So, where you are going this summer? Come on folks, it’s May. Don’t tell me you haven’t made plans. Every day, it seems, people are packing up and heading out for vacations in Cannes, Tuscany, Koh Samui or Goa. Multiple suitcases are packed, visas procured, villas rented, and rates negotiated. In between airline schedules, kids’ activities and shopping marathons, you return home cranky and exhausted.
Summer holidays used to be simple. When I was growing up, it usually meant being packed off to the grandparents, whether they were in Pune, Udhagamandalam, Kochi or Chandigarh. The cousins—it didn’t matter if you had three cousins or 30; it always seemed like the house was full of people—gathered in the same ancestral home and spent the endless summer engaged in desultory sport of the kind that would give today’s youngsters a heart attack.
The simple life: No battery-operated toys, no plane rides, no art classes. Back then, holidays were about entertaining yourself.
Climbing mango trees, for instance, was a favourite one. After lunch, we would sneak out into the blazing sun and climb our favourite mango trees. Picking and chewing on raw mangoes was part of the fun, but simply lying back into the broad enfolding embrace of the branches was also enough. We would lie there and stare up at the winking sunshine that filtered through the rustling leaves, playing some ridiculous game like Name, Place, Animal, Thing.
Most afternoons were spent playing Ludo or Trade—my generation’s version of Monopoly. Since the elders were napping, we had to amuse ourselves perforce or face their wrath if, God forbid, our noise woke them up. After a couple of rounds, we got hungry, so the younger ones would be sent to sneak into the kitchen and steal whatever namkeen was on offer. These were strictly off-limits to us, of course. The womenfolk who had painstakingly made them the previous day would have warned us not to touch them. “I’ve counted the laddus,” my grandmother would say darkly. “So, don’t think you can stuff them down your throat.”
But the sweets and savoury mixture would call to us, sing their siren song that made them irresistible. Come 2.30—a mere couple of hours after our extremely filling lunch—sometimes I think we spent the entire summer just eating—we would tiptoe into the cool dim kitchen. My grandmother stored the goodies in giant brass bins and covered them with newspaper. Slowly, with infinite care, we would pry open the brass lids. Then, four of us would hold each end of the newspaper and lift it out so it didn’t rustle. We would fill our pockets with murukku, mixture and chikki. The youngest went ahead as a lookout just in case one of the adults woke up. The rest of us would dart back to the verandah and resume our game, chewing contentedly on chikki and chiwda as the gentle breeze rustled our hair.
At tea-time, if my grandmother didn’t notice the pilferage, we would get more of the same with our milk. If she did notice, we would get our ears boxed, but more often than not, the womenfolk were so hassled by the arrival of the ayah, the mali, the milkman and cutting out milk coupons that they didn’t notice our theft. We would sit on the kitchen floor as one of the aunts gave us tumblers of milk and rationed out portions of a snack. This was the only time when the adults didn’t have to coax and threaten us to eat quickly. The entire lot of us would gulp down the milk and run out into the garden. There, in the fading evening sunlight, we played simple innocent games that I find (to my delight) are still played in galis across India. Four Corners, Seven Stones or Pitto, Chain or its sibling Help, Hide & Seek, L-O-N-D-O-N—these are some of the games that we played for hours.
If my grandfather was around, he would order us in at dusk to say our prayers. We would have to wash our feet and, together, in a cacophonous chorus, recite the Sanskrit slokas that he had taught us earlier. Thankfully, these were short and, after a quick aarti, we were once again left to our devices, while the women prepared dinner. In our Tamilian household, on many nights, it was a simple curd rice with pickle. One aunt would bring out a giant tub of curd rice, take us out to the rooftop terrace and ladle it out into our palms as we sat around her, listening to stories under the moonlight.
After dinner, a few of the more sporting mamas and mamis would condescend to play cards with us. Bluff was a big favourite in our family, but Trump was also popular. By the time the adults were ready for their dinner, we were ready for bed. The razais were brought out and spread willy-nilly on the floor and we all dozed off in one disjointed huddle. Until the next morning….
Shoba Narayan is going to New York this summer, but wishes she were going to Coimbatore with her cousins. Write to her at email@example.com