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11 Social and Cultural Life

Growing Up in Agarpara, by Iti Mishra and Childhood Memories, by Sanoo Twena

Growing up in Agarpara

by Iti Misra

I was five years old when we came to Calcutta from Bombay after my father joined National Tobacco Company, of the B.N. Elias group, as Factory manager. Since it was a factory outside the city, we had all lived on the premises in a beautiful residential colony in the village called Agarpara. Most of my friends and neighbors were Jewish. All my father’s colleagues were from the Jewish community. There were only three to four Bengali families there but we were too young and free of racial discrimination to feel that any of us was different from the other.

We grew up like family. We lived in each others’ houses; we slept in each others’ homes.  There were no fences and no boundaries, neither physical nor mental. Just as our lawns flowed into one another’s gardens so too did our lives. We did not know the difference between being Jewish or Bengali. Whatever difference there appeared to be in our food habits or clothes (the Bengali Moms wore Saris while the Jewish Moms wore Jalabas), we relished it as a part of our colourful lives.  There was nothing that we did not know about each others’ lives. If I wanted my hair curled, I went to one aunty; if they wanted to learn fruitcake they came to my mother. If one child was critically ill, all the aunties would take turns to nurse and keep vigil at the bedside. There was no ego and the interesting thing is that there was no consideration of status among the families.  My father became the ‘burrasahb’ but we had to wish even the junior supervisors and their wives. They could quite easily reprimand anyone else’s child and all the parents were equally concerned with the welfare of all the children. 

We were not conscious of who was senior or not. They were all aunties and uncles. For example, the security officer’s wife was the most revered in the colony because she was such a good and loving person. Her advice was sought and she was often asked to guide an errant child because her counsel was so valuable. Hierarchy was only in the Factory shop floor; what place did it have in our homes? 

Living in Agarpara was like living in one big house wherepeople moved in and out freely. We walked in if they were eating and we sat at each other’s tables. The Bengalis did not eat beef and the Jews did not eat Pork.   Neither did they eat chicken in our homes because it was not Kosher but they ate the fish and vegetables. But if we invited them to our home, my Mother made sure to get the “ Kosher “ Chicken which had been slaughtered by the Mullah.  We respected each other’s culinary traditions.  In fact, my sister and I would shamelessly hang around in one of our Jewish neighbour’s houses on Friday evenings, hoping to be asked to stay on for the Sabbath Dinner of AluMakalla etc., which we thought was the most delicious thing in the world.  Similarly, my mother would often ask our little friends to join us for Bengali style fish curries or the fried dough delicacies called “Luchi” with accompaniments.

There was no celebration or grievance that we did not share. For a bar mitzvah it was like we were celebrating a function for someone of our own. We would be in a state of feverish excitement for days. The City folk would come as invitees but we were the family. Those are the most gorgeous memories—everyone making a fuss over the boy who said the prayers. We went to the lunch after the bar mitzvah prayers were over, gorging on the Jewish delicacies while all the aunties helped in serving up the Lunch. It was difficult to say who were the parents and who were the doting neighbours. We also celebrated and enjoyed each other’s festivals. The Jewish families would also come for Durga Puja and though they did not participate in the prayers, the celebrations that followed in the evenings were for everyone. There was always a big event on the first day of Puja-swhen the company gave a party for the occasion. The kids would put up plays and concerts and the parents would attend the functions and applaud extravagantly. It was a different festival to what was celebrated in the city when we talked about it to our relatives they could not believe that things like that existed in the world they knew.

Birthdays were occasions for tea parties for the children. Everybody, Jewish or Bengali, had the same menu. It used to be chutney sandwiches, falouries, chutputey (gugni), agar agar, cheese samboosas, everything homemade, except for the cake which was from Nahoum’s. The drink was Vimto, a sweet cherry flavoured drink,which was only had as a special treat. Kids relished Vimto and the grown-ups of course, had something stronger. The most amazing thing about these birthday parties was the community participation.  All the aunties, Bengali or Jewish made one or two of the items, each one being given responsibility of preparing her speciality.  The aunties cooked, the children helped to blow up the balloons and put up the streamers, toiling all day …then hot and bothered we would all remove to our respective homes and re-appear washed, dressed and perfumed, ready to party. 

