When my parents picked Vizag as our annual getaway in the summer of 2003, they must have taken into account the delights of a roomy coastal retreat, the supermarket-like satisfaction of squeezing in some free mountain on the side (Araku Valley), and just the hint of rebellion in a Bangali holiday venturing beyond the Digha-Puri-Darjeeling quick fix. What they did not consider was my disregard for caution, and its effect on young monkeys.
We were inside the Borra Caves, the stalactite-stalagmite wonder of Andhra Pradesh—the country’s deepest caves that the Gosthani river noodles through. The experience would have gone down in our memory book as serene, but for what happened next. The entrance to the caves, from which we had just emerged, was a playground for monkeys of all sizes, and I was particularly taken with a baby monkey that appeared perfectly approachable. Before my parents could intervene, approach it I did, and it, me. The union was short-lived, and ended with squeals of alarm (monkey’s and mine), a bloody arm (mine) and anti-rabies injections administered by head-shaking doctors in obscure towns. It wasn’t anything short of traumatic at the time, but the mishap has, over years of dramatic retelling at family gatherings (thanks, Ma) come to be referred as the “cave incident,” something of a dark inside joke.
Looking back, all our yearly trips, planned with the confused aesthetic of sensible middle-class parents aching to break free, but without endangering their roles as caution-keepers, involved some awkward memory or the other. Most of them revolved around my sister and I marching through our parade of gaffes, and others gave us the rare opportunity of catching Baba and Ma on the wrong foot. Like that time in Madhya Pradesh’s Bandhavgarh National Park, where we saw a Bengal tiger lapping water from a pool some five metres from our safari jeep. While we were all excited about the trip, my sister, then around nine, had been the most pumped up about seeing a bagh. So imagine the trust issues that ensued when Ma-Baba forgot to wake her up in time for the prize sighting, all of which—the swaggering entrance, the water-slurping, the lingering, cold look at our jeep—she slept through. Ma’s assurance that being young, she had plenty of time to spot tigers of all kinds, did little to undo the betrayal. But it armed me with a year’s worth of “clearly they don’t love you as much” digs, a remarkable source of power in any sibling equation, you’d agree.
Not that our family was doing great at pulling off blooper-free vacations when I was nine. One knuckle-freezing night in a Sikkim’s Lachung, my parents (I hear) were pushed to do something they hesitate to do even now—offer me brandy. They had little choice after I put myself in a shiver, having taken off my gloves to feel ‘real snow.’ But whispered tales of their woozy, bleary-eyed daughter mixing up her words before she was hastily put to sleep does the rounds of intimate family addas even today. My sister, then three, shouldn’t have any memory of the event, but like a crafty opponent in an unparliamentary debate, she uses my “early signs of being a lightweight” in (un)related fights.
These little interruptions were never a part of the plans so diligently drawn up through the year by my parents. (Boroline? Never without! Bhraman Sangi? But of course.) Not when the four of us almost missed our train back to Calcutta from Alipurduar after a delicious Dooars holiday. Not when my sister, on her first brush with the sea (Puri, Odisha, 1998) swallowed saltwater and threw howling fits before her bath time for nearly six months afterward. Really, who could have stopped Thammi (grandmother) from bamboozling a pahadi waiter with her sincere after-meal request: “Dinner ke baad sandesh (‘sweets’ in Bengali; ‘news’ in Hindi) leke aana”? To be fair, I wouldn’t (stop her) if we were to take a train to the Himalayas tomorrow and she decided to inflict her wonky Hindi on another unsuspecting local.
Just as I wouldn’t stop our best laid plans from running awry if I get to organise our sometimes-sketchy, always-funny family vacations now (may be just the cave incident). I suspect my parents wouldn’t either. With a lifetime of memories to sift through, it’s still the unintended, awkward ones that make us laugh together. Even when we meet each other, every few months, in big, blundering cities that have nothing to do with oceans, tigers, monkeys or knock-you-out brandy.
Sohini Das Gupta travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.