This summer, after literally ages, I got to spend one month and one week at my parents’ farmhouse located in Clement Town, Dehra Dun. When I look back, I have not been at “home” for this long since 1990 when I left Doon for the portals of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi for higher studies.
So, for the first time in 27 years, I was not making a flying two-day or a week-long visit; but was actually going to be staying in the house I grew up, became a teen and a young adult in. There are memories and memorabilia stowed away in every corner of the big house, as also in the nooks of the Front Lawns from where, once, we could spot the Mussoorie Hills and tell if it had snowed or not. The back, orchard-like garden with some trees like the Mango or Litchi or the Pomelo – as old as me – have moments from my early life embedded in their burrows and age lines.
With the luxury of time on my hand, I went through what was stored around and about the house with a fine-tooth comb.
Even now, in Dehra Dun, the time passes far more languidly than in metros like Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata. But in Clement Town – that is also home to an Army Cantonment, a handful of fast-disappearing old British period houses jostling amidst the scramble of new construction, a couple of manmade lakes and bordered by the jungles of Rajaji National Park on one side – the time passes even more slowly; sometimes excruciatingly, other times soothingly. There was no reason to hurry, no time schedule to keep or appointments to meet. Dressed in comfortable gear of cotton Kaftans and all-day Pajamas, I went about opening floodgates of memory, unlocking reminders of life spent in another time and reliving moments of a happier, fuller, more wholesome past.
With the sister-in-law and Jai Singh – the Jeeves as aides and conduits, I went about climbing step ladders to peep into the upper reaches of the shelves that touched the ceiling in my Mother’s Kitchen Store, the yesteryear avatar of the modern-day Pantry. I walked into her Box Room and opened the lined up, clanking Godrej Almirahs.
The next day and the next and the day after, I was at it like a woman possessed. I braved myself into the heavily cob-webbed old staff quarters and soft-footed into the tin-roofed, unlit interiors of the new servant quarters for the first time in more than twenty years. I got the Garden Room opened, aired and dusted, looking forlornly at things stashed there; things that had once been lived in but now lay derelict.
On day five, there were more areas to be looked at. I rummaged through the grimy racks in the old Study and did a swift step-in-and-out of the little Kitchenette off the Garage Room to see if there was anything worth reckoning stuffed in there.
Next, I unlocked the giant ceiling-to-floor cupboard in my Bedroom, heaved up the heavy lids of huge trunks and peered into box beds. There lay a handful of oriental objets d’art, a Madhubani painting presented to Dad on one of his promotions, a pair of Wedgwood vases gifted to us by our Australian Author friend, twin silver candelabras, crystal ware, finely cut glass bowls from Soga to Villeroy & Boch, a souvenir from Murano, a silver tea set that was pulled out at large events to which high profile people were invited by Ma and Dad and an irresistibly breathtaking brass tea set shaped like a Vintage car with two smaller cars for milk and sugar.
Such beauty, such relics of a well-lived past and artefacts evoking pride in the sensibilities and style of parents who have left life lessons behind and are now perhaps leading a similar life beyond the pearly gates!
The cleaning of two Crockery cabinets was a dusty yet delicious task to accomplish. Victorian dinner sets, large soup bowls with a rotund belly and flat-rimmed periphery, gold-rimmed teacups with beautifully etched spring flowers on white China, plates with vertical grooves on the banks to serve mash potatoes in, those forgotten boat-shaped bowls with handles for gravy to go with roast meats, cutters for Gujiyas and namkeen and shakkar paras when Holi sweets were still made at home over days, a Leather silk-lined box to hold precious cutlery that still held on to its sheen – I took a trip down memory lane and relived moments from my childhood and young life that had glowed in my parents’ light and grew in the warmth of their love and care.
I have my set of tasks cut out for me for a projected length of time in the near future. There is that Walnut-wood cane sofa set to be restored, the more than 50-year-old Dining chairs with their fine cane work to be sturdied and strengthened. There is brassware and silverware to be buffed and polished. There are old Banarsis and Jamawars and South Silks to be revived, not for reuse but just for holding on to; for they once draped Ma’s petite yet awe-inspiring frame.
