Josna Rege

133. So Many Things Have Disappeared

In Family, India, Inter/Transnational, Stories on December 21, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Coppersmith in Pune (Chandana Banerjee, indiacurrents.com)

So many things have disappeared. The coppersmiths, for instance. There was a whole lane of them in Ratnagiri.  And the men who would come around to the house, and sit there, fluffing up the cotton batting in your pillows and making fresh new covers for them. 

My father is remembering his childhood in Ratnagiri, on the Konkan coast of India. By all accounts his was a blissfully happy childhood and, although Ratnagiri had excellent schools and Dad can quote in almost equal measure from Sanskrit, Marathi, and English literature, it seems that school and studying somehow happened on the edges of existence, not to be mixed up with the real business of living. Dad doesn’t talk very much about his childhood, but when he does he recalls energetic and creative play: swimming with his elder brother, climbing coconut palms, making and then flying his own kites. He was the fifth of eight children and the third, the Arjuna, of five brothers. Like Arjuna, the Renaissance Man of the five Pandavas from the epic Mahabharata, he was athletic and adventurous. He also had a passion for painting, studied art, read voraciously, laughed a lot, and loved life.

Sir J. J. School of Art

When his father ruled out a career as an artist, my father enrolled instead in Bombay’s famous Sir J. J. School of Art and took a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture. As a student, he took great pleasure in his architectural drawings, and even much later, in the States, by which time these tasks were delegated to draftsmen and computers, he insisted on drawing up all his own blueprints.

Dad was the first—and for a long time, the only one—of his siblings to go abroad, thanks to the generous help of his eldest brother, who paid his fare from Bombay to London for further studies. The British Nationality Act of 1948 enabled all “Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies,” including citizens of British Commonwealth countries, to travel freely to Britain. Dad set out alone in August, 1949 on the P. & O. steamer, the S.S. Maloja (port of departure, Brisbane), whose ship’s log of British passengers lists him as a student and records his age as twenty-five. (Thanks to my sister’s friend Doug, who found the records on ancestry.com.) He was not to return for five years, this time traveling with an English wife and a six-month-old baby.

Those steamers, too, have disappeared. I had the opportunity to travel by ship between Britain and India three times in my infancy and early childhood, and, according to my mother, first learned to walk on board ship. But by the time I was nine, the days of steamships for passenger travel were over, and it was cheaper, though far less satisfying, to fly. (See The Bay of Biscay and the Gully Gully Man.)

It is easy to say that nothing ever disappears; that “nothing’s over, ever,” as one of Anita Desai’s characters says in her novel of family and memory, Clear Light of Day; but in fact, whole ways of life, like those of the coppersmiths, customs, even languages, are disappearing every day. When Dad speaks in his mother tongue, which he rarely gets the opportunity to do nowadays, it is “chaste Marathi,” hardly spoken in India anymore, where young people in particular liberally intersperse their Marathi with English words. But at least it is not dying out; it is not “pure,” to be sure, but then, what language is? Not pleasing to some ears, perhaps, but nonetheless serving the needs of a lively new generation.

AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh (from tampabay.com)

On one of my visits to India, Tara-kaki told me that there were so many songs that were no longer sung these days, songs that mothers sang to their children on particular festivals. She recalls singing them to my cousins in their childhood, and making certain foods that were only eaten on those days. Those too are rarely eaten today, or even remembered. I remember her saying, with a laugh, that the electric grinders that are to be found in every middle-class Indian household today, so welcome to the busy working woman because they save hours of arduous hand-grinding, have been responsible for millions of Indian women running to fat, since their everyday lives no longer include physical exercise. She also recalled that there were special songs that women used to sing as they ground the grain together—for the larger grinding jobs were two-person operations—those too now largely forgotten.

Tara-kaki’s words put me in mind of these lines from the late Agha Shahid Ali’s poem, The Dacca Gauzes:

. . . “No one
now knows,” my grandmother says,

“what it was to wear
or touch that cloth.” She wore
it once, an heirloom sari from

her mother’s dowry, proved
genuine when it was pulled, all
six yards, through a ring.

Years later when it tore,
many handkerchiefs embroidered
with gold-thread paisleys

were distributed among
the nieces and daughters-in-law.
Those too now lost.

And yet what has been lost can be recovered in memory and passed on through storytelling and artistic re-creation. Perhaps that is why so many of these stories in Tell Me Another recall times long gone. My hope is that they can convey even a little of the feel and flavor of those times. Am I living in the past, I wonder? I carry with me nearly six decades of living memories and, through the stories that have been told to me, records of times even earlier than my own. Like the Ancient Mariner, I feel compelled to tell and re-tell them, lest they disappear altogether.

At the turning of the light, with the Winter Solstice just a few hours away, perhaps this is a time when one inevitably and equally looks back, to recall people, places, and practices left behind, and forward, to welcome those yet to come. While I remind myself that nothing is really lost as long as we carry it within us, my new yoga teacher reminded me today that some things, those that no longer serve us well, must be let go if we are to move forward with renewed energy. As I look within and honour the past, I hope I may release things whose time is over without fear of losing what is precious and will always endure.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

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  1. This is a missive to remember, Jo. I think often of your gift – how you really honor and treasure and savor every detail of your rich history. “Look at this, it’s not just a trinket. It is steeped in personal and cultural meaning!” Very wonderful.

    • Thank you dear Ann, for your kind words and for sharing my post. I’m glad you think that these stories are “not just trinkets.” It means a lot to me that at least some of them have meaning to others as well as to me. (We both know that at least the tea-tasting story is steeped in personal meaning!)

