I was indeed happy in that home. Besides mother, there was a soft-voiced, story-telling grandmother to spoil me and two extremely indulgent aunts whom I never thought to place a step below my parents. My aunts were the principals of two main schools in town, and, when I grew up a little, I loved to visit their schools and watch them in action. I would sit in a corner of the principal’s office, armed with two or three interesting books, quietly watching my aunt instruct a novice teacher or counsel a wayward student. The aunts were caring people, who loved to help pupils and pedagogues alike, and left me with a lofty impression of the teaching process.
Nagpur was always a large and important city, but it had a small-town charm. It took its name from the Nag river, but nobody could explain why the city and the river carried the name of snakes, for none was to be seen anywhere. The city had earlier the name of Fanindrapur, from the hood of a cobra, and the local newspaper haughtily called itself Fanindramani, the iridescent gem on the serpent’s hood that shed light in surrounding gloom. Cars were scarce; bicycles were plentiful; mostly people walked, talked and gawked. Nagpur was a friendly city.
Mother was a social person, and she missed her friends and relations in Kolkata. When father received the offer of an interesting job in Kolkata, they returned happily to Kolkata. Though we lived in Kolkata ever after, the family’s link with Nagpur did not cease. My aunts continued to live in Nagpur for years, and I visit them during vacations. I loved being with them and enjoyed being in that small brick house. The change from a big, bustling metropolis like Kolkata was refreshing. I had a circle of friends in Nagpur and I basked in the vast social network of my aunts. I enjoyed the social events, the meticulously maintained parks, the impressive zoo.
Then my aunts moved out of Nagpur, and I became preoccupied with my studies. When I took a job, it entailed some travel and I once passed two days in Nagpur. I tried to locate the house where I was born, but had no success. The city had changed a lot.
Years passed. I had moved to the United States and now lived and worked in Washington. By an unexpected turn of events, I had a project to manage in India for several months. I was located in New Delhi, but I nursed the hope of visiting Nagpur.
An old friend from Nagpur invited me to visit and I accepted with alacrity. I nourished a faint hope of locating the house where I was born and which had meant so much to me. When I told my friend of my yearning, he asked for details. I had little. My father had died, and my mother only recalled the name of the area, Civil Lines. No street name, no house number, no major landmark.
The next morning, I scoured Civil Lines, a large area, but did not see anything that I could recall from my childhood memory. By mid-afternoon both the driver of my friend’s car and I had realized the foolhardiness of our effort. I asked the driver to go and have his lunch, leaving me in a roadside tea shop to sip a brew and mull my misfortune. The shopkeeper spotted an unfamiliar face and came to chat. He was a genteel graybeard with a kind, wrinkled face, and, when I said I was visiting from Delhi, asked if I had taken the train. I replied that I had come by a plane. Then, in a blinding flash, at the mention of a train, the neurons in my brain started firing furiously in a new direction.
“Was it always a police barrack?” I persisted.
“It was always a police barrack,” he replied. “I live here. I know it has been a police barrack for the last twenty years.”
“I need to know what it was forty years ago.”
“Forty years!” He was flabbergasted. “I have no idea. We have a neighbor who is 86. Maybe he knows.”
We walked over to the next house and the policeman offered a cigarette to the old man before asking, “This man wants to know what this police barrack was forty years ago.”
The old man took a quick glance at me and said, “It was a school.”
I thanked the two men, took a sharp turn left and walked sixty yards.
I stood in front of a tiny single-floor brick house. I rang the bell. A young woman came out and I explained that I had lived in the house years ago. She smiled and invited me to come in and look. She even offered to make me a cup of tea. She showed me the living room and three small bedrooms, then took the corridor and walked with me into the kitchen. It looked just the same kitchen I had once entered with my grandmother and the aunts.
As she made tea, I almost had the illusion of being a small boy again, watching my mother make tea.