They each owned two large houses and assumed that mother would stay in one of their houses, as her exile was temporary. They hadn’t reckoned with their sister’s fiercely independent bent. Mother had already written to a cousin to rent one half of a small duplex. Our new home had two bedrooms, one for mother and the other for us two brothers, a tiny living room and a tinier kitchen. The charming feature was a verandah at the back and a porch in front, both of which we loved. My brother and I would rush out on the porch to see war planes roaring by, and then sketch our impressions in colored chalk on the floor.
Mother, who was the uncles’ favorite, invariably took us weekends to visit an uncle and our large brood of cousins. It was a culture shock for me, as if I had been teleported instantly to another planet. Everything in our family was low-key: we talked about literature and society, quietly and decorously. Our cousins were noisy and rambunctious; their talk was about movies and fashions. I was shocked, but I also had fun. Dinners were sumptuous, in between we ate endless cookies and drank limitless cups of tea. Life was a party in high decibels.
Mother sprang a surprise. She announced one night that she would go back to work, acting as the principal of a school. She had taught before she married, and she liked teaching. She explained that she hadn’t as many domestic chores as in Kolkata and she wanted to supplement father’s income. She added that, while my elder brother was already slated for another school, I would attend my mother’s school.
School, my first school! I was both excited and intimidated. My class teacher, Mrs. Das, assured my mother that she would take good care of me. She did. She was young and pretty, and had come to her first job with the mission to win every young heart. She did. She spoke softly, explained clearly and took pains to carry her pupils with her whether she taught reading or arithmetic.
At the end of the first day, she reported to mother that I did well, but seemed to have a urinary problem, for I rushed out at the end of every period. Embarrassed, mother had to explain that I did not go to the restroom; I went to her office every time to say that I was hungry. Mother said, firmly each time, that I could have my snacks only during the recess after the morning classes.
I did not find the lessons interesting, but I adored Mrs. Das and wanted to please her by learning my lessons well. I found it far more interesting, doubtless influenced by my elder brother, to read the books mother brought home for us. They were mostly literature, sometimes history and biography. That was when I first discovered that most biography is really hagiography, often fiction. Surprisingly, it was fiction that was far more real and, as Rousseau said, better designed to make us decent.
Father stood beaming in Howrah station as the train disgorged us and our baggage. Facing him, mother stood demurely, I was deeply embarrassed to see, like a new bride. My brother and I stood quietly, almost ignored, till one of them condescended to say, “Let’s go.” Our nine-month war-time exile was over.