I was quite young when I read Leela/Lila Majumdar’s short story ‘Bari Chol’. The story described the delight of a bossy great aunt being packed off to her childhood home in the hills. Throughout the journey, she keeps her young relatives on their toes, demanding news of long-dead dogs, asking after siblings who’ve departed this vale of tears, and insisting the pastries for tea be from old Mrs. Lobo’s, who had long since shut shop and disappeared. By the time they reach the house, however, she’s too knackered — and too enchanted with her restored old room — to push enquiries about dead pets and neighbours. And then something wonderful happens:
Much later that night, her siblings and their dogs finally come to fetch her home. “Bari chol! Bari chol!” they chorus, skipping into her room and hugging her tight: “To home! Come home!” The dogs leap about, barking joyfully. Throwing her duvet aside, Auntie jumps up, young, nimble and full of mischief again. Slipping out of her bedroom window, she follows her old posse home, laughing and singing and running across the rolling hills of her childhood.
It was a beautiful story, recalling Majumdar’s own childhood in the idyllic hills. Indeed, Auntie just might have been a delightfully wistful parody of Majumdar herself, cast as a crabby old woman rediscovering her lost childhood in the last few moments of her life.
As I grew up and my own childhood home started disintegrating, “Bari Chol! Bari Chol!”became a catchphrase for me. I often caught myself happily chanting it to the rhythm of my bobbing knee, or to the tapping of my pencil. At other times, I felt a strange compulsion to say it out loud as a sudden staccato utterance. The urge came over me in conversational voids, while reading in an empty house, while washing my hands after a meal.
On very few occasions was it a thing of sadness, a wrenching cry of visceral yearning. On these occasions, unlike the others, it was never uttered aloud.
I finished highschool, stepped into college, found an acting gig, and didn’t notice when ‘Bari Chol’ ceased to be my personal chant. Or, if I did, I’ve forgotten about it. I’d like to think it unwove itself from my life because slowly, my life became replete with happiness again, replacing the loss of a vibrant, blissful childhood with adult joy.
The reason one can’t see one’s back without two mirrors, however, is not because one’s back occasionally goes for a stroll, but because it’s a part of the whole, invisible, yet holding the structure up. It cannot be detached and gazed upon, or set aside to be examined at leisure. The same, I suspect, is now true for me and my yearning for my childhood home. I no longer feel its existence uniquely, because it has blended with who I am, completely and inseparably.
The only time I glimpse the happiness of homecoming these days is when, like today, I come home to our cosy flat and my own little blue, silver and white bathroom after long days on the road, spent in crummy hotels with stuffy, stained loos and cheap plastic pipes.
On the other hand, the wide green expanse of rural Bengal is a beautiful receptacle for unfettered childhood dreams and longings, for which life in the city of my birth no longer has room. So every time I head back to my filthy, polluted, loud and insanely crowded hometown from the mountains of North Bengal, the shimmering rice fields of the south or the rolling red lands of the west, I leave behind memories of old dreams seldom dreamt these busy days, and a sense of peace that hasn’t been mine for decades.