  2. josna i loved the poem.i also, facing my very ageing parents now, think about coming and leaving, and the presence and absence of dear people, and life already lived, and yes, things: letting go of sweet possessions and hard obsessions, who is ever made for that? i dream of shedding baggage, often, but find myself all the opposite of ascetic, lean, taut, and ready to move on, but rather sprawling, gaining weight and muddled into my life. i understand about release, intellectually, and i salute your wish, and i am hoping you will find what supports you to take along… i just don’t know the hows of it, most of the time.
    bine

    • Ach, bine, isn’t that the tricky part—the hows of it all?! Yes, it’s all very well to say it, and to wrap one’s mind around it intellectually, quite another to take the next step, and the next. And yet we manage to do it in small ways all the time, without thinking. . .
      Always a delight to hear from you, and a comfort and inspiration to know that although each of us has to find our own, sometimes lonely, way, it is a human effort we all share, and our dear friends and age-mates in particular share it in very similar permutations.
      Your image of us as the opposite of ascetic, lean, and taut brings a smile to my face! Sprawling, by the way, when done in inimitable Sabine-style, is something to aspire to. x J

  3. Thank you for your gift of human expression. This entry in particular has really pulled on my heart strings.And thank you for sharing your yoga teacher’s wisdom.
    Anna

    • Thanks, Anna. I didn’t mean to get (too) sentimental–just found myself writing this. Hope I managed to redeem it a little at the end. Yoga for the New Year–Yes!

  4. Dear Josna,

    What a lovely, moving story! It conveys so clearly the very important words I didn’t speak as I taught the yoga class you came to yesterday. There is so much that is worth holding onto, telling our children, and weaving into the richness of our contemporary lives. Unfortunately, our culture tends to tell us to move forward, and to do so as quickly as possible, almost as if we don’t have a history. Your story reminds us not to lose what really matters, not to let go of the personal histories that helped to form us and our ancestors. Thank you!

    Karen

    • Thanks right back to you, Karen. I came home from your class yesterday and just found myself writing this. And many of the comments I have received from friends who have read and shared it have mentioned in particular the paragraph at the end where I reflect on your words of wisdom (spoken and unspoken). Looking forward to more yoga. I have the mat rolled out and airing!
      Josna

  5. What a wonderful way to wrap up the year. I so appreciate your willingness to share your family’s stories. I come from closed-mouth Irish, Scots, and English folk who were very good at getting things done, but I know very little about them. My English-Irish-Catholic grandfather’s family cut him off permanently for marrying my Canadian-Irish-Presbyterian grandmother, so my father knew almost nothing about his family. I guess remembering the past can doom one to repeat it as much as forgetting the past can!

    I’m glad that the India of your father and grandparents live on through such gifted storytelling. Your family is fortunate in their bearer of legacies!

    • Thank you, Sarah. Sometimes I wonder if I ought to be more closed-mouthed about it! But as you say, we have to deal with the past whether we remember or forget it. Even if we subscribe to Brave New World‘s “History is Bunk.” Actually, I haven’t done any research into either side of the family any farther back than my grandparents. I’m not really interested in genealogical research. It’s the stories that delight and intrigue me, and that I feel compelled to remember and pass on. Some of them sound apocryphal and I have no way of verifying them but repeat them anyway. Such as the story my eldest aunt’s husband told me about my father’s name. When my father was born, so the story goes, they gave him a different name from the one he has now. But he simply wouldn’t stop crying. They tried everything they could think of to calm him, but to no avail. Finally they gave him the name he has now. Amazingly, it did the trick immediately, and he assumed the sunny disposition that he would have for the rest of his life. That story may not be true; but then, how to explain my father’s nickname, which bears no resemblance to his current name, but is a diminutive of that name that my uncle said he was originally given?

      • P.S. Sarah, did your grandfather, grandmother, or father ever tell you the story of their marrying each other despite his family’s objections?

  6. Hmm, my post wasn’t particularly grammatically elegant, was it!

  7. No, I never got the story of how my grandparents met or anything else. That’s the closed-mouth, non-story-telling way. I wonder sometimes if this wasn’t also a matter of shame or of thinking that nobody would be interested. My mother passed along some stories from her mother’s side, but not a lot. It seems they were just very hard-working, no-nonsense, nose-to-the-grindstone types who didn’t have the time or inclination for such fluff! Or maybe I’m misinterpreting them.

    I may have already told you this: My uncle was the first in the family to get a divorce, and it was a source of great shame and trauma. He was entirely cut off from his 3 children: cards and gifts returned, etc. About 20 years ago, when he was around 70 and the “kids” were in their 40s, there was a meeting arranged at my aunt’s (his sister’s) house. My other cousins were there, and told me later that it was a typical Doyle event: Everybody was polite and acted as if they’d seen each other last week. The Irish are a tough bunch.

    • No, you hadn’t told me that story before, Sarah. It’s sad, isn’t it, that they would meet after 20 years and then make small talk? (Although perhaps the very small talk signaled love and forgiveness, and it was just not their way to express it in words and hugs.) But sadly, I don’t think it’s atypical. Some of the most interesting stories about my family have been told to me not by my parents, but by others. Everybody decides what, how, and how much to tell, and to whom. There are different versions of the same story, which, inevitably, I pass on selectively as well. Last year I wrote a story called “Baths, Bathing, and Hot Water Bottles” which my uncle responded to by email and, coincidentally, an older cousin just wrote to me on the same subject. After reading their accounts I realized that my version of the story of the public baths in my mother’s neighborhood was a rather sentimental, soft-focus version, with a lot of the gritty details missing (and several of the facts plain wrong). I was passing on a version my mother had told me, which was told selectively because I was a child and remembered nostalgically because she was far from home and missing her family. I don’t think I’ll revise the story, because that version is mine; but I treasure the emails from the other family members, which together paint a multi-dimensional picture.

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