I Used to Live Here

The Bazaar, Musssoorie,1880’s

In 1988, a very sulky 16 year old girl was sent to boarding school. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go. Having been home schooled for nearly 2 years it was actually nice to go to regular classes instead of sitting in the dining room every day with a tutor who picked his nose, smelled of old hair oil and thought Pythagoras theorem was going to solve every problem in the world. “World hunger?” “Pythgoras has a theorem for that…” “Death!Floods!Catastrophe!” “….the hyptenuse side is equal to the sum of squares…now think in relation to the three…”
He analysed poetry with tears in his eyes. Byron had my tutor up in arms, ready to take on Greece singlehandedly, Shakespearian sonnets were accompanied by stories of wooing lady hearts at 3am, “a rose by any other name..” Every history lesson ended with him telling me what he would have done better. Because Waterloocould certainly have been worked out if everyone just sat down and had nice cup of tea.
It was 2 years of staring out the window, wishing the man would finally shut up.
So boarding school was a relief. Never more, said the raven…
Yet, as I stepped out of Delhi airport on that July morning with my mother into the bustle and lunacy that describes any taxi stand in India, my heart wasn’t sold on the venture. I wasn’t scared of going to school or of missing my mother. I was home sick.
The short flight from Dhaka to Delhi, in those days via Calcutta, was one of the worst flights of my life.
Sitting by the window, I watched my beloved Bangladesh disappear as we took off into the clouds, I strained my eyes to see the last of the paddy fields, the meandering rivers, the endless green of my childhood vanishing in a clear blue sky and unknown future.

Fourteen years of my life suddenly over because Dhaka couldn’t come up with a suitable school.
The American International School in those days didn’t go past 9th grade. I had done the tour of English medium schools (Greenherald and Bangladesh International Tutorial) with middling success and even 1 year in the United States, in Texas with my father (my parents are divorced and the time my father was living in the States) but since he managed to move 3 times in 12 months and I had changed school three times, my mother figured it was best for me to come back to Dhaka. Not that I minded. Bangladesh has better food.
Back to my first home, Dhaka.
Wait…that is not actually true. I was born in Canada but what do you remember from the first 2 years of your life? I vaguely remember having a Tony the Tiger drinking cup and Weeble Wobbles.
My first memory is from Dhaka. It is a hazy memory, but I am laying on my mother’s lap on the backseat of a car, and I am looking up. All I can see is trees hurrying past and the sun on face.
Our first house was in Gulshan. It was close to the lake and opposite a big mosque which had a large field. My brother would play football there with the boys, I spent my time in the garden with a veritable menagery of animals – puppies I adopted from the street, turtles from the lake, guinea fowl, rabbits, cats and a mongoose. The mongoose was mine, a little bit Ricky Ticky Tavi perhaps but we did have snakes in the garden. I remember our chowkidar smacking one with a stick and then telling me it was going to eat me when I asked him not to hurt it.
My life revolved around the garden, the animals, my ayah and the chowkidar. He had a long beard and smelled of betel nut. My ayah would scold him for feeding me gulab jamuns when she wasn’t looking. In the morning she would take me out into the garden and together we would say hello to the sun.
That was the first house. I vaguely remember house number 2. It was in Banani, and later on, as things go, my best friend would move in there. We didn’t stay there long. My parents had issues and we moved again, this time to my step-father’s house.
House number 3 is where I spent the next 11 years of my life. There was brief stint in Canada, in Thorold, where we lived in yellow and black house that had a big basement and I had to walk a mile to school over a long bridge. I guess Canada works well for people who like snow up to their armpits.
Road 18, House 38, Block J, Banani, Dhaka. My home with the two blue gates. I grew up in this quirky brick house, a geometric dream, it looked like one square on top of another with two rectangles attached, like towers on the side. A blue water tank sat on the flat black tarred roof. From here here I surveyed my world, caught enticed fruit bats with fragrant jack fruit, mapped the stars with a flashlight and my trusty atlas, and watched the aeroplanes as they ascended into the night sky, heading off to places I didn’t care for.

I learned to cycle on monstrously potholed Road 18, me and my trusty bicycle (a chopper no less with tassles on the handle bars) would flee its confines when no one was watching, cycling as fast as 10 year old legs can go, up off and away, down shady streets, across precarious avenues of murderous traffic, around road circles, avoiding breakless buses and screaming cars, manic trucks and meandering wild life. My playground was those roads, I knew every road and lane in Banani, Gulshan and later on Baridhara, these were my streets, thank you very much. When my mother trusted I could get home in one piece, there was only one rule – I had to be home by dark. No matter how far away I was, my mother’s wrath made sure I could smell the sunset.

D.I.T. 1 Market Gulshan, 1989, one of the places I used to cycle around

I wasn’t exactly a savage at 16, but I had very peculiar views – my life wasn’t tied up in fashion magazines, or dating. I had my piano, my books and sometimes, I would meet a few kids close to my age. But they didn’t like sitting on the roof at night. At any rate, my parents decided they needed to do a better job of bringing me up, so it was time to to go to boarding school.
My parents chose Woodstock International School nestled in the mountains above Dehra Dun, in Mussoorie.

No, I am not going wax sentimental about my great school days. This was Woodstock in the late 1980’s. Bad food, unheated dormitories, erratic electricity, boys with big hair and girls with tight jeans. We walked up and down the hills, and dreamt of graduation.
Midlands (older girls dorm) was my surrogate home for 2 years. I mostly roomed alone, and in the last semester, when I shared a shoe box cell with 2 friends, it fortunately had a verandah attached, and I moved outdoors. I had my bed under a leaky roof, which I patched up with tarpaulin sourced from the bazaar, piled on the blankets and at night I could see an endless starry sky. I loved Mussoorie, the ghosts and roads, Cambridge Bookstore, momos and special lassi. Other people love the school. I can’t say I do. It was an experience – at least I know that to stave off starvation all I need is Maggi noodles and pocket full of 5 Star chocolate bars. And no, we didn’t cook the noodles. Just crush the package, toss the spice mix on it and dinner is served. But only people who were there in those days would know what I am talking about. Everyone else probably thinks I am mad. I spent my holidays in Dhaka, to glorious freedom and back to my own bed, in my beautiful home.
I graduated in 1990 and went back to Bangladesh. School over, I should have gone to college but it never happened. I should have become a great success, I could have climbed a mountain or threw over Wall Street. Instead, I worked a bit at an embassy, went travelling around India, met a reasonably ok person, married too young and moved to my last homes in Asia, in Sri Lanka. First in Mutur and then in Trincomallee.
From 1991 to 1994 I grew up a little. It happens when there are people shooting at you, at each other and at anything that moves. I made good friends here, some who went off and made history, others who died too early and some who lost their minds. War can do strange things to people, especially when you,with all your good intentions can’t seem to make an iota of difference to anyone. Get up every day and remind yourself you can only do the best even if it doesn’t seem like it is enough.

Dutch Bay, Trincomallee, home was nearby

I left the Indian subcontinent in November 1994. A divorce and 9 years later I went back to India, my first trip was to Mussoorie. Just as well, my parents no longer lived in Dhaka, and I had no home to go back to. It will always be a little ache in my heart, knowing now that the day I closed the blue gate behind me, and looked at the house, with my roof, and my life time, I would never be back. I remember waving at the house as we drove away, saying to myself, “don’t worry, I will be home soon.”

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