A couple of weeks before leaving home for graduate school in Minneapolis, I sat with my nonagenarian paternal grandfather one afternoon and recorded some the stories I had grown up hearing from him. The smile on Dadu’s broken cheeks reflected in his glaucoma-infested eyes with a youthful spirit as he delightfully emptied his memory-vaults into my phone’s recording folder. Soon Dadabhai, my grandfather’s brother joined to fill in the gaps where Dadu’s memory betrayed, anointing the eventful narratives of their collective childhood with additional anecdotes in his characteristic storytelling charm. My grandmother kept the conversation going by narrating the stories of her experiences of setting up homes in various cities across West Bengal due to Dadu’s transferrable job and her trials as a young bride in the orthodox zenana-mahal (women’s quarters) of the family . I was delighted at how my sudden resolve to record the stories that had sustained me throughout my childhood had opened up joyous floodgates within the drudgery of the routine-bound chores of my grandparents.
It was a wet July afternoon just like any other in our humble suburban neighbourhood in Calcutta’s twin city across the Ganges. Usually perturbed by and struggling to cope up with the sudden onslaught of neoliberal capitalist cultures, it came alive on that particular monsoon afternoon of storytelling with an organismic vitality. The narrow lanes below our apartment building where I had been living with my parents and grandparents for the last six or seven years, which usually appear weatherworn like the middle-class geriatric office-goers who drag their disapproval across these lanes twice each day, smelt that afternoon of freshly bathed babies. The vine of Queen’s Crape Myrtle which had grown audaciously over the colossal century-old red brick house across ours, was sprinkling fistful of blossoms on the lane with every gust of petrichor-tinged wind. Just as the thick clusters of vine were covering the skeletal decadence of the mansion like a protective parent who defends a less-accomplished child, its milky white blossoms were covering up the careless melee of garbage on the lane, as if under the spell of a camouflaging spree mobilised by Nature.
Over the three month long summer vacation, I had been waking up every morning in this apartment to the enactment of a magical scene that I had duly missed in Minneapolis: As the radium smeared plastic stars on the ceiling of my shared room waned towards disappearance at dawn, their place would be overtaken by the unfolding of a mildly obscure but live film sequence. The window panes, sunlight, the dark room and a few more known and unknown natural resources would participate in an impromptu conspiracy to conjure up a magic lantern and project the activities of the lanes outside on the ceiling of the room in a series of arcane moving images. The movement of people, the gleaming headlights of the numerous vehicles, coupled with the mayhem created by the busy early morning passersby would bring out a beautiful performance of the daily chores of the middle-class residents of the locality. The commotion, in a certain sense, ascertained a persisting feeling of liveliness alongside demonstrating through its ritual repetitiveness the weakness of man for habituations in their regular lived experiences. It seemed as if all the vulnerabilities of these people scampering about to secure their families’ staple bread and butter came to roost in the repetition of their age-old habits irrespective of their flaws or inconvenience. Being homebound for a substantial amount of time, I had begun to grow an affinity with these surrounding lanes full of activities, the crippling houses with carved pillars standing vigilant like guardians of a lost time and their expansive terraces where women spread out multi-colored six yards between potted lemons and chillies. I had fallen asleep at night while watching these lanes bathed in neon through the pages of storybooks, looking like oversized bars of ripe lemon candy or interminably stretched yellowish wallpapers. I had seen the milky white neon lamp-posts replacing the yellow ones over time and gradually transforming the mood and age of the lanes. I had rested my head in my grandmother’s lap, taking in the smell-a curious concoction of betel-leaves, incense sticks, wet earth and Keo Karpin oil- from her soft cotton sarees, while she combed her hair and calculated the requirements for monthly groceries in her little diary every evening. In spite of all kinds of continuous sensory triggers satiating my homesick appetite, I had realized that I did not quite love this home as much as I should have, perhaps because the affection it legitimately deserves has been unconsciously channelized towards the memories and attachments with another home that has haunted me in dreams time and again. I loved the familiarity of the sounds and smell it contained, the intimate touches and gentle strokes of assertion that generated a sense of belonging; but its walls were foreign, its doors were too narrow, and the windows looked out to a different world from the one its occupants dreamt of or strived to preserve- one of mournful concrete barriers cozying up to each other and devouring the sky incessantly.
As Dadu and Dadabhai narrated the stories of their childhood unfolding on the banks of the mighty Shilavati in West Medinipur district and their encounters with the family-ghosts that have generationally entertained Ray family in the different homes they have inhabited and eventually lost, diligently catering to their knack for superlatives and their fetishism for adrenaline rush, I realized I had momentarily forgotten that I was sitting in my grandparents’ inconspicuous room in our little guileless apartment. I visualized that we were back in our home in Bally, a suburban historical town in Howrah district of Bengal, a small one-stored house with a backyard, a kitchen-garden and a front porch that had been sold off decades ago due to its locational inconvenience. The house had been built whimsically without much foresight, a calming abode away from the humdrums of Calcutta, a befitting shelter for the carefree weekends but unsuitable for permanent residence. It was a small but beautiful house with its front gate bedecked with clusters of Pink Dwarf Ixora, bushes of color-transforming Mirabilis blossoms and ripe vines of Passion Flower with blue and purple-banded filaments. It was a small house, but its walls were blessed with the shadow of mature, fruit-bearing trees that watched over it like a guardian angel.
