We lived in luckier times
I never thought of it like that. Walking around in the old neighborhood after dark with an equally old friend, we reminisced. The state of middle-class childhood today! A dismal thing, with no bats and balls, no bicycles, no scraped knees or potentially dangerous encounters with anything wild, something dirty — the organic. No snakes here, no monsoon frogs. Only hermetic nurseries and closed rooms, the glow of PlayStation screens rather than the honest glare of the sun.
Our childhood playgrounds are now parks for the nouveau riche to put their ornamental flower beds and lawn chairs; or worse still, they are car parks. Their waddling dogs promenade on the streets, defecating at will, walked by migrant domestic help. Pitching wickets or playing soccer are definitely verboten. Our streets where we biked in wild abandon or its close approximation, now overflow with larger, sleekers cars than I recall. (Any elegies for the humble Fiat Padmini?) And so on.
Ah, the lost days of the 1980s when kids could be kids. Where are the rules to be broken, where are the risks to be taken? Is childhood now this sad thing spent half online, already wasting away or bulking up, or in training for either form, on course to become imitations of us adults, the fossilized remains of long-lost children.
The only reason to keep living here, I (almost) tell my parents, is because it is a museum and we can’t let such museums dissipate into the hands of a builder/contractor, to be torn down and turned into modular apartments. No, the tree with its sussurating crown above our heads, its hanging branches blowing in summer’s parched wind like streamers, that domus dulcis domus to falcons and kites, must stay. Yes, I love the mewling cry of the kite that has had its nest in the highest branches — a lament always implied in it, as it penetrates down past into our hushed rooms. So what if the city’s poisonous air and its unending destruction of the natural have rendered the once verdant vistas around us into fractured islands of green? There is no longer the sea of canopies and whirling birds I saw when I stood on the summit of our little domestic mountain (i.e., the flat roof of our house, a panorama of Old Delhi around us).
And where did the ‘happiness birds’ go that lived in the stairwells of those old buildings behind our home? That would circle in wild ululations of flight around the colored paper kites of August, against a sky so achingly blue?
So what if there are no more garden lizards with their bobbing, horned heads, trying to camouflage on the dark brown bark of our tree? So what if the sparrows have died out, and the iridescent purple sunbirds too? Once there were owls. And rock pigeons. And peacocks in the nearby overgrown estates. Gone. Like dragons. All mythical.
At least we won’t have to worry as we once did if the owl’s cry at night outside my second floor bedroom window was ill-omened.
At least the tree and our little garden can be home to a few desolate crows and the occasional bulbul, their cries drowned out in every morning’s crescendo of car alarms and horns.
Let us keep it all alive while we are alive. Then if modernity or what we euphemistically call civilization is to sweep over us, and the rubble of our home, then let it. We will be long gone. We can only hope the dream lives on.