In my imagination, Ramchand Khemchand Academy, where I started my unremarkable education, loomed like a huge fortress over Colaba. Every afternoon, at lunchtime, we would troop down to the basement canteen for lunch. This was still the ’70s, so mothers would arrive with lunchboxes of steaming food and cajole bored children into consuming their body-weight’s worth of carbohydrates. Meal times always seeming pretty boring to me (I have definitely got over that problem), but I liked the canteen. At one end of the canteen was a counter selling snacks. I was especially taken by the sight of the green glass jars filled with golden-coin chocolates. They glistened in the Bombay sun that came in through the high windows, and they seemed to call out to me incessantly.
On my 6th birthday, I was finally allowed to buy my chocolate. I peeled the stiff golden foil with care, marking it in my memory as a momentous occasion. I was in for a huge disappointment. The chocolate turned out to be a grey, powdery mass and more than a little bit stale, and it took all of my willpower to force it down and pretend it was delicious. Now, if I was a wise kid, this should have been an early lesson in not judging a book (or indeed, a chocolate) by its cover, and not giving in to good marketing. But alas. Year after year, I kept making the same mistake.
Another time, I was taken in by all the ads for soft-drinks and threw a minor tantrum to buy a Goldspot. My goal achieved, I came home and planned to drink it all on my own while the rest of the family took a siesta. But a few sips in, and the sickly orange taste got to me. After all the fuss I’d created, I couldn’t now swallow my pride and accept defeat. So I tip-toed to the kitchen and poured the Goldspot into our stainless-steel water jug. I then went about the rest of my day as though nothing had happened, while my parents and my sister muffled their laughter and prepared to write a new story into the family legends– “The day Suchi thought that she could get away with it“.
And on and on it went. When we lived in the Gulf, I was entranced by the ads in Amar Chitra Kathas. I read the stories of Ram & Shyam, and wished I could show off my prowess in spotting counterfeit Poppins. I wanted a Ravalgon eclair fountain. I wanted to collect the rubbery Jungle-book pictures behind soft-drink caps. Oh, and NP Bubblegum wrappers. After I came back to India and discovered Archie comics, I wanted the silly trick things. The little buzzer that would give an electric shock to whoever you shook hands with. The farting cushion. The oozy fake-brains. And, last but not the least, the World-Famous Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys (Open a bowl-full of happiness- Instant Pets!). I remember distinctly a full-page ad depicting a happy and perfect family living in a minature castle in a fishbowl. The mother sea-monkey had long lashes and lipstick, and the baby was as cute as hell. All you had to do, I told my mother, was send a couple of dollars to New York and they’d send you the magic eggs. All I can say is, it’s a good thing she wasn’t convinced. The Sea Monkeys, it turns out, are little shrimp-like things bearing very little resemblance to the ad.
I am currently on a trip abroad, and, I have to say, I am now an adult but I am still not completely cured of these longings. I discovered a fascinating catalogue called Skymall on the flight. It’s the kind of catalogue that features The Biffy Butler Bidet Sprayer. Not only does Biffy have a toilet-paper holder and a hand-shower, it also has a handy little mount for your iPad. (You know, so you can wash your unmentionables while playing Kandy Krush Saga.) There is also the Pringles Can Diversion Safe, in which you’re supposed to store your cash and jewellery in it and fool the robbers. You might think you can do this with any empty chips can, but no, this one is special because the Chicago Police have said that they are better than a locked safe and a thousand times cheaper. As I toss up between these two enticing objects, the memories of a certain gold-coin chocolate seem especially hazy.