Have you visited Calcutta? A lot has changed since I roamed the streets as a kid in the 1950s. Yet, much remains the same.
Using my childhood memories of Calcutta, I would like to share how I was able to make life fun when life was much simpler than today.
There was no TV. No Internet. No phones in our home, let alone cell phones. The only form of entertainment we had was a radio that could receive AM and short wave signals and a wind-up gramophone. The ones that only played 78 bakelite records. Vinyl was not used back then. The music of the 50s reigned supreme!
We had to make our own fun. Getting into and out of trouble was a way of life. You could say my friends and I developed street smarts!
Once I reached the age of 6, my folks allowed me to spend time outside our home unsupervised. Like going to the local park and enjoying the swings, see-saw, merry-go-round, swinging from rung to rung on the high horizontal ladder. I also roamed the streets visiting friends’ homes to play with them.
I did errands like visiting the local shops to buy stuff for the home. Including “fast food”. Yes, we had takeout places back then. Most of the fast-food places were kitchens in a room that was exclusively take-out. But no Mcdonald’s.
Were My Folks Negligent?
Looking back in time, I shudder to imagine that my folks gave a little kid like me the freedom to roam around the neighborhood. Looking at it through the lens of today, my parents could have been labeled as being negligent. I think today this approach is known as Free-Range Parenting.
When I grew up in this city, north, south, east or west didn’t have any significance to me. I knew how to get to places by walking around, by tram, taxi, or rickshaw. That’s all that mattered to me.
I shall be sharing memories of where I lived, my family, the schools I attended, where I started walking to places alone as a 7-year-old kid, and the childhood adventures I experienced. And not forgetting the trouble I got into.
The sights, sounds, colors, festivals, joys and disappointments, and family growth, are about to explode out of my mind in this story of a young life in Calcutta.
My Earliest Memories At Age Two
One bright day when I was just under two years old I was taken to see my mother at a nursing home. I was going to have a baby brother soon.
My Mum had a private room. I can visualize that the colors of the walls were a pale green. The doctor and nurses were very kind. The memory that was seared in my mind was that kindly lady in the maternity bed, my wonderful mother.
I cannot remember any time in my life when my Mum got mad at me. Disappointed, yes. But never mad enough to raise her voice.
There was one graphic difference between my Mum and me. She had fair skin as we used to call it. Today that would be termed “white”. I only made that observation, but never questioned it. I always enjoyed visiting my Mum in the maternity ward. Yes, there were future babies to come!
It wasn’t long before my Mum returned home with my baby brother. He seemed so small with little feet. I also noticed that compared to my brown skin his seemed very light. I suppose that was because of my Mum’s skin color. My dad had dark skin like me.
Dad wasn’t around as he was working on site away from home. He was the supervisor of a team of technicians who were installing the electric grid all over India.
Shortly after the arrival of my little brother, my family tried to wean me off the bottle. When my mother tried to get me to drink milk out of a white enamel mug, I hid under the bed.
Our bed had a wood frame and the mattress was raised high. Hence, there was a gap underneath that people could easily crawl under. A friend who was visiting decided to crawl under the bed herself with the mug and coax me to drink. It worked.
Never again did I drink from a bottle, much to the relief of my Mum.
Going Back In Time
Money was scarce, so we didn’t have fun stuff at the home, like a radiogram or refrigerator. Air conditioner? Forget it. Nobody had those. We all had electric fans attached to the ceiling to keep cool. Many of my friends were better off than us and had some of these modern contraptions.
If you currently live in Kolkata or have recently visited this city, much that I will share with you will sound familiar. Even though there are significant changes since then, especially in the 21st Century.
For example, Kolkata has an underground railway called the Metro that was built in the 21st Century. New road systems, bridges, and flyovers have been constructed. Not to mention the new western-style shopping malls. A series of skyscrapers have been constructed and more are to follow.
Yet, there is poverty everywhere. The current population of the inner city is about 4.5 million. About 1.5 million live in slums. As a kid, I saw evidence of poverty everywhere.
Poor people lived on the sidewalks as well as in shacks they constructed from corrugated sheets, thrown away building materials, and thick cardboard.
