Josna Rege

59. Childhood Scars

In 1950s, 1960s, Childhood, Inter/Transnational, Stories on July 17, 2010 at 2:29 pm

Whereas in middle and old age we become preoccupied with the aches and ailments that plague different parts of our bodies, in childhood we often measure the progress of our short lives by the scars we have incurred along the way; in my case, a scar on my right cheek, two under my chin, one at my left temple, and a big one below my left knee.

The accident that left the circular scar on my right cheek, toward the ear and just above the jawline, took place at the public nursery  school in Hampstead, North London, that I attended between the ages of two and four. I don’t remember the event, and by all accounts was happy at the nursery (one of the creations of Britain’s then-new welfare state), but based on my own feelings when I discovered a bruise on Nikhil after his return from daycare, my mother must have been horrified and guilt-stricken at the time. Apparently I fell face-first against the exposed end of a hollow metal tube that was the handle of a broken baby carriage. The scar persisted for many years, well into my forties, faint but perceptible, and always seemed to become more pronounced when I was tired or run-down. When I looked for it last week after many years, I was surprised to find that I could no longer make it out, and realized that I had been thinking of myself as still carrying that scar when in fact it was gone, perhaps long gone.

At seven I already had one scar under my chin from having fallen out of bed at age four; the second one was in the same place, but longer and deeper than the first. The accident happened at the beach in Vouliagmeni, outside Athens, while I was pushing my little sister on a swing. I must have pushed too energetically, because the returning swing cut open my chin with its metal edge. The nearest medical facility happened to be an institution for children who had been crippled by polio. On my way into and out of the clinic, I was rushed past a large group of children my age with metal braces on their legs, standing and staring at me dolefully. Even through my panic, I felt pangs of guilt at my little beach mishap, which must have only underscored their own confinement.

For some reason, the polio clinic used a metal staple, rather than stitches, to suture my cut. Later, when my family doctor removed it, he said that the staple would leave a bigger scar than the cut itself, and he was right.

The scars on my knee and forehead also came from careless play. In Kharagpur I rode my bike freely all over IIT’s Hijli campus, encountering very little other traffic and blissfully unaware of the rules of the road. At nine, riding through the intersection of our street and the campus’ boundary road, I collided with a college student and fell off my bike, grinding my knee into the gravel. I remember feeling doubly wronged when he admonished me for not looking where I was going. After all, I was half his size and the one who had been injured, even though, as he rightly pointed out but I hated to admit, he had had the right of way.  As a parting shot, he added insult to injury by predicting that I would have that scar for life. Again, he was right.

A year or so later, also in Kharagpur, some friends took me to the Gymkhana Club and introduced me to a strange new game called golf. As I stood awaiting my turn and watching the person in front of me, his backswing caught me on the temple and broke it open. For the first time in my life I felt faint, though I did not lose consciousness altogether. I was taken to the Railway Hospital, where it was deemed that I didn’t need stitches, since it was a clean cut. This boomerang-shaped gash, shaped by the curve of the club, became another lifelong scar, and put me off golf for life.

Perhaps the worst childhood scars are those born of psychic and emotional rather than physical injuries, invisible but nonetheless slow to heal and even slower to fade. As with the old scar on my cheek which I thought I still carried but had actually disappeared, the idea of the injury may leave a ghostly imprint in the mind. My own scars have been like diary entries, marks of feats and fiascos that have made for good stories and served to remind me of my physical prowess, but also my good fortune in having been blessed with a healthy body in my childhood. For I can still see those silent children with the heavy braces on their shriveled legs, looking at my sturdy, sun-browned limbs, covered in sand from my day at the beach.

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  1. hi jo

    so sad , but also so true.

    How the counterpoint of life can change how we feel about our own experiences in an instant.

  2. our childhood injuries were always accompanied by scuffed shoes and torn and soiled clothes and limbs. We tried to remove all such traces before going home. Mum would be horrified and tell us to get the clothes off “before your father gets home – if sees you like that he’ll kill you”. She seemed never to notice the cuts but the scars still look good. Would like to comment on other good blogs Josna but have to watch the finale of The Open. Note our open (this is our 150th) is never qualified bvy our countries name, that’s required only for newcomers.
    Love Unc

    • Dear Uncle Ted, I am hono(u)red that you took the trouble to post—and successfully!—especially during the (British) Open. (By the way, the U.S. is like that with the Internet. Have you noticed that all other countries’ URL’s are marked by their country’s code, like “.uk” or “.in,” but the U.S. websites, in their invisible power, remain unmarked.) I can see your Mum’s (or Dad’s) point—young bodies usually heal up pretty fast, but shoes are expensive and hard to replace. Happy golf-watching! x J

  3. One of the many things that have endeared you to me forever is your ability to think about those around you with such compassion. This story is a good example and makes me proud to know you!

    • Dear Marianne, it’s only now, in retrospect, that I think about those children with compassion and feel gratitude for my own health as a child. At the time, I must have been sorry for them and felt an embarrassed unease, but probably didn’t stop to consider why. x J

  4. Josna, I enjoyed this so much, especially thinking of the way you can revisit the places you’ve lived through your scars. They form both a map and a timeline.

    • I like your way of putting it, Maureen—”both a map and a timeline”. Remember how when we were in grad. school experience was always “written (or inscribed” on the body”? With scars it is literally the case.

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