Summertime was special for us kids because friends and family would come visiting after the school term ended in June. I looked forward especially to the arrival of my “cool” cousins from Delhi. (Incidentally, “cool” was an expression used in the 1960s solely in the context of temperature related matters!) While it was hot, I cannot recall temperatures extending into the 40 degrees C plus territory. Perhaps our youth, absence of air-conditioners and the verdant environment resulted in our tolerance levels exceeding the ambient temperature.
Our house in Nangal was located on top of a hill at the corner of a circuitous street. It was a two-storeyed red brick structure set in lawns dotted with fruit bearing and flowering trees, with a large vegetable garden behind the garage. A low perimeter wall ran around the house. It demarcated our backyard from the arterial road laboriously negotiating its steep climb towards the historic Bibhour Sahib gurudwara (where the Tenth Sikh Guru Gobind Singh is said to have compiled the Chaupai section of the sacred Granth). Across this road were two dominant ageless trees – a peepul (Ficus religiosa, considered sacred across India) and a towering bargad (Banyan), whose vine-like branches had extended its territorial claim several meters around the gigantic central trunk. Our mandatory late-night bhoot (ghost) and churail (witch) stories prominently featured these trees, which would assume a more sinister appearance at night, when viewed from my upstairs bedroom window. The leaves of the peepul tree move continuously even when the air around is still, leading young impressionable minds to believe that sinister forces were at work!
By contrast, a large Gulmohar (Delonix Regia) tree with its brilliant orange-red flowers dominated the front lawn. Our gardener had assisted us in securing a wooden plank across the triangulated lower branches of the tree to build a crude treehouse. A rope wrapped around a bough across each of the three sides provided the “railing,” while a rope ladder with wooden staves dangled from a branch on the open fourth side. This was pulled up swiftly after we clambered on, to restrict “spies and intruders.” Of my cousins from Delhi, D was the eldest and the undisputed leader who decided the agenda for the day. Another cousin P and my buddy V made up our coterie. D’s much younger sister S and my brother A (seven years younger to me) were more often than not excluded from our activities because they were “not our age” and because “S is a girl!” Only when she howled before my mother, would we begrudgingly allow her into our sanctum sanctorum! There was a special thrill in sitting up there, teasing S and A while enjoying apricots from the garden and consuming fresh mangoes and other seasonal fruits. We would read comic books or work on completing our “summer vacation home work.” Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories helped us to plot our very own intrigues.
[In November 2014, accompanied by my colleague and dear friend T, I revisited the house that was my home over 50 years ago! The Gulmohar tree is still there and can be seen on the left. Thanks for the picture, T!]
Fast forward fifty years, to living in Canada. Our older granddaughter S first started coming over for her sleepovers when she was three and my wife and I would take her for walks around the neighbourhood. She would notice things from a different vantage point and her keen sense of observation would give rise to innocent questions, bringing to attention things that are often overlooked by adults in the course of our humdrum lives. She would wonderingly point out a tiny flower peeping through a crevice in a neighbour’s wall, want to pet but also be scared by the baby “cotton tail” that would itself seek to hide among the lilies, sit on a tree stump (yes, she assured us it was a “stump” because her dad had told her so!) or just stoop to pick the “pretty, yellow” dandelions.
Our wonderful handyman, N lodged a makeshift “nest” in our maple tree as little S was fascinated by birds and squirrels. She always inquired if any bird babies had come to live in it. During the course of one such conversation, I told S about the tree house that I had built when I was a young lad. This is now the mainstay of her visits and her Nana (maternal grandfather) is regularly asked when a treehouse could be built for herself and her sister. I pointed out that the branches of the tree in our backyard or the maple in front were not spread out properly nor were they strong enough to accommodate a tree house. So walking around the block now, S explores neighbours’ trees to assess their suitability for accommodating her dream tree house.
Nana is very tempted and sometimes wishes he had the resources to switch to another property where this dream treehouse could be built. That would be the confluence of several childhood dreams, across intervening decades.
“Chand tinke naa thhey nasheman ke
Bāġh-o-shāḳh-o-shajar kā qissa hai”
[(These were) not just a few straw pieces from the nest
(But, is) the garden-the tree-and-its branches’ narrative] – Saba Akbarabadi
Cliff Richards’ Summer Holiday was our anthem in 1963, although Ella and Louis’ Summertime, ageless since 1958 is my “hot” favourite!