for a toss. On the third day, when Ma woke up from her precious afternoon slumber only to find us hitting each other with plastic table tennis racquets, she put an end to it with an iron fist. The slate was taken down from the corridor and the scores erased. Bats, balls and racquets were confiscated. We were told that since being civil was beyond us, we deserved this fate.
As soon as Baba returned home from work, our complaints were put forth to him. Ma appeared stern and clear. Not only were our fights loud enough to wake neighbours up, they had now taken a violent turn. Our puppy faces were unable to sway Baba this time and much to our disappointment, Ma’s decision was upheld. However, a few days later she appeared to be in a conundrum. While she had been successful in reducing our fights, the same could not be said of our mischief. We had resorted to alternative options: running around the entire house at top speed trying to catch each other, playing hide and seek and upsetting the entire store room in the process and the worst of all- watching extra television. In hindsight, I admire the elegant solution my parents came up with. They would return our sports accessories and we would be granted permission to play again, but on one condition. From now on we would not play as opponents but as team members. This implied that even if I hit a six off my brother’s ball, we would both have reason to celebrate since our team’s total had increased by 6 runs. Our naïve minds had no qualms with this arrangement and we even conjured up an imaginary opponent. This novel idea ensured that for the rest of that summer, our afternoons were peaceful and the score on the slate was a summation of both our individual efforts.
Very much like clouds floating around in different shapes and sizes, in our imaginative minds, the uthoon assumed different identities throughout the course of the day. In the mornings it seemed benign and well rested, a part of it bathed in golden sunlight. While it was most inviting during the quiet afternoons, as the evening progressed it grew more and more unfamiliar. When it was finally dark enough for us to switch on the two 100 watt electrical bulbs, jumping to reach its wooden switchboard located way above our heads, playtime was over. However, a perpetual issue plagued us two siblings at night. The washroom was situated on the other side of the uthoon and if either of us was careless enough to drink more than the necessary amount of water before bedtime, he/she had to muster the courage of walking across the entire length of the unenclosed, moonlit uthoon in the middle of the night. The washed clothes hung out for drying, casting terrifying sleeve and trouser shaped shadows, across the breadth of the uthoon, added to the cinematic, sinister vibes exuding from it. Luckily, for the two of us, since both were equally tormented with this thought, we were able to come up with a credible arrangement wherein, we would have to accompany each other till the beginning of the uthoon. From that point, the one in need would run as fast as possible towards the washroom while the other person waits for his/her return. In order to ensure that they do not return to the comforts of the room, the one in the washroom would shout out a high pitched, fear laced “Achish?” (Are you there?) at regular intervals and would only be reassured when he hears a groggy “Achi” (I’m still here) coming in from the other side of the uthoon.
Over the next couple of years, as examinations, music classes and swimming lessons took a front seat in our lives; the bats, balls and racquets slowly started gathering dust in the storeroom. Barring the occasional Sundays when Baba was up for a five-over cricket match, the importance of the uthoon gradually faded away. It was unable to seduce us in the afternoons; it’s warm, faintly glow unable to match the brightness emanating from the screen of our new acquired desktop. Although it still managed to spook us out at night, we were unwilling to admit that fact to each other and to ourselves; after all if we no longer needed to jump in order to reach the wooden switch board, how can we continue to be scared of oddly-shaped silhouettes and a small portion of the night sky?
I am now twenty eight years old and it has been more than a decade since my family shifted to an apartment in South Kolkata. The entire sky, in all its glory, is now visible from our terrace. Yet, in our memories, the rectangular patch of sky above our uthoon seemed to have been a brighter shade of blue than the entirety of the South Kolkata sky. A couple of months back my brother and I decided to pay a visit to our childhood Amherst street home. While our parents still go there often, it had been a decade since the two of us had been there; our busy schedules can hardly make time for a sepia toned era. On entering the apartment, I noticed that the two walls on either side of the uthoon were filled with tennis ball shaped indentations, made by masterstrokes off our bats. The wooden switchboard had been replaced with a plastic one and white, CFL lights had taken the place of the yellow, 100 watt bulbs. As we two grown-ups stood in this uthoon, drenched in childhood nostalgia, we realised how physically small it looks now. The version of the uthoon tucked away in our memories was bigger and spacious. We almost turned in sync to look up at the rectangular patch of sky but could not find any. The concrete interface of a newly constructed building stared down upon us.
About the Author
Anwesha Basu is a doctoral candidate, pursuing PhD in Economics at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development and Research, Mumbai. She obtained her Bachelors degree and Masters degree in Economics from Jadavpur University, Kolkata and Delhi School of Economics respectively. She has previously written for the Livewire. When academic writing takes a toll on her, she likes to express her thoughts and memories through poems and stories.