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.
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.
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.