My earliest memory of home is a white-washed house in the suburb of Leicestershire, about half a mile from the Town Hall that I do not recall visiting but from the photographs where I am bundled in a blue sweater and in my father’s arm. I might not have been over three years old. In this photograph, there are fairy lights wound around the pillars; it might have been a Christmas evening, for hung Christmas stars dotted with yellow lights. The people—frozen in time—have layers of clothing on. I wonder where they are; if they are alive; if we would ever cross our paths again. Or were we only destined to be a part of this shared moment before our trajectories led us to entirely different lives? I wonder if I am a part of another picture, an afterthought in another mind. I muse on.
“Essentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.”
— Susan Sontag
I remember the white walls again, I am dizzy and being passed from one arm to another, I do not seem to remember their faces, only the soothing voices of mothers, aunts, and other relatives who have come to visit this “foreign kid” while I’m trying to wiggle out of their soft yet firm hands, frantically swaying my tiny arms and in a tone of despair complaining, “This is not my home. Take me home. I want to go back to Nana” repeatedly.
On paper, she was Brenda Gibson, to her friends she was Brenda, to her grandkids and her great grandkids she was Nana, but to me, though I learnt only years later that it was a misspelling; she was Nano. She was, when we stayed in London, our landlady. To me, she had always been the kind old lady who gave me animal-shaped jellies on afternoons, but before she gave them to me, a restless kid, she would ask, “How do we ask for something we want?” I would blurt out random words until I remember the golden word, “Please”. “Please, can I have it?” I would ask. “Ask sweetly,” she would say. I remember the shapes of jellies and the taste of them in my mouth. I might have had asked sweetly. Later, before I could reach for another, she would pull it away from me and ask, “What do we say next?”. After a few tries, I would find the word again. “Thank you.” I remember only snatches of conversations like these and nothing more. For several years, we exchanged letters and greeting cards.
On my wall is a greeting card from her for Christmas which has a tiny postcard size cottage, bent wooden fences jutting out of the hard ground, a pine tree decorated with hundreds of twinkling lights, a tiny moon just above the chimney, and the snow that paints the landscape white. It is snowing and I imagine a boy and his dog huddled near the fireplace, a half-finished apple pie, yummy Christmas scents (fruitcakes, nuts, roasted potatoes, fudge) wafting through the air, the hall festooned with yellow fairy lights, warm sweaters and socks knitted by grandmother, moustache above the upper lip as the boy drinks hot chocolate milk, the rattling of a heater, soft mellow music from another room where the boy’s father plays the piano, the tinkle of spoon against the ceramic plates as the dinner plates are being cleared, the crackle of fire as the wood burns, frosty windows upon which the boy will trace his fingernails and write his name, the hammer-like wind whistling through the tiny creaks in door which sets off redness on the boy’s cheeks and nose, the dog nestling his head on the boy’s lap.
On the letter it reads, “For you, this Christmas, miles away from home.”
The “XOXO” at the bottom of the letters remained incomprehensible to me until later when I learned it meant “hugs and kisses”. In her last letter which came with a bunch of photos, she sat in a wheelchair and by her side sat Queen the family cat, both looking frail and old. She had had to get both her legs amputated because of the “poison” that spread through her legs (she only used the word poison throughout the letter). I imagine, with the innocence of a ten-year-old that it had been some slimy green liquid flowing through her veins. Queen, with grey hair sprouting her body, her thinning fur and her bleak eyes, sat by her as a faithful companion that she was.
Midnight black with dark green eyes—though I am not very sure of this—and a tiny red ribbon around her neck, she was called Queen. Alongside her ran a companion Tiger or “Tigger” as I would call him, who might have looked yellow. I remember chasing him around with a plastic bat and in return, she would yowl and leave scratches on my knees and calves which would burn for days afterward. They tell me I would sometimes chase Queen in the same fashion, but she would with her eyes cast a spell on me, having me hug her tight and letting her rest on my lap—for the fear of waking her up, I would not move an inch. I would sit immobile, blanketed in warm fuzzy love, which as a child I would not question neither ponder but only feel. I close my eyes, wanting to remember beyond this but the parts in between have been chewed up by time so that when I play this part in my head, I only see spots of light on the floor, it is morning and a tiny boy is chasing the cat.
Though I do not recall saying goodbyes upon leaving London, I remember this: On the red velvet cloth, atop the cupboard, sits Queen with sad eyes, as if knowing with her “cat instincts” that this is the last time that she will ever see me. My memory of London ends here.
In another photograph I am sitting amongst a toy assortment, chewing my nails and looking at the camera. Though most toys could not be carried in suitcases across the border, a few of them, at random, were chosen to be brought back. Amongst them is a teddy-bear with burgundy red tie that Nano had gotten for me and who slept by my side all my childhood, a snowman whose wrappers are intact, Tinky Winky from the Telly Tubbies whom I called “Chinky Winky” and still do after all these years, a glass crystal has a miniature Buckingham palace which when shook displaces glitter like the dusting of an old rug, and a toy monster whose hands are raised to the sky and when lifted higher produced soothing music—after several years it ran out of battery and could not be replaced. These keepsakes I will guard with my life.
No one heeds to me. At some point, realizing that I am stuck in a room full of strange faces, I wail. I am running. After what seems to be an eternity, I stop to look at a large opening in the roof from where crows peep into the happening—oh, the wavering attention of a five-year-old. I must have stopped complaining then, at least for a while, much to the relief of those who had taken it upon them to pacify me.
