The sanctuary of memory
TODAY, I turned 47; and no matter how indifferent you are to the age, birthdays somehow invoke a measure of reflection. And so last week, with that inclination already on my plate, I found myself plunging into a heap of memories when I drove past the overgrown lot that once held the house where I was born.
This house was literally my birthplace; my mother had often told the story of her home delivery with a midwife and how I made my appearance at 20 minutes past midnight. It was also the house my father had built, with his “own two hands,” as she would say. He had fashioned the blocks, moulding them one by one for the living room walls—a rectangle with a sort of embossed rhombus containing a circle—an odd design, which I remember because it needed to be dusted regularly on account of its ridges.
The house itself was really a two-storey affair, with my grandparents living above, and my uncle and his family, and my folks sharing two roughly equal sized-apartments “downstairs.” We lived in a fairly large yard with another uncle and his clan at one extreme, and two houses lower down the street, yet another group of cousins lived.
It made for a childhood that was never lacking in playmates and outdoor activities. As cousins, we easily numbered over 20, and what with our own goings-on, and the large expanse of open spaces that we had to run wild in, we were never much around our parents, except when it was time for chores, meals, baths and bed.
I spent the first 12 years of my life there, and later, when my parents separated, visited often for another 15 years or so. The house had always represented something more than a physical place to me; it was the scene of childhood; it was the connection of family, now utterly fragmented; it was the place where, despite the callouses of lean times, one had actually been carefree.
And so, from time to time, my thoughts have turned to it, either as backdrop to a skinned elbow, or a tree shinnied up in the afternoon to pick fruit, or a cricket match or even the vaguely recalled game of lohar. The other day, it was remembering that over time a wide range of animals had shared the space—monkeys, turtles, chickens, cats, a bull, a donkey, dogs, fish, birds—it wasn’t quite a zoo, because they weren’t all in residence at the same time, but it was quite diverse.
The house was demolished a year or two ago. When I first passed by and saw the gaping hole where the mustard-coloured sentinel had stood, it affected me deeply. It felt as if something that had anchored me somehow had been wrenched away. It was very disturbing. I stopped driving down that end of the street—it happens that I have ended up living on the same street where I was born, but there is an intersection mid-way which means that I don’t really have to pass in front of it.
But last week, I think it was WASA, blocked off the road because they were digging it up, and I was forced to divert and enter the street from the lower end. Driving past, seeing the bush; feeling its abandoned, lifeless air practically seeping into the street, awakened all sorts of memories.
It was one thing when it had been newly demolished, but now, with the years rubbing away even that look of a fresh wound, it looked like nothing had ever lived there. It was as if no human had ever crossed its threshold. All the pots that had been turned; all the sheets that had been washed by hand in the big outdoor sink; the babies toddling and falling; the games, the quarrels and festivities; all had lost their home. When night came and limbs tired from so much prancing about in the day were ordered to bed, it was within those walls we had laid our heads. Where did one put that childhood head to rest now?
I suddenly felt erased.
I didn’t think such a sight would move me so deeply. Yet, in a strange way, encountering the turbulence, the tumble of memories and my consternation at how profoundly it was affecting me, sent me into a deeper reverie—its philosophical nature clearly the result of the advancing birthday (not years!).
I thought of my grandparents and the lives they had lived and the stories they had told. I thought of the samaan trees in the Aranjuez Savannah growing past a hundred years. I thought of how the landscape of my childhood has changed so immensely, and I wondered how people who live past 75 must feel about what they see around them. I thought about how the physical things change, even within ourselves; and the inevitability of this. And it dawned on me that I should be grateful that I have my memories, because that is where, if we are lucky, everything we treasure can live with us until we die.