One of the saddest scenes I saw often was a mother bathing her naked little son on the sidewalk using a bucket and tin mug.
Beggars of course abounded. It was common for families to use children, usually little girls to beg. Scenes like this brought tears to my eyes.
On the way to Church, we always passed by one beggar whose fingers were truncated into stubs due to leprosy. His nose was almost missing. We were told that leprosy was contagious.
Many years later I learned that this was not the case. Even so, the sight of a damaged human body was enough to avoid any contact with beggars with leprosy. We gave them money by throwing coins into a tin near them. The beggars were always grateful for the little we could give them.
Sadly, there was not much I could do but accept this situation. Although extreme poverty still exists, thankfully, it is not as extreme as it used to be. Some shacks today, even have running water and electricity. But no bathroom.
As a little child, I felt extremely lucky that our parents were able to afford an apartment and provide us with food, clothing, and an education. There was no free education for families like us. Even though our parents had very limited means.
My Mum and Dad both worked for a British company called British Insulated Callenders Cables. Mum worked in the local office as a secretary. My dad worked as a field supervisor of operations that installed the electric grid in India.
Hence, he was away from home for months at a time. It was a special occasion when he visited.
Once all my younger siblings were born, one boy and two girls, our family was complete. I think you can now see there were two more visits to the maternity home to visit our Mum.
In addition to our immediate family, our grandmother who we called Nana lived with us. She was the real boss of us all. Nana seemed tall and wiry to me with short gray hair. She wore glasses that added to her authority. Her skin was also lighter than mine.
Nana smoked like a chimney. Not cigarettes, but a hookah! The bottom of her hookah comprised a brass water container with an opening at the top for a fancy wooden tube. At the top of the tube, a small earthenware container was connected.
Inside this container were coals, a ceramic separator above which the thing she smoked was placed. This thing was a dark brown paste we called tamaku. It was lit till it smoldered.
The brass container had another opening where another tube was inserted. The other end of this tube had another tube attached that could be swiveled. This is what Nana used to smoke the hookah.
When she smoked it the noise made sounded like the words hubble bubble. And that was the alternate name we referred to the hookah. The hubble bubble!
With Nana, lived her son, my uncle, and our three cousins. One young woman was a nurse and two boys who were in a technical college. They had lost both their parents and my Mum, Dad and Nana took them in when they were young teens. This happened in Burma where they lived before the second world war before I was born.
My uncle worked in the merchant navy and also used to be away for months at a time.
When our whole family was at home there were 12 of us.
My Mum usually threw a party to celebrate those occasions when my Dad came home for work breaks. And what a party these used to be!
Our bedroom was the only place to hold it. Hence, the wooden framed bed was taken apart and stored in Nana’s room.
Chairs were placed along the four walls. Our cousins were responsible for getting the records together to play on the gramophone. Dad loved beer and he usually was responsible to get a supply for the guests.
There was an air of excitement before the guests arrived. Our little bedroom was usually packed. When the music played the floor was filled with adults doing the fox trot, waltz, and jive! Beer and soft drinks flowed freely. We kids enjoyed these opportunities to drink more than our fair share of soda.
Strangely, I can’t remember how these parties ended and we kids were put to bed. Maybe we all stayed up late and waited until the beds were assembled again. Regardless, these were fun memories indeed.
The following map of Calcutta encompassed my entire world as a child. My family lived in an apartment located on Khetra Das Lane shown in the upper right map quadrant. It was located on the third floor. I’ve added a Satellite view of this area in the street name above.
When you entered the main door, a corridor traversed to the left leading to the dining room. One room opened into this corridor. Another room which had a balcony opened into the dining area. The opposite was a bathroom and kitchen.
The room that opened into the corridor served as a combination of living and bedroom for my parents, my three younger siblings, and me. When my dad came home for visits, there were six of us who lived in this one room.
Nana lived in the other room. This she shared with her son, Derrick, and three cousins, Irene, Vivian, and Clary. Their room was smaller. Somehow they all were able to fit in it. I wonder about that now but never gave it a second thought as a child.
