Indian Bioscope Memories – Memoir

Ze=ssus I said as the infant in the building opposite to ours began to wail in his stereophonic sound. Nature has a way to gift certain special abilities to human babies. Her cry echoed subduing even the cacophony of the birds on the nearby trees.  It was late evening and the power had decided to take a break unannounced. Generator backup failed for some reason and in the midst of humid monsoon stuffiness and rapidly increasing darkness we sat staring silently into nothingness.
“Is there any candle in the house?” a male voice came from the depths of oblivion. “No, but my cell phone has a LED flash light”, I said. “Great, pass it on I want to go pee. “  I handed him the android with a warning not to flush it in the pot and with that my mind threw a loaf of bread and a pound of tea in an old sack and jumped over the back fence taking the old memory trail into the woods of bygone days. It was a voluntary endeavor as walking with the ghosts of yesteryear in not everybody’s idea of spending the evening.

There were times we weren’t so listless and utterly lost when the power went off for long hours. The day went in usual mundane activities and the evenings and nights in sitting silently or having a bonding session with the family. We sat around fat white candles whose flames slowly danced with the breeze or remained motionless like guards on duty.  In some houses a lantern or  lamp would burn emitting a delicious smell of kerosene. (I love the smell).  Each of us would stir the still air with colorful handmade fans made of cloth, dried palm leaves, dried bamboo leaves or sometimes just an old newspaper.  We didn’t mind the darkness and void of not being able to do anything so much as we do now because we didn’t have those gadget extensions we have grown over all these years like Laptops, AC, fan, lights, TV and stuff.  We didn’t have them and didn’t feel the loss. Our lives were enriched by other more interesting things, things which have faded into recesses of the past like the evening shadows.

I watched the boys’ faces glowing in the blue lights of their cell phones and sighed. As children I involved them to in storytelling, playing word games, atlas, talk about their various adventures, sing songs, make parodies, and do anything which would keep their minds off darkness and heat/cold. That is what I did as a child with my parents. In winters we would snuggle in a quilt munching peanuts, roasted gram or other rustic snack and a special kind of warm energy flowed through all of us keeping us close. These days it is rare that we get those cozy moments illuminated by candle lights. The art of storytelling is vanishing with the coming of modernism.

My mind drifted further into the trail and found the bioscope man. We don’t find him these days except in some fair where hardly anyone pays attention to him. In those days he was the most sought after person. We would gather around him and wait for our turn to watch a song or a clip from that magical colorful box. This curiosity box was all we had for entertainment before the technology filled our homes with CDs, DVDs, and cinema halls and multiplexes lured us into their cozy comforts. The screen culture has taken away the magical world which was created for children something which the toys are assigned to do now a day.  It is amazing how integral, inseparable and organic practices of the people were before technology and fast life took over. I hardly see circus, magic and puppet shows, the street performers, tight rope walkers and jugglers who used to frequent the cities. They have been forced to leave their family trade and find an alternate profession.

I remember the rag dolls, wooden toys and the joy of playing marbles and other indigenous games. I saw a lonely wing swaying on a lush mango tree longing to be lifted up to the sky with a child’s cry of joy. It tugs at my heart how far we have left the things which were not just an integral part of our heritage but also learning tools. Modern machines and equipment has taken away the delicious mellow lingering taste of food prepared on clay and wooden ovens. Chutneys prepared on heavy sil batta (flat grinding stone) spices crushed in mortar and pestle made of wood, iron or stone. The rotis , bhakri ( Indian breads) made on wood fire and the vegetables, pulses cooked on wood fire or uplas (cow dung cakes). Fast food culture has taken us in its grip ad nauseam. The traditional recipes are dying out unnoticed and neglected.

We used to have the wooden parat (a flat utensil for kneading the wheat flour) and many beautiful clay, brass, copper cooling vessels. A man on cycle would call out on summer afternoon “bartan kalayi kara lo” or “ chaku churiyan tez kara lo” ( get brass utensils polished “ or “ get knives sharpened” ) and we would run to watch the expert fascinating process with wonder filled eyes. Now with non stick and abundance of easy to maintain cookware these arts are lost forever. Some trades are vanishing fast like the ancient bed stuffer with his guitar like tool is replaced by machines that do the cleaning of cotton to be re stuffed in the mattresses. Slowly the rubber foam,coir mattresses have replaced the cotton filled ones killing the trade completely.

I wonder how many people of my generation or later have actually watched these men perform on the streets. Some more voices call me as I glance back. A high pitch sing-song voice of a fruit vendor “ jamun kale kale mujhse bhi zyada kale, kale kale re phalse thande meethe re phalse” (  black and juicy  fruits, blacker than I am). These were the street sellers who brought delicious java plums and berries indigenous to this region. The salivary glands would immediately start working overtime thinking of the sweet and sour tangy taste of the fruits and we would run out to buy some in a leaf folded and sealed like a cone with a toothpick. Some other delights like the ripe jackfruit and tamarind along with star fruit were also sold by the vendors. Made into a spicy chaat sprinkled with spices the star fruit would make our mouths water.