I grew up with so much love—trusting and loving everyone unconditionally. It was an idyllic and different world and my cousins could not understand why we never wanted to come away to the city for long breaks. Holidays meant playing and going wild all day. We used to make paper dolls. As mum said, ‘Don’t touch my scissors.’ So we would go to Aunty Helen, Mrs “Lumboo” Moses, and lie ‘Mum wants to borrow your scissors.’ She would say ‘But tell mum not to let you cut paper with it.’ And then we did just that. But she never checked with my Ma to see if she had indeed borrowed her scissors. There was so much implicit trust. Knitting needles, pattern books, catalogues for dress designs, magazines, cake tins …everything belonged to the community and everyone’s things were on permanent circulation, with the original owner often having to “ borrow” her own items for use!

Mrs. Rodda, whose husband also worked in the Factory, knew Hebrew and she would take the boys for their Hebrew classes because the other aunties were not well educated.She used to also teach in Jewish Girls’ School.  As she was a strict disciplinarian, she was in charge of the children in the school bus as we rode to our schools 20 miles away. The big van was especially constructed for 50 to 60 kids and was provided by the company for all the children to attend school in the city. We treated Mrs. Rodda with extreme respect tinged with fear. She was our guardian in transit and she made sure that everyone behaved and nobody fought. Although she often slapped and boxed the ears of an unruly child, every parent and we believed that she would lay down her own life to protect her little charges, should the occasion arise. As Dennis David was very naughty—‘Dennis the Menace’— she would have him sit next to her to keep an eye on him. But he was incorrigible and would tie plaits to the bus bench and generally be a total nuisance. Consequently, not a day passed when he wouldn’t get beaten by her, yet I don’t remember anyone questioning her right to do so. She was entitled to hammer anyone as much as she liked. The parents had asked her to keep an eye on us and it was up to her to do it her way.

In those days there was no inter-marriage. It was just ‘not done’ in the society of those days for both Bengalis and Jews. We were like brothers and sisters and though we had the occasional adolescent crushes there was too much familiarity for any romance to develop. We would want to sit next to the boy we liked and for a while it was nice, but very soon nudging, pinching and shoving would kill all romantic thoughts and places would change without any rancor. I think we lived in such close proximity that romance never survived, but friendship did. Even Jews within the colony did not marry one another but looked outside when selecting partners. We in the colony, of course, reserved the right to approve of their choice or otherwise. But there were affairs between the Jewish adults, which we were then too young to realize but not across cultural lines. There were very strict boundaries about intermarriage all over India then and Agarpara was no different only in that respect.

We Bengalis who lived in Agarpara were objects of curiosity for our families who lived outside because we lived in another world. They would ask us questions about our Jewish neighbours—their clothes, food and lifestyle, which to them, was intriguingly different. The aunties wore dresses and during the day they wore long gowns. They never wore Indian clothes. As a young girl I wore the same clothes as the Jewish girls did, till about 13 or 14. Only in college did we start wearing salwar kameez and saris. We all had the same tailor and we copied each others’ styles. The Jewish families were large with as many as six or seven kids. By the time they were seventeen, mostof the young ones went to Palestine or England and we all gathered around and had tearful farewells. I could not understand where and why they were going.

That environment was created basically because of logistics and infrastructure. We lived in a closed community with very little access to City life. Transport was not that easy. Only the senior managers had cars and drivers. You were cut off from your own family, who lived far away. You came to the City about twice a month. Almost like a kibbutz. We had one another and we relied on each other for everything—for entertainment, solace, comfort, everything. ITC had similar colonies in Monghyr and Sharanpur. But those places were different because officers got transferred and children went to boarding school, while our parents and their colleagues lived and died there.

Today, decades later, we are still in close contact with our childhood friends.  Some, physically as we continue to live in Calcutta, others through email, Facebook and frequent visits.  My daughter and I have spent a week in Israel with Ilana (Jonah) and she has done the same in Calcutta. Solomon and Seema Tweena are regular visitors to Kolkata in winter and their visits are a wonderful reason for an “Agarpara Reunion”. Whenever we collect together, the reminiscence is always about the halcyon days of our childhood. Every conversation starts with “Remember when…?” others listen in wonder tinged with envy. We ourselves, for a few brief hours, relive the glorious days of Agarpara and remind ourselves, “Yes, there was a Camelot”.