My school, St.Joseph’s at Baramulla ,would hold an annual fete in it’s large grounds, on and off through the seventies.An event,which we all looked forward to excitedly. The small town had limited attractions but this definitely was one of them. It was called’Fun Fair’ in the earlier years and later on,towards the end of the decade it morphed into ‘Bal Mela’.(Children’s fair)
As the name suggests, it indeed was fun and quite a fancy affair for those times. The nuns from the adjoining convent would put up huge colourful stalls in the big ground, giving it a festive look and attract large crowds.
There were stalls selling dainty needlework, home made cloth dolls, knitted scarves and many other knick knacks ,all a product of the nuns’ talent and handiwork. There were the mandatory food stalls and games were aplenty ,a particular one I remember is ‘dropping-a-coin -in the water pail’.
However, the two things that still hold a strong recollection for me are the Hoopla Stall and The Cake.
The nuns would bake a largish cake, which to my young eyes seemed like a lump of brown mud.I now realise it must have been a chocolate cake. This cake would be put on a large platter and handed over to a couple of senior girls from the school. They would then go around in the crowd asking people to guess the correct weight of the cake. This would go on till the end of the day. I would follow the cake and the platter around and get impressed when uncles and aunties would hold it assessingly, put a serious look in their eyes and say ‘ 3.75 kg’ , ‘ na ji na,it is not more than 3.25 kg’ and another would declare ‘3.9 kg’ and so on. How I marvelled at the precise metrics measuring capacity of these hands and how I longed to be senior enough one day, to hold the platter! The winner was declared at the end of the day. The burly uncle was given something as a prize and to my astonishment the cake was also handed over to him. So many hands and surely some dust?
Coming back to the Hoopla Stall, it was a big tent put against the outer wall of the school. There were four or five rows of white cloth covered school benches, stacked in tiers. For a eight year old , it seemed like a heaven of delightful gifts. There were painted vases, colourful pencil boxes, books and toys but the thing that really caught my attention was a cap, bright orange in colour and covered with twinkling sequins. I could not take my eyes off it. There was a whole line of children in front of me trying their luck and how I wished and prayed that none of the hoopla rings went around it. There were screams of joy when somebody landed a coveted prize and murmurs of dissent when somebody missed a mark…’uh these rings are small’ ‘the rings are heavy’.
I held my 3 wooden rings anxiously. The cap was blinking invitingly. The first ring refused the invitation. The second ring sailed away, up towards the second row only to sail down and neatly settle around the cap. I forgot to breathe, such was my joy !
This cap became my prized possession. I don’t think that I ever actually wore it but it remained with me for many many years till the orange faded to a pale yellow and shed the sequins. Always a reminder of my first success.
Now during this period, I have to mention here, we lived as tenants in a huge, double storey, E shaped house called Bhimsen Building, complete with a garden and an orchard.This house was as generous as its owners and housed around eight families. This meant growing up around 18-20 kids. The evenings were noisy and dusty as we scampered around the courtyard, unknowingly weaving threads of love and friendship which were to stand the passage of time and bind all of us together till date.
I was ten by this time and probably one of the oldest amongst all the kids at home.We went to different schools but all of us would attend the annual fete of my school.Such was the fascination for this event that it was hard to wait for another twelve months for it to happen. I was getting impatient and held counsel with the other kids,’ Why don’t we hold our very own fun fair? We can put up tables in the garden adjoining the orchard and invite all the parents and maybe the kids from the neighbouring houses’. The idea caught on, it seemed so exciting till a voice chimed in ‘ How will we buy the gifts and the prizes, we have no money!’. This was the harsh truth. ‘How about contributing two rupees from each family, take advance pocket money from the parents?’ Yes, this was doable.
Ravi was set up as the treasurer of our meagre finances, Bhola and I were the think tank, the organisers of this gala affair who also had an eye on making some profit out of this. Dimpy and Pami had to collect the gifts bought from the market, I vividly remember a pair of pink plastic soup spoons. Other kids were to set up the games and arrange the 3-4 tables.
A Sunday was fixed for the home fair. Parents were duly invited. Entry was set at Re 1 and the charges for the games was set at 25p per person. We were happy with the maths.
Two days before the fair,Bhola, Ravi and I decided to take a stock of the preparations . We realised to our dismay that we were falling short of several items, there were not enough things for the hoopla tables. I so very much wanted the hoopla to be the star table. We called in the other kids and told them that the only way out now was to contribute some of our own toys etc..The kids obediently started getting their toys and some other small items from home which they thought were to be discarded.
In all this excitement, none of the kids thought of informing their mothers about this squirrelling. I also took off with my mother’s silver soormedaani . I had never seen her using it and as the silver had anyway turned black, I felt completely justified tossing it in the fun fair bag.
Sunday dawned bright and sunny. The small garden looked festive, the bushes had been draped with colourful dupattas. The tables looked good and neat. We looked clean. The younger kids could not stop chattering. We,the older ones tried to look important and worldly wise. Parents were on time. 1 rupee notes were piling up and Ravi was clinking away the coins. Scraps of paper substituting for lottery tickets were sold out. The water pail game was a big draw and so was pinning-the-donkey.There was a game with balloons too, I do not remember the details now but there was good cheer all around in the small garden.
Now was the time to unveil the two hoopla tables, the last activity of the morning. The parents had been a real sport, happy at our efforts. They ambled towards the hoopla tables, rings in their hands. I and Bhola were standing proudly behind the tables.
That was the moment when I realised the difference between fathers and mothers. The fathers were amiable,ready with the rings when suddenly one mother exclaimed,’ ‘This is my cream jar…Afghan Snow!’. Another one picked up the Vicks inhaler from the table and claimed she had bought it the week before. One aunty recognised her half used sindoor bottle (which we had topped with crushed red brick!) and another one her set of knitting needles.My mother too marched forward and was suitably shocked to see her silver soormedaani and a hand- painted plate put up as prizes.
One mother spied her son’s brand new toy aeroplane, gifted by an uncle visiting from America.
Poor Pappi, the slap resounded around the garden.
None of us had anticipated this end. We all were crestfallen and huddled together, dreading a severe scolding, I and Bhola the most.
Some innocence must have shone from our faces though, for a couple of Sikh uncles suddenly clapped their hands and shouted jovially ‘ Koi na ji koi na….badi raunak lagai, balak sher hain ji sher..’ (It doesn’t matter, the kids have brought cheer, they are brave) The fathers started laughing, ‘hamara maal humko hi bechenge…’. (They are selling our stuff back to us). Mothers were recovering but did not let go off their possessions.
We too recovered immediately and inspite of the hoopla fiasco,we had made a profit of ten rupees, all by fair means.
A lesson had been learnt and now was the time to rush into the orchard, whooping and shouting and celebrate with some till-ke-laddo. All is well that ends well.