I remember walking in the fields of ripe sugar cane with dad and watching with awe the making of jaggery and fresh molasses. The taste of soft fresh jaggery and rab (molasses) is unforgettable. He took me to see how the oil was extracted from mustard seeds. In the middle of a room there used to be a Kolhu. At the bottom, it had a hole to collect oil. It the middle it had a very heavy wooden rod. The rod pressed the mustard seeds against the wall of the Kolhu. This rod was linked by another piece of wood placed on the neck of a bull. As the bull went around in circle, the seeds were pressed to extract oil. After the oil was extracted, the empty cake of mustard seeds was mixed with the feed for dairy cows or water buffalos. For a six-year-old it was nothing short of a visit to wonderland. We would walk among the fields of gold (the yellow flowing mustard fields) and come across a rahaat or water wheel (Persian wheel) powered by a buffalo or a bull. The cold clear water would bring the village kids to bathe and play there. Sometimes the farmers or weary travelers would sit there to rest on charpais (wooden cots weaved with ropes) placed under shady trees.

Some musical instruments like the ektara a single string instrument made of clay The ektara seller would play melodious tunes and lure us to buy one and we would create our own cacophony on it for hours together.. I remember burring a mango stone from an over ripe mango for some days and then making a musical wind instrument with it. We even held a blade of grass between both thumbs and blew on it to make musical sounds. Simple pleasure are free I always say. 🙂

These photographs are just a flashback from parts of  north India where I grew up. Wonder how many ancient art forms, traditional trades, instruments and local delicacies are slipping away into an unknown abyss never to be found again.

I can’t forget the thanda sattu (roasted powdered gram or barley mixed with sugar and water) fresh sugar cane juice straight from the hand powered machine or chilled sweet laasi (churned curd) brimming till the top of a huge brass glass. No modern day drink can replace them in nutrition and taste. The clay pots were used to make the curd and were kept chilled with wet jute bags(bori) etc. sometimes the matka or clay water pot was placed in a hole dug under a tree to keep water cool. Now the villages have turned into small towns and machines and modern gadgets have replaced the charm of these traditional trades, practices and instruments.

My maternal grandmother used to make fresh white butter and give the first mould to me. The warmth of her love and the taste of that butter is unforgettable. I have eaten fresh butter straight from the churner during my visit to Punjab villages.

One hardly sees the vultures which were such a common sight those days. They have become extinct. Many of those gorgeous birds have vanished and our children soon will see all this in illustrated books, Nat-Geo and museums. Such a sorry state of affairs that the orthodox rituals, customs which needed to be drastically replaced still thrive and the beauty of the traditional cultural heritage are lost forever.

The blaring sound from the TV and the sudden jarring light brought me back to present. Lines of a poem crossed my mind

thus one age departs another comes

while I just stand between two darks

The instant coffee scalded my tongue and left a bitter taste in my mouth. Lack of time spent together has hardened the human heart. We have become less tolerant, lead a sedated dream like existence, lost the art of conversation, lock ourselves in the comforts of air-conditioned homes and slog in the concrete jungle to meet our growing wants.

Each person has made a cave around him/her where he/she lives a senseless existence oblivious to the crumbling surroundings. While we are busy confessing the dark and heavy secrets of our lonely heart, we find comfort more and more in the vibrations of the tiny buttons of our gadgets. Slowly with all these electronic touch keypads the warmth of human touch will become just a memory.

We scream for warmth of human contact yet we’d rather text than talk.  Isn’t it sad how we relegate humanity to the unfeeling circuitries of our tech inventions? Must modern man –this catalyst of past and future, science and faith — discard to desuetude the touchstones of his inspirations?

As I walked back the bioscope man smiled and I gave in to the temptation to be a child again to peer through the view finder of the very projector that gave birth to modern cinema and then slipped into oblivion. Enduring images of jataka stories, alluring actresses and dashing heroes of popular movies flashed before my eyes and then abruptly the bioscope came to an end. The bubble busted and the bioscope man receded into darkness.

Soon like the bioscope many of the cherished things with gather dust in museums and memory lanes. I am glad that my boys managed to get a firsthand experience of the old world charm and that will keep them rooted to our cultural heritage till long. They will keep the art of storytelling alive by recounting their experiences and mine to their children thus keeping the flame burning.

Disclaimer: I do not own copyright for these images.   All photographs are credited to their rightful owners. Images taken from Internet for reference.