As you can see, this small apartment was densely packed with 11 people when everyone was at home. When my dad and uncle were away, there were 9.
The following map approximately defined the boundaries of my young world. I shall be making references to places on this map that was the Calcutta personal to me. The blue bubble line in the top right quadrant was very important to me which I shall explain later.
First Day At School
In India, it was customary for kids to start kindergarten at age four. I got a nasty surprise one day. My Mum took me to this convent run by the Loretto nuns, Loreto Day School Bow Bazaar. I was oblivious that this was going to be my first day at school.
Sadly, being oblivious to what happens in my life is a weakness that I have had to battle as far back as I can remember.
We visited the principles office. She was a nun called Mother Gertrude. I thought she was a nice enough nun. All smiles and friendly.
My feeling of happiness turned to alarm when Mother Gertrude had a student come to pick me up to take me to class. His name was Clarence. I think he was a year older than me.
I cried like I was being kidnapped and had to be pried away from me gripping my mother’s hands. However, Clarence was someone we knew. His Mum was the Matron of nurses in the local hospital. My cousin Irene worked there as a nurse. He was very kind and walked me to my class.
We became friends with Clarence and his family and visited their home which was located in the hospital itself.
My first day at school didn’t coincide with the start of the school year. That was probably why I was lulled into a false state of security. I thought my Mum was visiting Mother Gertrude for something else. How naive of me!
Memories Of Loreto Day School
I spent four years at this school and it had a lasting impression on me. My earliest introduction to music was playing in the KIndergarten percussion band. I played the clappers. It was the drums that caught my attention. Alas, another student had claims to that.
Three memories were not so pleasant. I was bullied by another boy called Shane Offrey. Who knows what he didn’t like about me. Nobody else noticed it and I kept it to myself. The bullying stopped when I moved schools after four years.
The Bully Boy
Once when I was playing in the schoolyard, I noticed a group of older girls playing with a basketball. I thought of it. Suddenly their play wandered towards where I was. Two of the girls were clamming the basketball at each other. Out of the blue, one of these girls grabbed me to use as a human shield.
The Human Shield
Slam-bang. The basketball hit me straight in my face. It had a lot of force and hurt badly. The girls, who were in their teens could clearly see that I was hurt. They did nothing and carried on with their antics totally ignoring what they did to me. I was not amused and had to let it go.
The Ediot Teacher
My worst memory was caused by one of the teachers. I was a slow learner, have been so throughout my life and still am. I think this is because I have a short attention span. My mind easily wanders into an imaginary world of my own.
This teacher called Miss Brown tried to get my attention. When she realized I didn’t answer, she told me to stand up and asked me to tell her the first letter of my first name. I told her it was E. Then she thundered out, do you know what the letter E stands for? I looked incredulous and had a blank expression. She then shouted out E is for Idiot.
I didn’t realize at the time that Idiot began with the letter I since I was about 5. When a bit older I found out Miss Brown’s error and forever scorned her. She humiliated me in front of the whole class and made a mistake herself.
Even though the above negative memories have lingered in my mind, the good memories far outweigh the bad ones.
Christmas was the best. We used to sing Christmas Carols at the school assembly in the mornings. Santa used to show up for us in the field and give us presents. Something funny happened though. My belief in Santa got squashed.
In the year when I was leaving the convent, I noticed that the Santa that visited us was wearing high heels under the Santa outfit. This Santa wore what looked like a red skirt instead of pants. Worse, I recognized whose legs that was. Miss Nikunision!
All the other teachers were really kind and understanding. One, in particular, must have noticed my shortcomings and gave me extra time to explain things more clearly.
Loreto Day School was a sister school of St. Joseph’s and was located next door. This made the transition after four years seamless.
One or more of my cousins would take me on outings to the great Maidan shown in green on the map above, not too far from where we lived. This Maidan is to Calcutta what Central Park is to New York. I was happy to see that this vacant area has not been developed commercially. I also remember we went by rickshaw typical in the picture below.
I always pondered how strong the rickshaw wallahs were to pull us through the streets of Calcutta at a jogging pace.
We also went to the zoo. Since this was further south in Alipore, we used to take a taxi.