As the rain took a break, a disarming kone-dekha-alo (the receding rays of a pinkish orange twilight which, in Bangla colloquium, is considered to be the ideal light for looking at a would-be bride since it makes her appear the most beautiful) descended on our forehead. The peddlers of crockery, stationary, tangy aachar (pickle) and ghoti-gorom (a spicy snack served from a hot pot) filled up the lanes like beetles scuttling out of the knots of Oak trees in spring season, and ruptured a sonorous discourse. I wanted to imagine we were sitting in my grandparents’ room in our Bally home, a room where I used to sit just like this on the embroidered bedcovers made by Maa, beside the huge box windows where cacti grew in pretty ceramic tubs, and listened to stories from my grandfather. Soft, mellowed down rays of the sun would pass through the window and paint ornate shadows on my skin. Late in the afternoons when everyone would be fast asleep, I would stealthily grab my father’s view-master stereoscope, a device that I was in awe of wholeheartedly, and insert little film-reels to watch three-dimensional pictures of the Serengeti forest, the Pyramids of Giza and the Northern Lights, or spend hours peering into the kaleidoscopes bought from the local fair, watching patterns and pictures come alive promptly out of colored stones and miniscule marbles. During the Kalbaishakhi storms which haunted summer afternoons, a hoard of lost and homeless feathery or furry creatures huddled around in the nooks and corners of the house, looking for a warm niche in my grandmother’s prayer enclave beneath the stairs or in the washroom cabinets. They reminded me of the talking animals in illustrated Ukrainian folktales by Raduga Publications that Baba used to buy for me. I would watch the palm and date trees in the orchard beyond our backyard swooning overhead menacingly in the wind currents, and whispering in raspy voices produced by the friction of the rustling leaves, like djinns from The Arabian Nights whispering incantations. In those days we were so deeply immersed in the magical world of fiction and fantasies that reality would appear before us through a looking glass bedaubed in spontaneous supernatural interpretations.
Those were the days when electricity supply was erratic in that part of the town, and lights would go out ritualistically every evening. Grandmother would send us cousins up on the terrace armed with a madur (a kind of hand-woven floor mat found in Bengal, traditionally woven from dried grass) and a snack of murimakha (puffed rice mixed with minced onion and cucumber) where the cool breeze would be heavy with the smell of fresh jasmine. We would watch the trains, running past across acres of yet-to-be-harvested rice fields dancing in the moonlight in front of our house, like a fierce silvery-green snake. Thick molten wax from pink candles that we lit on the nights of Kali-Pujo every year would stick on the patterned dome-shaped railings in the adjoining verandah and shimmer like stardust at night. This, together with the swarm of fireflies nesting on Maa’s hand-made seashell dreamcatcher which hung from the verandah’s ceiling, teased the bibliophiles in me and my cousins with bone-chilling reminiscence from the stories by Satyajit Ray and Lila Majumder that we read together. The soft cooing of hens in our neighbour’s chicken-shed, the mating songs of crickets, the sound of some night-bird flapping its wings coupled with the murmur of wind through the chaparral of wild bamboos overlooking our backyard created a perfect goosebump-arousing ambience congenial for story-telling.
In subsequent years of shifting to and growing up in our ultimate home and adjusting to the graphic realities of adulthood, I would be overcome with inarticulate ache for the home left behind; the painful attempts to shed subsequent attachments connected to it refusing stubbornly to cease or be forgotten, like a continuum of recurring loss. Sitting in my apartment in Minneapolis, as I listened to the recorded voices of my grandparents, I realized that I missed that home and everything that went away with it, including an exceptionally culturally and affectively well-endowed childhood. Nowadays, each annual ritual of homecoming has tended to be accompanied by an unwilling shaking of hands with experiences of loss of different characters and intensities. Alongside friends and family falling apart, institutional affections and adherences wearing off, a favourite author losing his aesthetic potential or a beloved poet bargaining off his ideological standpoints, more concrete losses like changing street names, disappearing buildings, closed down book shops and gentrification of neighbourhoods have come to inhabit day-to-day experiences. Letting go of homes, like letting go of lovers, are acts of undoing memories and habits embedded in the nerves and sinews. But it is also about opening up hitherto nonexistent compartments of subjectivity and self-explorations. Memories, safeguarded nostalgia and the structures of multi-tiered feelings they fatefully binds us to, become our very own deus-ex-machinas no matter the sudden unnerving pangs of yearning. They help us as fodders of conscience, across temporal-spatial enclaves and transnational borders, to learn how to heal, validate or reinterpret our cultural legacies and occasionally archive them into stories of delightful endurance.