Nostalgia: Notes on growing up in a free India for kids

Nostalgia: Notes on growing up in a free India for kids

Of course, growing up in the first two decades of Independent India had its problems but it also had its good times. Life was slower and simpler, there was less of an economic gap between the rich and poor.

Representative image. (Source: Dreamstime)

One of the strongest memories of a middle class 1960s child would be of standing in a queue and waiting! Take a trip down memory lane with Subhadra Sen Gupta.

The 1950s and the 1960s seem like a long time ago but there are still many people around who grew up then. This was the first generation that was born in Independent India. Let’s take a look at their childhood years, what their daily lives were like. Compare it to your life today and you will get a pretty good idea of how the country has changed. Also how, surprisingly, it really hasn’t changed in some ways. There are still class tests and board exams, summer holidays and trips to your grandparents’, and the same old relationships with your siblings and best friends.

Join the Queue!

One of the strongest memories of a middle class 1960s child would be of standing in a queue and waiting! Most people’s day began with standing at the milk booth to get a glass bottle of watery milk. Then there was the horror called the ration shop where you had to wait in line, nervously clutching your ration card, hoping to get some subsidized rice or wheat, sugar, cooking oil and kerosene. The ration shop owner would often sell the goods to others at higher prices and after an endless wait, you would come away with very little. For many kids, these shops were their first experience of the corruption they would see spread gradually all through the government.

No kid, except for the very rich, owned a watch. Fathers and uncles would apply to a government company called Hindustan Machine Tools (HMT) and then wait and wait till finally, after months, a clunky watch would arrive and there would be a celebration in the family like the kind you might have when your father buys a new car.


Of cars there were just two models: the Ambassador and the Fiat, and their design remained unchanged for decades. Most people travelled by bus and even the Prime Minster was stuck with a white Ambassador that had an engine that could be heard from miles away. The good thing about there being so few cars was that there was no such thing as a traffic jam. You could stroll across Chandni Chowk, probably the most congested road in Delhi, with only cycle rickshaws and the trams rattling down the road, ringing their bells.

Nowadays, we are all so used to having so many choices when we go shopping. Take shoes and clothes, for instance. In the 1960s, kids wore shoes from Bata, whether they liked it or not, and the company did not have much of a variety back then. So if you went looking for party shoes, you came back with a boring black or brown or white. And no one made pink or purple strappy sandals with glitter on them.

Designer clothes? No one had even heard of the term. You went to the tailor in the market and begged him to stitch one something, carrying a photo torn from a magazine perhaps, but of course, the end product would often be nothing like what you had dreamed about.

Of course, no ordinary household had air conditioners, or even refrigerators. People slept on charpoys on the terrace in summer, under the stars. There was always water in the taps and the rivers were broad spreads of sparkling, clear water. Words like ‘pollution’ and ‘climate change’ that are so relevant today, did not exist in common vocabulary.

Going to School

In those days, there was only eleven years of school with one board exam at the end. Then there were three years of college for graduation and two more years for a master’s degree. However, there were fewer subjects to study, which meant fewer tests and much more free time. So in the evenings, the local parks would be full of kids playing and being noisy. Children were not encouraged to argue with their parents or teachers and concepts like ‘peer pressure’ or ‘generation gap’ were non-existent. And, of course, since there were no computers, and no Internet, when you had a class project, you had to slog in the library, looking up books and making your own notes the old-fashioned way.

Shopping, Entertainment and Eating Out

There were no supermarkets or shopping malls and markets were small, single-storey shops with cluttered shelves. Shopping would be packed in flimsy brown paper bags that would split on the way home. (You may have noticed that many grandmothers have a habit of folding and saving plastic bags because when they were growing up plastic bags were very precious!)

Eating out was a very rare treat because most families could not afford it and also options were limited. There were no pizza parlours, burger joints or coffee shops and most restaurants served Indian or ‘continental’ cuisine, which mostly consisted of something vaguely European, with gluey soups and hard breads. Indian food usually meant Mughlai or Punjabi and when restaurants began serving up dosas and idlis-the first of those being the Udupi restaurants that popped up in many cities-people would queue up to get in. Anything with noodles was called ‘Chinese’ and even the cooks had no idea that Hakka and Szechuan were different cuisines.

There was exactly one television channel: the national channel, Doordarshan, and initially, it was broadcasted for just a couple of hours every day. Many television sets were in schools and the kids of the locality would go there in the evening to crouch inside the dark auditorium, watching the grainy black-and-white images, mesmerized.

Since there was only one channel, you pretty much had to watch everything, from the news to Krishi Darshan, a show about farming, from hockey and kabbadi matches to endless folk dances. But Doordarshan did not cover the five-day-long cricket test matches, for which people had to depend on the radio for updates!

But the great movies of the time made up for the lack of channels on the television! Films had wonderful stories, good acting and absolutely lovely songs. When Dilip Kumar and Madhubala lip synced to Majrooh Sultanpuri’s lyrics and Naushad’s music the whole auditorium sighed with joy. They were often about real issues facing India at the time instead of being only about Bollywood romances. But filmy fashion was as much of a rage as it is today-of particular note was the Sadhana kurta (named after the actress Sadhana) that was so tight that girls had to move sideways to climb into buses since it was too tight for them to move forward in it!

At Home

Most families were large, with at least three generations living together. The term ‘nuclear family’ had still not become popular in India. It meant space was tight at home but it had two great benefits-grandparents and cousins. Grandpas had all the time in the world to answer your crazy questions, take you on morning walks and teach you to recognize trees and birds and, on summer nights, show you the constellations of stars. Grandmas were the ones you told your deepest secrets to, the ones you were too scared to tell your mom, and many of them were wonderful storytellers.

Most women did not work, so you came back from school to hot meals served by mothers. Of course, it also meant that they had more time to brood over your report card, and lectured you about the importance of a good education! Living with cousins meant that summer holidays were spent blissfully poring over books, fighting over film magazines, listening to the radio and singing along to Muhammad Rafiand Lata Mangeshkar. The growing popularity of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in the West also began to make a mark in India and soon, the walls of every teenager’s room would be covered with the cheeky face of Paul McCartney and the brooding visage of Mick Jagger.

On those sleepy summer afternoons there were board games and everyone honed their skills at cheating at cards. You walked more-to the market, to school, and it was good for you. You did not sit before a television stuffing your face with chips but went out to play and made real friends, not virtual ones.

Of course, growing up in the first two decades of Independent India had its problems but it also had its good times. Life was slower and simpler, there was less of an economic gap between the rich and poor. Your leaders were often people you genuinely admired, as many of the founding fathers were still around. Their public behaviour was courteous and civilized and a lot of faith was placed on their judgement. For instance, when Nehru inaugurated the Bhakra-Nangal dam in Punjab, the whole country celebrated.

What was unique in these years was the unflagging optimism for the future. Parents and grandparents of this first post-independence generation remembered how bad it used to be as a colonized people, and taught children their history well. After years of struggle, India was finally free and had embarked on an adventure full of optimism. The spirit of independence was infectious: We were a nation, we would survive the initial hardships and we were going to decide our future. This optimism was the strongest fragrance in the air.

They were not bad, those times.


(Excerpted with permission from A Children’s History of India, by Subhadra Sen Gupta, published by Rupa Publications.)