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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Happy days are here again

For those who lived in boarding schools, summer holidays came with the promise of late mornings, books and endless food.

Written by Devyani Onial |
Updated: June 12, 2016 1:10:50 am
An enchanted wood: The Doon Valley is famous for the luscious litchi fruit that is said to have originated in China An enchanted wood: The Doon Valley is famous for the luscious litchi fruit that is said to have originated in China

The happy night was here and happier days were just a few hours away. At the boarding school that I grew up in Dehra Dun, the last day before school broke up was officially called Happy Night, which is not to say our time at school was unhappy, but well, the name was just a sign of the times to come. On Happy Night, we would shed our uniform – tadpole-printed kurta and white salwar – for “home clothes” and dig into a lavish dinner. And, as anyone who has spent any time in a boarding school will tell you, food is the glue that holds everything together.

It may sound primitive, but when your day is governed by a strict three-meal cycle that allows little snacking, foraging for food becomes an all-consuming activity. The ice cream man who would drive to our school in his van every Saturday must have felt like a celebrity, mobbed as he was the moment he entered the den of hungry girls. On the Sundays that they visited us, our parents got a feel of what it must be to smuggle stuff into prison as they pressed chocolates into our sweaty palms and tins of condensed milk which we hid under dupattas. Presumably moved by our hunger pangs, my upright-to-the-point-of-lecturing mother even shoved a dabba of chaat at me once which I made off with alacrity.

All the food we managed to smuggle in and hide under beds and on window ledges would go once in a while into an MNF or midnight feast, the stuff of school legends. Growing up on a steady diet of Enid Blyton’s merry girls in the imaginary residential schools of St Clare’s and Malory Towers, weren’t midnight feasts the reason we were in a boarding school in the first place? It made you forget the pain of getting up a little after 5 am for a cup of cocoa before heading to PT every day, including in winter, when the stars were still up in the sky and of lugging iron buckets to fill with hot water, which I maintain gave me the muscular – the unkind would say Dunlopy – arms that I have today. Sure, we didn’t have ginger beer, sardines and pork pie at these feasts, but we did have condensed milk and Coffee-Mate, chips and chocolates, and even an occasional can of tuna.

Little surprise then, that summer holidays beckoned us with a promise of late mornings, endless food and books – the last two seemed joined inextricably. Not for us a month of summer break rationed out to day schools, we had over 60 long days to make what we did. I divided my holidays between Dehra Dun and Nabha in Punjab, where my father worked. Till today, I remember the journey to the small town near Patiala by what we ate: the fresh molten jaggery in the foothills, where enterprising passengers would make the driver stop the bus and jump out to get some; Ambala in Haryana where you changed buses for Punjab is marked in my memory as the place where you got flavoured milk from the company Vita, and after you crossed the border into Punjab, it was the brand Verka that took over. To me, Vita and Verka were interchangeable for Haryana and Punjab. Those were the days of hot afternoons where the long power cuts and the heat were beaten by books and there were no phones to break your concentration. On one such hot afternoon, so engrossed was I in reading that it took me long to realise that my dog and I were joined by a vulture on the verandah that was peering with much interest into my book.

Summer was also a time when the Dehra Dun of the Eighties would burst into fruit. Long before plots were parcelled out and a number of houses came up where once stood one, each house had at least one litchi tree while others flaunted many. The Doon Valley is famous for the luscious fruit that is said to have originated in China.

As the days in June got hotter, we kept a daily vigil, watching the small green fruit gain inches and colour each day. With litchis came their protectors. Each summer, a family would move into our litchi orchards, pitch their tent and spread out their charpoy. The kunjras (from the Hindi word kunj for garden) as they were called, would take over your orchard, guarding the fruit from birds, bats and children. They rented your orchard, paid you, and in return, got to sell the fruit in the market. You could, of course, reserve a tree or two and its fruit for yourself. The first fruit of the season always came to the owners of the orchard, but still, there was fun in creeping up the terrace and plucking litchis when no one was looking; it gave stealing from your own a new meaning. Used to eating fresh off the tree, most of us in the family, many of whom now live in different parts of the world, can’t still get ourselves to buy a fruit that always came free to us.

As the fire from the chulhas of the kunjras would rise over the trees, enveloping the house and the orchard in a smoky hug, to us children, there seemed to be an air of mystery that clung to these annual campers. Where did they come from every summer and where did they go after?

At night, as the town quietened down, it was magical and comforting to sleep to the steady thak-thak of a tin box being rattled amongst the litchi trees. The men guarding the trees would pull at a rope attached to a small tin box placed up in a tree to make a rattling sound through the night to scare away bats. As the trees keep disappearing and the rattle of the tins grows fainter, to hear the metallic clang over the hum of the traffic is still as heady as it was so many years ago. As heady as the overwhelming smell of the badi champa that flowered in the summer, and which has, for some reason, lost out in the popularity stakes in recent years.

But, on a hot day, the smells and sounds of a summer gone by still cross over space and time. And when my father calls to say an uncle who has the best litchi tree in town – over a hundred years old and as old as his house – has come on his annual gifting round, I feel an old familiar rush. It also means I have survived one more summer without having to buy litchis.

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