How to Self-Destruct (In Ten Simple Paragraphs)

Lost homelands seem to be on the global mind lately. Some time back, I wrote about fractured homes and wandering souls, and then, after returning from a gorgeous but heart-breaking field trip in the rolling badlands of western Bengal, I wrote a confessional about my own secret yearning for my lost childhood home. And now, I’ve just read Leah Jane’s touching piece on the ‘memories’ she has of her happy, wholesome childhood heimat.

So, I decided to re-post an eulogy to mine.

I wrote the following piece in early 2007. Apparently, I was beginning to fathom the full extent of my amnesia then, and even my instinctive stiff-upper-lippery was yielding ground, probably realising that it was either a few cracks and some steam-letting now, or a quiet and complete breakdown quite soon.

Here it is: the final farewell to a near-perfect childhood.

********

I see the dawn everyday these days.

I have no quarrel with the victory of pale blue and pink-gold over inky indigo, or the melting of fierce orange-red and purple into afterdusk darkness. It is the sun I cannot stand, unless it has the rare good taste to sink behind the softness of mid-afternoon clouds. Half light is sanctuary.

Memories, memories. It’s odd, when I stop to think about it, how I hardly have any of those. No memories of childhood, no astonishing recollection of wetting my cloth nappies or of my first bath. No idea what happened when we went on that glorious trip, all of us, the whole extended family, to that wonderful place by the prettily gurgling stream. All those packets of happiness, no claims to any of them. All I have are impressions. Recreations, from abstracted ideas of a more content time.

The chatter from the morning market floats up to the sunlit dining room of my grandparents’ place. B.T. Road, we call it, by virtue of being just off one tiny stretch of that long, long road. Dadu and Golti sit opposite each other, slurping and sipping their tea, respectively, and sharing one copy of The Statesman. Pages of it keep making fluttery attempts at freedom and have to be restrained by glasses of water and Dadu’s air-bubble paperweights. Bits of the day’s selection of vegetables loll on the table. Sometimes a frozen packet of fish is kept precariously at the edge for a few minutes, before being dumped under a flowing tap in the kitchen. Binku sits next to Golti, chopping the first batch of raws with surgical precision and delaying cooking.

Although actually, of course, he was in Singapore, being tricked into tasting fried snake. Or drinking vodka in Russia and seeing fiery stars behind his eyes.

Binku reminds me of Mujtaba Ali. Just a little bit. Never noticed that before.

The cherry red Kelvinator has sneaked in and will not leave, incidentally, although I know it’s too early for it because didn’t we take ice from the Kundu’s across the landing for headbumps? Neither will Jhu be plucked out of the kitchen and be prevented from briskly ordering the help to upturn the rice and chop the potatoes in boat-shapes for the machher jhol, while squeezing lemon in boiling milk to make chhana and easing a soon-to-be luchi in bubbling sunflower oil. Really, back then, she should have been in a classroom none of us have ever seen, hair in a thick black braid instead of an emaciated grey bun, being stern to little girls. But she’s always been stubborn and quick-tempered and got her own way in unimportant matters, that woman.

Didu won’t stay in one place either. She’s sitting at her corner of the bed in the cheerfully bright majher ghor — the middle room — daintily eating her frugal breakfast off two plates of different sizes, the smaller of which holds only pills. She is also hunting inside the phantom cherry red fridge to locate yesterday’s entirely imaginary leftovers, which shall serve as starters for the day’s lunch. And she’s reclining against the same dirty-linen box that was her seat at mealtimes between serving, half smiling to herself at nothing in particular. The help is in the kitchen, but I can clearly hear the whump! of a broom brought down forcefully on the mattress as beds are made and floors are cleaned, and the rhythmic thump of clothes being washed by hand in the bathroom. I can hear the loud bargaining from the market below, the sound of bubbling oil and hissing pressure cooker from the kitchen, and the rustle of the newspaper on the table.

My grandparents house was an unashamedly cheerful and vibrant place. It saw the sun rise and set. Reflected dawn in all the bedrooms and dusk in the kitchen and dining room. There wasn’t a dark corner in the house, unless you insist on counting the shady half of the balcony where my grandmother’s plants grew in barely-restrained clumps.

I grew up in that house. Basked in the constant sunlight and yanked curtains aside when I had to stay at home. Got my scar there, listened to the All India Radio, had stories told to me, read poetry, poured my little-girl heart out to someone, embroidered SUPW assignments with a remarkable paucity of skill, was openly rude when angry and wailed pitifully when I had to go home in the evening.

***

As I keep telling Lali, I don’t do poetry. Not even if the alternative is a 600-page novel for a ten mark test, and I certainly don’t do it for pleasure. I’m a formidable needlewoman, really, I am, and a most wonderfully polite creature, if a little distant. Home is where my computer is, and I’d die if you took me away from my room in our house.

And of course, I can’t stand the bright sunlight. I have no quarrel with the victory of pale blue and pink-gold over inky indigo, or the melting of fierce orange-red and purple into afterdusk darkness.

It is the sun I cannot stand, unless it has the rare good taste to sink behind the softness of mid-afternoon clouds.

Half light is sanctuary.

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8 comments

  1. Three years ago, I visited the house I grew up in, on account of a similar yearning to make my childhood seem more relevant. Almost broke my heart when I saw that the walls were painted a gaudy green and that the local corporator had had the playground next to the house cemented. I’d lie on the grass for hours, magnifying glass in hand, trying to look at the proud ladybirds and the gorgeous praying mantises. Like they say, the most memorable romances are the unfulfilled ones.

  2. Totally beautiful and touching … nobody remembers anything before about three, and I don’t have any playbacks except for unconnected scenes – the woods behind the house, sledding as a child, moments perhaps .. but your recollections are so spot on, they move me .. and I am so far outside your context. The way you invite us into your mind and share your scenes brings back the universality of childhood memory .. my own father, who died when I was only 22 .. his largeness because I was so small, the smell of a cut pumpkin, the hush of snow blowing over the crust as I peered out my bedroom window at the drifts outside. One of the interesting things that led me to insights in my own book was the realization that if we ask any person “What is your idea of the perfect life” … they all seem to come up with a version of their own childhood .. with themselves in charge. Thank you for opening the jewel box of your reflections again …you are an artist when you use your own colors, and I won’t forget the bubbles in the paperweight. Thank you.

  3. So beautiful…remembered so many things about my dida too, more of an influence on me than my mother ever was. You are a treasure, write often and let us read…lovely post!

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