Life in monochrome: My back-to-school memories

The dark room, developer and fixer are not just passé, they are museum pieces in a few photography savants’ basement stowage

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Suresh Pattali

Published: Thu 7 Sep 2023, 6:34 PM

Last updated: Thu 7 Sep 2023, 6:53 PM

Monochrome runs in the family. People who know the Pattalis would say the family never grew up from its black-and-white studio days. The dark room, developer and fixer are not just passé, they are museum pieces in a few photography savants’ basement stowage. The DSLR, a digital avatar of the Single Lens Reflex cameras my generation toyed with, could soon burn up in its last orbit and the world is awaiting the dawn of another era, yet most of us in the family still take and share photos in monochrome.

Hey, hold on, this column is not about photography. It’s about how the achromatic bug has bitten the family right, left and centre. From the food they eat to the clothes they wear, everything about the family is monotonously bland. Flashy and freaky stuff were a taboo for kids when they were growing up. All in the name of class. Life was hueless in every sense and I was proud of it until I walked into a mall last week before schools reopened after the long summer break.

I was there to pick up some cinnamon roll when all the corridors led to back-to-school sales. Caught in the human avalanche, I floated with the current and beached at a store crowded with parents, grandparents and kids of all ages and sizes. There were many such stores in the maze of shopping corridors festooned with red-and-yellow banners. Beguiled by the vibrant ambience, shoppers drifted through the bargain aisles in a psychedelic trance. The heady tang of books, bags and stationery knocked me off straight away. I fell through a kaleidoscopic tunnel and splashed into a sea of monochrome memories.

There never was a bookstore or a back-to-school sale back home in the ’60s and ’70s. Families never set aside a fund for education and most believed literacy was a state responsibility. Ruled notebooks and just one unruled book for mathematics were generally bought by the hoi polloi from village groceries. The stationery was all about just one pen, one eraser, one ruler, and one elastic band for boys to tie their books together to carry. School bags were never heard of. In vogue among rich girls was an aluminum case, while ordinary lads held their bunch of books pressed against their chest, a quintessential campus scene of the 1980s movies.

Those of us from a joint family would make a trip to H&C Stores, a 1947-established wholesaler based in my hometown Thrissur, to get a special discount, which we then used at Indian Coffee House. We would spend the rest of the evening smelling the textbooks. I imagined the sketches of Mughal kings were drawn with Arabian attar, while Gandhi and Nehru let out the fragrance of freedom. And Rani of Jhansi? She smelled of valour and sacrifice. A visit to H&C, which has since grown to a publishing house, is certainly on top of my bucket list on my next vacation.

“Sir, anything for your children?” A Filipina salesperson woke me up.

“Children? I wish I had school-going children. My grandson is just seven months old.”

“So, anything for yourself, sir?” The sales lady’s impishness won me over. Suddenly, I wanted to buy up all that’s kiddie. School bags, lunch boxes, crayons, pencils, rulers — all in dazzling hues. Suddenly, I graduated from monochrome to polychrome. A monsoon of confetti rained down on me in celebration. I was delirious. I ran my fingers on all the glitzy goods in the shop and paused at the lunchbox area. I had been wanting to buy one for a long time. Should I buy now or order it online? I asked myself. “Shops are for boys; men buy online,” I concluded as I slipped away.

That night, I purchased a two-tier lunch-box with a carry bag from Amazon and waited a lifetime — every moment being as long as a season — for the courier to arrive after a day. As Vava fiddled with the packet in the kitchen, I fantasised carrying a gourmet lunch to the office. “Will our cook Maggie live up to the occasion? Will she fuss about the small size? Will the Indian curry stain the plastic? Should I flaunt it in the office?”

“Dad, take it easy, okay? Still a long way to grow back to childhood,” Vava shouted from the kitchen.

“What happened, Vava?”

“Sorry to break your heart, dad. One of the trays is broken. Book a return order.” My castle of dreams came crashing down. The sea of colours in my heart receded to an expanse of gray. And some time past midnight, it rained monochrome. Summer showers, they said.

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