Always a throng of visitors lifting me in their arms, pulling my cheeks until they turn pinkish red, ruffling my hair, jumping straight to the questions that terrify me for I might forget the answers to them: my name, my mother’s name, my father’s name, the school I go to, and if I answer them all, then to the difficult ones: my grandfather’s name, my grandmother’s name and so on. After passing all these hurdles, they demand for a nursery rhyme or two . To dodge further questions and demands, I dart away from the visitors into another room, returning occasionally to smile at them or pay attention to their words while they are in a serious conversation with the rest of the members.
This must have gone on for weeks, maybe months, until my body learnt the geography of the new surroundings: how upon opening the door there was not a freshly mowed lawn with firm blades of grass tickling my toes but the melting asphalt in summer that leave the soles burning upon which you quickly learn to trot with your toes pointed upward in small jumps; the bed shrunk in size, turning and tossing wildly could result in a thud on the floor; not the red rug where I’d drag the toys hither and thither but the icy floor jarring the knees and the thighs; no cellar doors opening to dark dungeons.
Euphony is a term given to the effect of sounds being perceived as lyrical, beautiful, pleasant, and harmonious. “Cellar Door” is said to be one of the most beautiful words in English. As much as the word is phonetically pleasing with the trip of the tip of the tongue to the palate, a slight curl then a subsequent trip of the tongue to the ridges behind the front teeth, finally letting the air curl around the tongue and out the mouth, the word is also semantically rich. Cellar door is a portal to a different world, a transcendence of one state to another. It is Alice’s “rabbit hole”. The door opens both ways, into the richness of the external life and the depth of the inner life, whereupon opening the door to the outside world one is greeted with adventures, quests, and friends to embark journeys with, and opening the door to the inner world, to the basement where sometimes the monsters of childhood lurk, one embarks on an inward journey to confront them. The cellar door remains at the centre of a circular hyperboloid, enriching both the external self and inner self, if only one dared to cross the threshold.
The smell of rotten vegetables, cows whiling away their time chewing cud, the overflowing drainage, the aroma of the wet soil after a rain, tiny brown puddles punctuating the streets, complex wiring systems that wound in heaps, betel juice stains on walls, shirt soaked in the summer heat, oily sweaty faces at roadside eateries, hawkers with loud cries and chants, trin-trin of the ice-cream waala in the late afternoons, lizards collecting at the tube lights waiting to catch their preys, a swarm of insects under the glowing lamplights, the sound of cheap crackers, the whirring of a low hung fan, tiny knots of people in their verandas just before nightfall, crows lined on power lines, the night swelling with mosquitoes…
“Why at the beginning of things is there always light?”
— Richard Flanagan.
Toddlers, alike to me, flood the play-hall. There are large windows with their curtains drawn so that the light pours into the room in continual bursts. Perhaps it is October, for I remember the crunch of leaves beneath my feet, a chill permeates the air, patches of clouds sail through the blue sky, the smell of decay seep through the windows. I am waiting for my turn at the slide. The climb seems treacherous. They slide down the other side with ease. But my heart thumps. The kids disappear one by one. The girl ahead of me has auburn hair and freckles. Suddenly everyone is calling for me to move ahead. The kids have already collected themselves after the fall, dusted their backs and returned to the end of a line for the umpteenth time. It might have been a teacher who gently holds my hand and gestures for me to go ahead. Everyone is bubbling with excitement. I do not remember climbing up the steps to the top, neither sitting there at the top terrified to slide down, nor how it felt as I slid down the slide towards the bottom, but I remember running to rejoin the line.
Imagine a box of photographs aged with time. Some of them are tinted with lens flares covering entire faces. Some have light leaks and grains. There are negatives, entire rolls of them, that might add further clues to one’s history and identity.
I remember combing through old albums and photographs in my early teenage years, trying to ascertain my history, not to mention the curiosity of discovering things that I might have missed earlier and stumbling upon a set of negatives. Though I have always had the curiosity, I have never had the inclination to get them developed.
The box is dangerously balanced at the edge of a table, and it stays that way until Mr. Butterfingers takes a trip to this room to get some dusting done. What could go wrong? Except it does. Mr. Clumsy knocks the box off the table and all the photographs scatter onto the dark floor and some of them slide under the table. What we have now is a salmagundi of photographs.
To gather all the photographs on the floor, to look at them in a new light, to guess their order of arrangement and place it back in the box constitutes the act of remembrance. And every time the act is repeated, a slightly different version of story blooms.
I am on an airplane, seated in the middle seat. We are sailing through the orange clouds. Bright orange light floods the seats and the aisle. I remember fiddling with the tray table for a while before I am shown how to operate it. This could have been a memory of departure from London or the journey towards it.
At the heart of all my reminiscences sits a fear: the sound of the banging door. This door, which probably opened to a tiny storeroom, was at the landing after the first flight of stairs and one had to take a U-turn at this point to climb the second flight to reach the first floor. It might have been the wind blowing through the house which caused the door to rattle. I was convinced, with the unfaltering belief of a child as I was, of a nameless “thing” which lurked behind the door, in the dark, waiting all those years to grab me by my collar just when I was about to dart down the second flight of stairs and yank me into the darkness with its icy cold fingers. I remember scurrying down the pairs of stairs, wishing I had bigger feet to cover them in fewer strides, swerving violently at the turn, and speeding down the second set praying to whosoever was hearing me, “I’ll be a good boy from now on. Just save me this one time.” Sometimes my prayer would be answered, and a gentle face would appear at the bottom of stairs, maybe it was Nana or my mother, demanding that I slow down. The last thing I remember is running into their arms, the wind whistling, the door rattling, and the sun collapsing onto my face.