-Rajesh K. Jha
You may perhaps be surprised to know that I have a fairly good experience about atom bombs since my early childhood. It was my favourite and I never missed a chance to have one or two atom bombs in the evening. Bachchu Shaw’s sweet shop was famous for the atom bomb. It was a large sized Rasgulla, slightly drier than the usual Rasgulla, with the filling of exactly half a piece of dry fruit. I would save some money daily from the vegetable purchase I did for my home to eat this delicacy at least once a week. I assure you, I did not suffer any radiation effect from this atom bomb except that it planted its memory so firmly in my mind that I can’t help remembering it more than 30 years later.
There was another Atom Bomb but it was more academic in its content and implication. It was the name of a guide book for students who were appearing for their matriculation exams. This guide book was the most popular since it had the magical property of not disappointing any one who made use of it. You had the option of reading it in the last few months before the exam. If you were slightly adventurous, you could carry it to the exam hall on the day of exam and try your luck. Unfortunately, my father prevented me from experiencing this key to success and hence my account about this atom bomb is purely anecdotal.
Summer vacations were particularly happy periods of our lives.From my mufassil town in, we would go to our ancestral place for about a month or so every year. During our stay in the village, plucking Jalebi from the tree was our favourite pastime. Don’t be scandalised. It was no magic show or sorcery in the village. This Jalebi was not the sweet delicacy that is prepared in the Halwai shop. It is a mildly sweet sour fruit also known by the name of Gangetic Tamarind. It takes its name from its shape which resembles the multiple round rings of Jalebi.
Tiffin time in the school was a highly competitive time. The moment bell rang, students would rush out to be the first in the que to buy from the pavement shopkeepers, the Khomchawalas selling Toffies, peppermint, Golgappas, ice-cream and small jaggery pebbles. In government schools there was no requirement of school dress. When children rushed out in their half pants, pajamas, bush-shirts, frocks, kurtas of myriad colours it looked like a menacing swirl of colour and fabric. ice-cream was one of the most popular items for sale outside the school boundary. The ice cream seller would announce his arrival by repeatedly banging the lid of his cart accompanied by a shrill announcement ‘Baraf, Baraf…Aam wala baraf, Doodh wala baraf….’. There were essentially two varieties of Baraf. The cheaper one cost us around 10 paise. It was generally red or pink in colour. You sucked at it and after a few suckings at the sweet saccharine, it turned into plain ice. Even this, we did not throw away and relished till we found only the flat or round stick in our hands. Of course, our richer friends, mostly Marwaris whose families controlled all the wholesale business in the town, took the ‘Milk Wala Ice Cream’. Its colour was white and when it melted and dripped on the fingers of our privileged friends it certainly seemed to be made up of milk.
An interesting aspect of the ice cream story is the element of adventure involved in eating it. We were repeatedly told that ice-cream is made up of water drawn from the drain. Influenced by the regular and consistent propaganda, it was widely believed among school going students of my age that ice-cream was made up of drain water. We were told that we could actually put a pinch of salt on its surface and see how insects would come out writhing in pain from inside the ice creams. This gory thought never left our minds, even while we relished the Baraf. We did not dare to put that experimental pinch of salt onto our ice-creams for the fear of the ugly truth being proved right. By the time I could got a hang of the deep seated conspiracy, it was too late.
Now, we all know Jalebi is a famous sweet. However, in Bihari version of Hindi anything which is very big, large in size changes its gender from feminine to masculine. You may call it sexist, anti-feminist or whatever but it is what it is. Thus Lalu Prasad organises ‘Raillas’ in place of Rallies. ‘Balti’ (metal water vessel) becomes ‘Balta’ in its masculine and large version. I think I no longer need to explain to you what ‘Jaleba’ means. While in college at Patna, on Ramna Road, facing the Patna College, there used to be a shop which specialised in making Jalebas. Large ques were common in front of this shop in the evenings to have the delicious Jalebas. For me it was natural to like Jalebas as Atom Bomb was not available in Patna.
Pride of place though was reserved for Ghebars. Like vegetables, sweets too had their seasons. Ghebar was available only in winters, that too in the evening. This sweet also belongs to the Jalebi family as it is made through the process of deep frying the urad-dal flour and then putting it into the hot sugar syrup. Ghebar in Bihar is different from what we have in places like Delhi which is eaten cold and has too much of Khoya into it. The Patna Ghebar was made up only of Urad dal flour and deep fried in Desi Ghee. It was a kind of thick plate of fine Boondi’s which stuck together with the help of sugar syrup. Nobody could actually eat more than one Ghebar and in that sense it was the atom bomb version of Jaleba.
The seasonality of vegetables imparted special taste and attraction to them. Parwal would arrive some time in early April around Holi when the weather started to warm up a bit. Cauliflower (Gobhi) arrived in the market around September and October to be enjoyed during Durga Puja. Inevitably, when these vegetables first arrived in the market, people would refer to them in a tone which went something like this- Today Parwal has descended in the market. For the first two weeks only my immediate neighbour would be able to buy it for his family as he was considered ‘rich’. There were material evidence to back up this reputation. He had a black and white 16 inch TV on which we also sometimes got the opportunity to watch the Krishi Darshan programme.We found that programme greatly exciting with experts talking about insectisides and seed varieties etc against a static background. There were occasional disruptions in the signal and one of us would rush upstairs to move the antena slightly in one direction or the other to get the picture and sound back again. Jackfruit (Kathal) was considered the substitute for mutton. Whenever, it was cooked in the house, you could hear the exclamation all around- ‘Oho, it is no less than mutton’.
Experience of taking cold drink was no less interesting. The Coca Cola company was banned and only the Indian substitutes like Thumbs Up and Limca were available in the market. This too was not easy to get. Supply of electricity was erratic and the bottle remained almost warm. People who showed courage to drink the Thumbs Up would invariably say that it led to a burning sensation in the throat. It was also supposed to cause gas and acidity. Many innovative things were done to reduce the harmful effects of cold drinks, to defang it, as it were. People would often add a pinch of salt to it and throw away the froth it generated. Thus, the gaseous aspect of the cold drink being taken care of, it was considered safe to drink. I wonder no body today complains of any burning sensation or acidity and gas as a side effect of taking cold drinks.
Seeing children having cold drink effortlessly without ever complaining of acidity, burning sensation etc. I wonder about those days and realise that times have indeed changed.