The Alipore Zoo In South Calcutta
Us kids always looked forward to visiting the zoo. I looked at the animals on the Zoo website and it brought back memories. One of the highlights used to be taking a ride on the elephant. We had to walk up a concrete staircase to get to the chairs supported on the back of the elephant. It was a treat to get a high view of the Zoo!
There is one singular thought about that Zoo that has stuck to my mind. It has nothing to do with the animals. It was the rotating metal door that was designed to let people out, but not anyone in. An example of a similar revolving door is shown below.
As a child, I had visions of people getting mangled if they tried to enter the wrong way ha! Besides the elephants and this door, I don’t remember too much more about the Zoo, except it was always exciting to visit that place.
The School Lunch Ritual
From age 4 to 6, a servant took us to school and brought us back. Yes, our family employed servants to help in the house. I’ll devote a complete post on the influence servants had on me while living in India.
Not only did the servant take us to school, but partook in a lunchtime ritual. A procession of servants would make its way into the school dining room where they would serve us our lunch.
They carried these in a stack of containers called tiffin carriers. You can buy them to this day on Amazon where I got this picture.
When class was over, the servants would meet us at the school entrance to walk us home. The rich kids with cars would have paid drivers to provide these services.
The Genesis Of My Childhood Independence
Once I turned 7 according to the Catholic Church, I had reached the age of reason and was deemed ready to make my 1st Holy Communion and Confirmation. These two events took place one week apart at Sunday Mass.
We had a big party at our apartment when I made my 1st Holy Communion. This was an important rite of passage for the children. The Confirmation, although important, was not celebrated by a party.
The Archbishop of Calcutta confirmed me. I was now free to walk anywhere I had to go, like school, by myself. The distances were usually less than a mile and took about 15 minutes.
Our Local Walkabout Area
Every evening after I came home from school just after three, and did my homework I was free to wander in the neighborhood.
We had friends who lived in the apartment we could see from our windows as well as others called the Bow Barracks a short walk away. This apartment complex has an interesting history worth reading via the Wikipedia link.
There was a cool park with slides, swings, see-saws, and merry-go-rounds that entertained us no end. Sadly, we often rode the see-saw so hard, that it broke! We were not very responsible kids. Instead of using the swings to swing, I loved to crawl up any one of the angled poles that supported the swings.
I remember a bike rider who rode his bike for 5 days around the park nonstop to collect money, perhaps for himself.
Calcutta is located smack on the tropic of Capricorn. This meant that it got dark at about the same time all year round, 6 pm. That was the signal we had to return home. Unless prior arrangements were made to spend more time at specific friends’ homes.
There was a Hindu temple near the park where mysterious rituals took place. On the other side of the park were the undertakers. The designs of the hearse looked similar to the ones used in Dracula which caused a bit of fear in us.
My Music Beginnings
This didn’t start well. One of my cousins had a special enclosure built to house his record changer, receiver, and speaker. He had a custom radiogram designed just for him.
I was fascinated by this contraption. At age 4 I decided to poke a knitting needle through the cloth grill where I heard the music coming out from. Naturally, I had no idea I poked a hole in the speaker behind that grill. I thought nothing of it until he found me doing my dastardly deed! I cannot remember what happened next, but I am sure I was punished severely for doing that.
My fascination with music and sound continued when I discovered the piano at the home of family friends. I wandered into their living room where the piano was located. I could barely reach the keys. They were covered with a green felt cloth.
The adults were so busy talking in the dining room that they didn’t notice I had disappeared. I enjoyed the freedom to open the piano lid, remove the felt and depress the fascinating black and white keys.
Ah-ha, that got the attention of the adults who scampered to the living room. My Mum told me off for fooling around with the piano. One of the friends who played told my Mum not to worry and thought it was a good thing I was interested in the piano.
She propped me onto the piano stool next to her and played me a song. I had a go with the keyboard and created a cacophony of sounds. After this incident, I was allowed to fiddle with the piano any time we visited them.
The Surprise Of My Life
I got the biggest surprise of my life when I returned home from school when I was seven. There in the living room, against the wall, was a black, upright piano! I froze. My Mum, Nana, and cousins came over to watch the expression on my face.
