Vantage point

Monday, July 24, 2006

Globs of Mud

Today the sun came out in Pune for the first time in the last 10 days that I have been here. And it brought with it pleasant breeze. The breeze in Pune is so craftily calibrated. It flows at just the right intensity, and changes directions with an almost telepathic precision. This breeze is all the more heavenly in the area right behind my house, which has about 200 acres(I think) of open land surrounded by a semi-circle of hills.

As I stand at the edge of the area, I realise how I grew up in probably the best possible locality in urban India. Growing up, we would read detective novels and children's stories. We actually lived in a landscape that had all the necessary requirements for it. I remember the days when we would climb up the hill at one edge of the semi-circle, and walk along the top to the other edge. On top of the middle hill was an abandoned graveyard. There were no tombstones, but the rectangular patches made it very clear what it was. And as if taking a cue from books, the wind in its vicinity would make a howling sound. The tall grass which grew there was a pale yellow most of the time.

Beyond a short stone wall was a lot of vegetation, and the different types of colourful bugs and birds we saw there would put any biology picture book in the library to shame. Often we would venture into the "jungle", and reach the top edge of the hills, from where we could see the Pashan lake a short distance away.

There was a village-like settlement in the area. There was even a very wide and deep well where some enterprising folks would come for immersing the ganesh statues after the festival. For a few months during the monsoons, a couple of small ponds would form in some portions. Later these depressions were filled up by the locals since they felt the ponds were a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

Walking around the entire area held a different thrill at different times. We would play so many games pretending to be soldiers, detectives, explorers, superheroes. During rainy season, the wet black soil would stick to the soles of our shoes and I remember how we would stop occasionally to kick the air, and send globs of the soil flying far away. The one whose glob flew the farthest won.

In the drier seasons, the area got converted into a cricketing paradise. Imagine that huge stretch of land, with many potential "cricket grounds". Different groups of children would go and occupy different stretches and declare that as their "home ground" for the tennis ball cricket. Me and my friends spent almost a week preparing the "pitch" for our ground, and we would have practice matches to prepare for the matches on weekends. The most admired were the "grounds" which had a strategically placed tree which could serve as the "pavillion" where the remaining batting side could sit, keep score, and yell encouragements.

During the diwali vacations or summer vacations, we would have tournaments, or even "test matches". Only 1 test match ever went into the second day. Needless to say, no kid from the neighbourhood at that time ever made it to the Maharashtra Ranji team. :-P

But we took the tournaments and test matches very seriously. We would wake up at the crack of dawn, and go jogging either to the farthest hill, or then to Chandni Chowk (The Chandni Chowk in Pune is SO different from its namesake in Delhi, that I find it hilarious that both places have the same name. Seriously, only someone who has been to both the Chandni Chowks will understand how even "chalk and cheese" is too weak a metaphor for them.)

The wide open area, which by the way was known as Mhatobanagar, was separated from the "developed" area by just a wall. The transformation of suburbia into the countryside was very abrupt. By crossing the wall, we would retreat into an almost fantasy world. As we grew up, we started spending lesser and lesser time in the fantasy world, until a point came when all our leisure time was spent only in suburbia. In restaurants, coffee shops, cinema halls, or street corners. In fact during the fag end of our engineering course, we would sit at the base of the hill just on the boundary, and talk about whatever was happening in our lives. Very rarely did we cross over into the land of our childhood.

Today the area is almost identical to the way we left it a decade back. Though real estate prices in my neighbourhood have crossed 3000 rupees per sq ft, Mhatobanagar remains a lush green landscape, owing to the fact that it is not owned by the Municipal Corporation, but by the defence stablishment. But I wonder how long the defence folks will be able to resist the lucre of the crores of rupees they could get for turning the land over to a developer.

Today I took a walk in the area, covered in aggressively lush monsoon greenery. I still see the trees which served as our pavillions. I see the thick green foliage over some of our erstwhile "grounds". I walk over the pitch where I scored a match-winning 35-not-out, my personal best score. I see the old well around which we constructed some very elaborate pretend scenarios and games. It's all there. All that is missing is my friends, and my childhood.

But I do see some kids playing near me and kicking the air making globs of wet mud fly. The kid who kicks it the farthest celebrates with a Sreesanth-ish jig. And for a moment I am spirited back to the best possible childhood.