Wars, Popular Culture, and Child’s Play

“You spoke Russian”, Richard Strickland said to the wounded Dr. Hoffstetler aka Dimitri before pulling him by his shirt collar in a successful bid to derive information from the dying man. In the Academy Award-winning ‘The Shape of Water’ (USA, 2017), that one dialogue would have sufficed to express the hatred and suspicion that played in the mind of an American soldier for his Russian counterpart during the Cold War.

‘Timur and his Squad’ (‘Timur o tar Dolbol’ in Bengali), a semi-biographical novella by Arkadi Gaider was set against the backdrop of World War I. Written for the young adults, the book was not a part of the school curriculum in the Communist West Bengal where I grew up but a lucid translation in the Raduga Publishers, Moscow paperback had nonetheless become a household name. Given that the book was written in 1940 about an alien culture, its popularity among schoolgoing children of the state was little surprising. The storyline revolved around Timur, in his early teens, who transformed his friends into a squad that would help the elders and minors alike while fighting a group of village bullies using their intelligence. As a means of emergency communication among the squad members, Timur had developed an indigenous telephone network where matchboxes were converted into receivers connected by hollow wires. I am sure, some of us or maybe most had employed the same trick in our childhood with varying degrees of success.

On an idle Sunday afternoon in 2016, I was watching the Adam Sandler starrer ‘Grown Ups’ (USA, 2010), a reunion movie, where the main protagonists had attended their college at the time of the Cold War. Yet, in a bid to establish a connection among their children, these grown-ups decided to employ the same trick with matchboxes and straws, and voila, it did work! I was instantly transported to that part of my growing up years when unknowingly a village urchin from Russia had become a superhero in my eyes.

At that moment, I realised that childhood is a great leveller.

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