Was this really for me? I asked. My Mum responded, what did I think? I ran to her and gave her a big hug. This was a moment I would never forget.
On those visits to the friends who had a piano, I was taught a few tunes by the lady there whose piano it was. Her name was Shirley and she was pretty good.
After hugging my Mum I walked gingerly to the piano, sat on the piano stool, opened the lid, and stared at the keyboard for what seemed like forever. I wanted to soak up the moment.
Finally, I couldn’t resist and started to play these simple tunes, much to the delight of my captive audience. This was the start of many private performances to come. As well as frustrating moments when this very same audience had to listen to me hit a lot of wrong notes when I was learning new pieces.
The next step was for my Mum to enroll me in piano lessons. It was coincidental that I started learning the piano at age 7, the age of reason.
Once again, friends to the rescue. No, the lady whose home I discovered the piano was not going to be teaching me. She was not a trained piano teacher. In any case, her main focus was on her college course.
Friends to the rescue again. We had a network of friends through the Catholic Church. The daughter of some good friends was indeed a professional piano teacher. Her name was Madge Conquo. It’s time to revisit the map at the top.
Remember I said I would be returning to explain what that blue bubbled like was? Madge Conquo taught from her home which was located in Dharmatala. It was about a mile from our home.
From the age of 7 until I was 12, I walked by myself at least once a week through the streets of Calcutta for my piano lessons. It took me about 15 minutes each way. My lesson was for 30 minutes. Hence, an hour was all that necessary. My Mum made sure that the time of my lessons was just after school at 4 pm. In this way, I could get back before it got dark.
I can visualize my piano lessons very clearly. The room where I was taught was quite large. It had two pianos in it, An upright at one end against the wall. And a baby grand at the other end near the verandah. In between, two living room sets could seat a lot of people.
In retrospect, I think that this family was quite wealthy to have had such a large apartment. The windows overlooked the side of the steepled Sacred Heart’s Catholic Church next door as shown below.
We were taught the music curriculum of Trinity College Of Music, London. It was harrowing going for my exams. They were given at the Freemason’s Lodge. Miss Conquo used to schedule the exams for all her students on the same day.
We would all ride there by taxi and wait our turn in a waiting room. I discovered something fascinating about this room. To be more exact, the room on the other side of the locked door.
When I peeked through the keyhole I noticed there was a sink against the opposite wall. Next to the sink was a metal orb with a spout on a swivel. I soon discovered what that was. Someone came into that room and rotated this orb and liquid soap emerged from the spout. Simple me had never seen anything like that and was fascinated. It never even occurred to me that room was the bathroom until years later.
I ended up taking exams from Grades I to IV. For some unknown reason, all grades in music are identified using Roman numerals. Below is an example of my very first Initial Grade passing certificate.
A year later at age 9, my music teacher felt I was ready for my Grade I Playing and Theory exams. I passed with Honours and the certificates are shown below:
Thus I was on my way to studying for and taking exams for the Piano. One of the fun things about exams was they allowed us to meet up with the other students who were also taking these exams.
On one occasion after we took our exams, I believe it was in 1955, our Mums took all of us to see the movie starring Liberace. called Sincerely Yours. Liberace’s performance was very memorable. Especially when he asked people in the audience to pick a tune for him to improvise on. Someone picked Chop Sticks. I have never seen that tune played with such virtuosity ever.
When I reached the age of 8, I was transferred to the day school located in St. Joseph’s College from the sister school, Loretto girl’s convent. St. Joseph’s was an all-boys school run by the Irish Christian Brothers.
I was not considered a little child anymore and life began to take on an air of seriousness. Was I losing my innocence? I think I fell in love with the sister of a school friend who lived in the apartment across ours.
Was this puppy love? I was entering an age where innocent sexual experimentation began. What did the other kids and I do? Looking back I can’t stop chuckling at the naivete of it all.
After all, we were all still kids with a whole lot of curiosity. There was no TV back then. All we had was a radio. We created our own fun!
Thus began the transition to an older, more independent preteen.