I was put in a crèche since the age of five because my mum and dad were both working and couldn’t leave me alone at home. As I later discovered, many of my schoolmates were also packed off to the same refuge of temporarily abandoned kids every afternoon under the watchful eye of Miss Leela, who would keep us there till our parents would come after work and pick us up. Miss Leela (aunty) was a middle aged lady with a stern face, a biggish family of four children, and a government servant for a husband. As the ritual went – every day, her family would vacate the house for work while we poured in. Come evening, we exited and they entered, leaving chance days when her only son and the daughters were occasionally home and could play with us.
Everything was well planned for the day. I would be dropped by the school auto rickshaw to this place along with three other friends. She would help us change out of school uniforms and hurry us all to the kitchen. Apparently, this was a part of the training she intended to impart. Strangely, I was used to eating with my left hand (in my head it left the right hand free for writing, colouring, etc. I think I have always been compulsive about clean hands).
I was the object of her constant annoyance because “good children eat with right hand only”. You had to finish with everybody else and not litter the place. It was almost a sin to be faster or slower and some slackers were regularly shamed for wasting food. Prayers were compulsory before lunch.
Post-lunch was time for homework (or at least pretend-homework) and then came my favourite part of the day – a nap. Whether you wanted or not, little children had to nap every single day. In retrospect, she must have needed them more, just to survive the entire day with us. Funnily, everyone had to retrieve their bed sheets, spread them on the floor and nap while Leela aunty watched TV. That is probably my first memory of deceit.
Gradually, during my years there, I discovered that many more people used to take “naps” like me.
So, obviously when the others slept (or pretended to), I had two strategic holes in my sheet so that I could watch the Zee cinema afternoon film along with Leela aunty. Every single week day. Since we had no cable at home, my parents often wonder where my early cinephilia began. Giggle. This peep show went on till five when she woke us up and pushed everybody to the balcony to grab some fresh air. Crammed, twenty of us chattered away to glory. Gradually, during my years there, I discovered that many more people used to take “naps” like me. After inhaling some air and making faces at people on the street, we would all sit down in a line for tea – the ritual where we drank milk.
Leela aunty had a much prized flirty son and four sincere daughters. Although my memories of the place are hazy, I remember he doted on me. And, always found excuses to touch me or hug me. I hated him, the way he looked and smiled and teased us. He never tried anything funny but he was annoying to the core.
The worst part of such crèche days was afternoon. Sometimes, when mother was free at lunch, she would drive to the crèche and feed me. I was obviously all kinds of elated especially since the other kids would gaze longingly. On those days the crèche seemed less depressing than being alone at home. But, she would soon have to go away and I sulked till she reappeared.
It’s quite amazing that my father has never been party to these afternoon negotiations, or my first triumphant moment of learning the spelling of ‘apple’ and repeating it ad nauseum in the auto. Shuffling between self pity, martyrdom, and occasional thug-life moments, I get reminded of crèche survival days when I am forced to socialize in large groups.
The crèche was also where I saw my first penis and my first Barbie.
Evenings brought a chance visit from Jasu aunty, a neighbour of Leela aunty. If it was still bright, she’d line us up and take us down to the big Gulmohar tree with an iron rod that she attacked the tree with. Down fell all the blossoms, some I ate and some I pocketed. I recently read that childhood, in the case of Virgo, permeates all of life to come. In my love for Gulmohar trees this phase continues to imbue the rest of mine.
The crèche was also where I saw my first penis and my first Barbie. Given my father’s Greece-like penchant for austerity measures, Barbies were considered a waste of money and anyway, they contributed nothing to the brain. So, my only opportunity to play with one was when my friend H brought hers to show off at the crèche. Barbie also had tiny clothes and a tiny little cupboard with tiny drawers that fascinated me to no end. However, my unconditional access to them was revoked when H walked in on me calling her names.
This was pretty much how days passed till I turned eleven and was told that I was too big for crèches and shared autos. How I reigned at home (alone) is a different story altogether. I never really missed the crèche and was only too glad to come off but, somewhere I still vividly remember it and keep asking mum what happened to Leela aunty and family. She says they vacated the house and now no one knows. So, as my last (imagined) memory I’d like to think of a fading train, fuelled by Gulmohar blossoms, filled with Leela and family, all their belongings, many children like me, eating cream rolls and sitting in a line, all saying good bye for the day to family.