I have already got all the displayed photos opened, cleaned up and reframed. I am now getting all the black & white negatives printed into 6” X 8” prints before the technique is mercilessly crucified on the cross of technology. Already, we had to spend time scouting for a studio that could develop our rolls; their numbers are fast dwindling, being ruthlessly killed by the touch-click-retouch-post-delete Instagram generation of fast pacers who have no time for any schmaltz or sentimentality.
The old Victorian China has been spruced and cleaned and kept back orderly in old cabinets that pre-date me. Same with old notes and letters, felicitation rolls, Certificates of distinction in Engineering from colleges in Rasul, part of Punjab now in Pakistan and Orders of affiliations from the Grand Masonic Lodge of England – they have been laminated and filed in neat folders with the hope that they last at least through my lifetime, after which they will cease to be of any concern I guess. In the process, I know that the Memory and Scrapbooks I hold will definitely turn fat and bulky but they will bring succor to my heart and keep my soul afloat.
I am a hoarder by nature. One thing is that I get attached to things and keep them in files and cabinets marked ‘forever.’ It is a childhood habit with me and I am impartial to everything from paper cuttings to greeting cards to painted stones to my own lock of hair from my first ritualistic hair shave. Yes, I am that unabashed and incorrigible about it.
Secondly, having lost most of my loved ones in the eternal duel between life and death – from parents to soul-sisters to fur children – a part of my mind and heart has this dire need to cling to things from the past as a way to resurrect, at least in memory, those I have lost.
I, recently, saw red upon finding that the Colonial-style round Cane and wrought Iron chairs that were part of our Front Garden Furniture had been sold to the Scrap dealer. No amount of telling me that they had got rusted managed to pacify me. Fighting back tears, I felt I could have still brought them back to life, if not the loved ones who once sat on them.
I kick myself for selling the 60-year old Allwyn Fridge that still cooled things and even made ice. Could I have reworked on its interiors and held on to it? No, the Company that made Allwyn came back with no response or even an acknowledgement of receipt for the note I sent them. Soon after, news came out that they had shut shop permanently. So that path dried up fast.
Back in the day, Dad’s old Sky blue Vanguard was seen as a tired, past its best-by date Jalopy. In 1975, with not enough means and resources to get it transported to Dehra Dun and for earning a princely sum of Rs. 1700, my mother sold the car off in British Army Base in Native Asia (BABINA), my Dad’s last posting before he left us for the other world. Today, I rue the car’s loss and in a mood of creative frenzy feel that I could have refurbished and reinstated the old car turning it into a quaint sit-out area in my parents’ vast Gardens.
It seems I am not alone in my pursuit to recollect, revive, restore and rehabilitate the old times and forgotten treasures, and intertwine them fondly into the fabric of our current lives.
As a silver lining, there are the increasing tribe of revivalists and restorers, curators and custodians of culture – past and current, keepers of the society’s soul and guardians of our collective consciousness. Anusha Yadav, a Facebook friend, has started the Memory Project and is busy archiving personal memories of people and their ‘people’ that populated their lives. Then there is Brandon Stanton, the Internet phenomenon, who founded the Humans of New York photojournalistic movement, with clones taking birth in other parts of the world. Shobha Deepak Singh has been restoring and reintroducing family heirlooms and rich handlooms of the past for quite some time now.
There are Dastangois we are beginning to get invited to; just as poetry recitals and Mushairas and Phagun musical baithaks are being brought back with a flourish. Despite a handful of such brilliant sparks, the jury is out on whether the current generation will hold on to nostalgia or flush it down the chute of sentimental sludge.
My 38-year-old niece and the beneficiary of my legacy, has already been making plans to put up my saris and bags and shoes and books collection for auction and donation, should I kick the bucket before I have worn the stuff out.
It is an astonishingly dichotomous life the Centennials lead. They wish to record every waking moment of their lives – from the time they get up to the time they go to bed; and all that lies in between – from what they wear to what and where they eat, where they go partying, where they hang-out or where and how they shimmy-shammy their practiced hustle.
In fact, the latest craze among the Social Media generation is to get a professional photographer or videographer to record each moment of their day, to then make it into a YouTube self-styled documentary on the lines of “The Life of Kardashians.” The current crop will record but not keep. They will save a moment only to erase and save a new one over it.
My contention is that the current generation will go through a rigorous churning; but will wake up to the fact that memories are therapeutic, recollections bring respite and old baggage will always be the divine balm to a harried and hassled soul!