It was a whole different world in the sixties and seventies in Neyveli and the memories of those days are still green for me. Vignettes of those days still pop up in my mind at unexpected moments and bring the carefree smile of childhood to my lips.
Who could ever forget roaming around in the nearby villages and woods eating berries from the wayside? When the unexpected sweetness of an unpromising guava sends you into ecstasy? The memory of the taste of half-ripe tamarind and unripe mangoes puckers up my lips even now. Ever tasted the cashew fruit? I try to recollect the taste now and find the memory elusive.
Time was when a scummy pool was a siren song of inviting coolness and not a seething hell with a zillion bacteria. Roaming around barefoot in the grass was an ineffable pleasure and not filled with the fear of infection. Sometimes it occurs to me that the more we coddle ourselves, the more prone to infection we become. I cannot remember incidences of sickness in my childhood in any greater frequency than in the children of current days though I lead a far less sanitized life than seems permissible now.
Nature is not always fun. One can write a tome on encounters with snakes culled from the experiences of people from Neyveli. As for me, snakes have always found me in the most compromising situations. Imagine latching yourself in the bathroom, disrobing and pouring on your first mug of water to have a hiss warn you of a coiled snake sharing the bathroom with you. Worse still was getting caught by a snake with your pants down in the obvious location. Thanks to these experiences, snakes on my treks have only caused a mild flutter in my stomach and not a spreading stain on my trousers.
Playtime was always out-of-doors and most games were improvised with minimal support from accessories. The toys of our childhood never went beyond tops and marbles, with ball bearings playing the role of marbles where necessary. The number of games improvised from marbles can only be believed by those who played them. Rich or poor, one could always afford a few marbles and, by the end of the day, the richest guy in marbles was the one who was most skilled in playing with them. One of the few times in life when you get the feeling that ability can take you far beyond your origins.
Growing old enough for cricket exposed us to the inequities of Society. Things were fine as long as we played with a piece of wood and a wad of paper swathed in rubber bands. Graduating to the cricket ball and bat is when our problems started since only one of us actually possessed them.
He was more difficult to get out than Rahul Dravid. When he was at the crease LBWs, catches, run outs and stumpings just did not exist. The only way you could get him out was by uprooting the stumps; have the wicket-keeper and all the fielders swear in a dozen languages, including Swahili, that it was the ball that dislodged the stumps without any help from them; and the kid, doing duty as umpire, swearing on all his ancestors that there was not a smidgen of a chance of declaring the ball a no-ball!
As a bowler, he was a wicket-taker to put Shane Warne and Muthiah Muralitharan to shame. If the ball was caught without bouncing you were out and the fact that the bat was nowhere near the ball was dismissed as a mere quibble. If you were rapped on the legs in front of third slip you were out LBW. At that you counted yourself lucky that you were not dismissed earlier because the ball rapped the legs of third slip! Refuse to walk away and he would walk away --- with the bat and ball! So, early in childhood, we learned that the chap who pays the piper called the tune.
It needs be said, though, that the indignation meetings amongst the rest of us, after the match, were fun with everyone trying to outdo the others in cursing him. What a wonderful feeling of closeness we felt then! Indeed, there is no stronger uniting factor than a common antagonist!
Living close to Nature, alas, is not an option for the city-bound. The thrill of finding a new berry patch, the unexpected ecstasy of finding a ripe mango and the flutters caused by coming upon a pair of snakes mating have all been exchanged for the local supermarket and Discovery channel. If I sound too much like the old man talking of ‘the good old days’ it is because I am one and I would rather that children were holding indignation meetings than being glued to a games console!
Children of today have a lot more than we ever did. But do they have as much fun?