Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The old-fashioned Indian summer.

Almost every young parent I know awaits the summer holidays with some trepidation. The “what will I do with my kids?” question seems rarely to beget answers beyond the run-of-the-mill summer camps and classes in dance, painting or swimming. If both parents are working outside the home, and there are no willing and able grandparents in the same city, the problem just becomes bigger.

The simple life : A village home is all the summer camp one needs. Vinay Verghese
The simple life : A village home is all the summer camp one needs. Vinay Verghese

Most of my generation had no such problems. I can’t ever remember my parents worrying about what to do with me during the holidays. In small-town India of the 1960s and 1970s, time was rarely a thief. In fact, it was generous, indulgent and forgiving. And school holidays were a time to run free; there were no certificates to be won or competitions to take part in.
Mornings came unannounced to the house on the hill that my grandfather had built in the village. This was where I spent most of my summer holidays. My father’s youngest brother, a footloose and carefree bachelor, lived there. The house was full of old books, old furniture, old crockery, a monstrous gramophone and stacks of LPs. There were verandahs all along the front and the back, overlooking trees of every name and flowers of every colour. It was incredibly quiet, and full of surprises.
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My cousins and I would wing straight out into air that smelt of beginnings, the smooth gravel in the front yard still dew-wet and cool under our bare feet. My friend Leelamma would be waiting under the mango tree. After a round of the milking sheds and following her father around while he tapped the rubber trees for their milky sap, it would be time for breakfast. Even spindly 10- and 12-year-olds could devour enormous steamed bananas soaked liberally in home-made butter, and follow it up with fragrant rice hoppers and meat curry.
In the afternoon, we split up into groups. Some went exploring, but Leelamma and I liked to lie under the trees with the grass poking our bare legs and arms, and have involved story-telling sessions. Sometimes her brothers would join us. Looking back, I wonder what sense they made of my translations of the Famous Five and Secret Seven stories. But they listened, rapt. All too soon it would be dusk and time for a bath with wood-scented water from the huge copper cauldron in the smoke-filled bathroom.
After dinner on most evenings, my uncle’s young friends would troop up to the house on the hill. They had formed an informal music group and their guitars, mandolin, violin and harmonicas introduced me in the most unstudied way to both Beethoven and The Beatles. It was a far richer education in music than the 10 years I spent taking Trinity College of Music exams. Dropping off to sleep in an old deck chair under the stars, homework and alarm clocks and timetables seemed very far away.
And so, when it came to my son and “what to do” during the summer holidays, I didn’t need to think. The day after school closed, he would be an “unaccompanied minor” on the flight to Chennai, where his grandparents live. In those days, air tickets were expensive, but the “student discount” ensured that we paid half, which was still sizeable.
My husband and I were in complete agreement on this one. The money was well worth it. The only request to our parents was that they should not feel compelled to “do” anything in particular for him. That for a month he would just be part of their lives, enriching his own in the process. This was an unvarying routine for 11 years. And though he did participate briefly in the odd tennis or swimming camp, tried to learn Malayalam with his grandmother and Hindi with a tutor, I like to think that during those special summer holidays, he had the time and space in which to discover himself.

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