Of all the joys that life gives you, none will be greater than going to the ‘mithai wala’ every evening with your grandmother to try whatever new sweet the ‘mithai wala’ created that day with milk, sugar and khoya. A Bihari childhood is primarily about food and more specifically about the mithai. A sweet shop was and is your escape from all that is wrong in this world. Once you enter a sweet shop, the garbage dumps outside, the ‘quite capable of killing’ mosquitoes, the paan stains on all the walls in Patna, all cease to exist. Now there is you, the shopkeeper and the beautiful sweets in between the two of you. Of course, your grandmother is in a hurry to get back home before its dark, because it gets unsafe at night, so you have whatever new delicacy that was prepared and leave, excited to come back again tomorrow. You go home to fish curry that has been prepared for dinner, it is ‘fresh fish from the Ganges’ as she is intent on reminding you. But you are more excited about the fried fish that your brother and you will fight over, as to who will get more, till your father will sweep in and give both of you two pieces each and have the fifth himself, putting his Math degree to good use. Dinner is always followed by mangoes (also fresh, since they are from your tree), here even your father joins you and your brother in the fighting as to who will have more. By the time you are five, you can identify the different types of fish with ease, with Rohu being the family favorite. By the time you are ten, you can ascertain the size of the fish, by the number of bones that you get in your fish for dinner (the size of the fish and the number of bones are both serious business in a Bihari household.). But no treat is greater than your grandmother’s special mutton, saved for special occasions like festivals and birthdays. However old you grow, you will never associate a smell with home, unless it is the smell of mutton curry, almost like your grandmother’s, because no one in the family has been able to replicate her style completely. That saddens you because you know you’ll never eat mutton cooked like that again. Of course that curry was solely responsible for ruining your rebellious, vegetarian teenage days, one whiff of that curry and you were saying a silent prayer for the lamb that was killed so you could have a delicious dinner.
Weekend mornings were spent at the Patna Zoo and if you behaved well (Didn’t stick your hand inside the cages, didn’t try to feed the animals or try and touch the snakes.); you were rewarded with ice cream at the Sudha dairy inside the zoo complex. Mornings were another special occasion. If you woke up early enough, you were privy to the most beautiful sunrise from your terrace, you could also meet the milkman, his cow, its calf and see the milkman milch his cow, but only if you woke up early enough. You could trouble your grandmother as she performed her morning prayer, complete with aggarbattis (incense sticks), bells, bhajans and many a mantras. Evenings were spent with your grandfather as he tried and failed to teach you Sanskrit, the harmonium and the tabla. He finally settled on basic ‘Sa re ga ma pa’, where you showed some prowess, only to give up when you realized that ‘Do Re Mi’ was fancier (which your mother introduced you to, much to your grandfather’s chagrin).
In a Bihari household, you learn a few things very early- One, that books are a medium to reach a magical place that only books are capable of taking you to. You grow up only when you have finished reading every book that Enid Blyton had written by the time you are ten and move on to ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ when you are 11. Two, there is no job in the world like being a government job like your father and his father before him and even his father before him. Your grandmother never misses a chance to ridicule the new ‘management’ phenomena which has taken over the world as private jobs offer no certainty.
You are often told that books and stories bring the magic into life, which many seek but never find. So your Nani tells you fairytales every night to put you to sleep. You dream of Rumpelstillskin and his foolishness and Snow White and her seven dwarf friends (which you envy very much.), you also plan to carry bread crumbs with you from now on, in case you are ever lost, you can always find your way back like Hansel and Gretel but your greatest fear is being attacked by a wolf on your way to your grandmother’s house. Your dadi tells you stories of Gods and wars making you an expert on mythology which makes it very difficult to digest Mani Ratnam’s version of the Ramayana some ten years down the line.
But the best part of a Bihari childhood are the festivals. It is the only time of the year when your mother doesn’t object to your blatant consumption of sweets. It is that time when she brings out all her beautiful saris and jewellery and you realize that you’ll never be as beautiful as her or as elegant, since you keep falling in your lehenga every time you decide to join your cousins in running around the garden. While you love all festivals uniformly, there is a special place in your heart for Durga Puja. You love going from pandal to pandal, stopping for puchka on the way, but it is the evening mela where you come into your own. You beat your cousins in all the games you play, and the piece de resistance is when you get to play the game where you get to shoot at balloons and you manage to shoot the most. That night when you go home, you know you would never want to be anyplace else. A Bihari childhood, this, where you know that this is the magic that your mother finds in her books, your father in his work, your grandmother in her prayer and your grandfather in his music and you find it inside you. You wonder, sometimes, if Hogwarts would feel half as good as this.