This article discusses the potential of autobiography for understanding histories of childhood, the effects of late-colonial social policy and the experience of change in India in the decades immediately preceding independence in 1947. This was an era characterized by both increased state intervention in the lives of poor Indian children and the growing influence of universalizing notions about modern childhood. Based on a detailed study of 55 autobiographies produced by those born between 1910 and 1940, the article analyses the ways in which childhood was imagined, defined and discussed by South Indians through memories that coalesce around the themes of innocence, play, education, work, family and social identity. It demonstrates that these narrations of memory also convey aspirations for contemporary Indian children through comparative reference to the binary of ‘today’ and ‘those days’. The article reveals the complexity of ideas and experiences at a local level which, despite the commonality of age, were refracted through the distinctions of gender, religion, race and class.