Monday, July 18, 2011

"Everything must go!" - Except the memories

I walked in to the house today and the sight of all our things in boxes made me pause. No, it wasn't a surprise move engineered by the husband (that wouldn't have gone down too well, let me add)... it's just that we've been so occupied with the move that after being gone from the house for half-a-day, I'd forgotten that when we'd enter, the table where I put my keys wouldn't be there. That the dresser with the sunscreen was now in someone else's home. That the space occupied by the couch in the living room was now occupied by boxes. Lots of boxes. Three years worth of boxes.

It made me think back to the first time my family moved - it was a big one because it was from one country to another. The whole experience of 'moving' is quite different when you're 9. My parents made my sister and I go to every landmark in New Delhi and took our picture in front of it. There's one in front of the President's home, in front of a Lotus-shaped temple, sitting on the trunk of the car, outside the club where we learned to swim. I never understood what they were doing. It wasn't like we were going away forever. It wasn't like these places wouldn't be standing when we visited during summer break after a year.

That was in 1989. Today, packing the first home my husband and I set up together... putting away the mismatched plates we ooh-ed and aah-ed over when we bought them at an expensive store, the books we've scoured over on lazy evenings, selling the bookcase we painted together... I feel like I understand a little of what my parents were trying to do through the pictures. This house will continue to stand after we've moved out and new tenants move in. The yard will continue to flourish though one or two trees may take a hit in coming summers. The garage will still provide shelter to cars, bikes, strollers, and junk. But as of tomorrow, it will cease to be our own private paradise. It will have someone else's imprint on it... someone else's memories. That's what we were truly boxing away - the memories. And that's what my parents were trying to hold on to in the pictures - the memories of a city at a time it still belonged to them.

I mention the pictures because I encountered them again yesterday after years while in the process of sorting out my family's photo archives. I am fortunate that most of the photographs in my family's possession can fit into two large suitcases. I think the fact that we moved 10 times in 25 years necessitated some pruning of the collection... most of it intentional and some of it accidental. Along with the photographs that faced some downsizing, we also said goodbye to many books, journals, paintings, dolls, clothes and oh so much more with every new house. Of course, we were constantly adding to the collection as well... but not all the markers of my childhood made it.

My grandmother's home on the other hand is the complete opposite! She has had the amazing luck of living in the same home for almost 70 years... and it shows. Her room sprouts memories. From pictures on the dresser table and on the walls, to those tucked away in trunks, under the mattress, in drawers and closets, in storage rooms, in the garage and in the office... she has them all. The books, the clothes, the dishes, the music, the pictures, the letters! It makes sense to me, most of it does at least, because they are from a time I can remember. But what will my nieces and nephews make of it? Will they know the people in the pictures? Whose wedding it is that we're posing for? Why Nani still holds on to a doll with cotton coming out of her belly? Why there are still clothes hanging from closets of unused rooms? Whose clothes they are? What is the story behind the unused and falling-apart jeep under the mango tree?

My grandmother's a smart woman. She may be old and confined to bed for the most part, but at heart, she's still 16 - that's how old she was when she got married. Over the past two years, she has been organizing her papers, pictures, diaries and memories. So it's quite likely that the stories of our family will translate and transcend to future generations.

I just have to make sure that I take care of mine... that there's place enough for all the memories in the boxes. That nothing slips through the folds. That one day my children will know of their parents as a giggly young couple who set up home for the first time. Without them, but in anticipation.


Monday, July 4, 2011

Stories from a black-and-white photo of a man I wish I knew

A suitcase full of photographs accompanied me back from New Delhi to Austin last Friday. Thankfully the airline was feeling generous and let me check it in free of charge - a sign perhaps that it was the right thing for me to do. It helped calm the nerves as I confess, I felt a little nervous assuming ownership over these one-print-left-only photographs that ranged from my grandparents' parents to my sister's daughter. So nervous was I that after checking in the bag, a flood of new worries took over - what if my baggage got lost in transit? What if someone else were to pick it up thinking it was theirs? What if the plane crashed - well, that would have been truly sad for more reasons than one, but I am glad to report, nothing amiss came to pass. And they are now being slowly digitized, one picture at a time, piecing together the story of four generations of my family.

Amongst these, a set of four black and white pictures caught my attention. I did not recognize any of the faces in them and may have summarily put them away for 'later', when by chance, I flipped them over, and lo and behold, the most marvelous story was unfolded. They were taken by my paternal grandmother (Dadima)'s brother... whom I had never met. In the 1960s, he moved to the United States (Stanford, perhaps) from a small village in India to do a Masters in Agricultural Sciences, I believe. Along with him were his wife and son. The four pictures provide vignettes from their lives... and on the reverse of each, in the most beautiful and concise Hindi language, he has written in great detail the wonders of life in the United States.

The first one (my favorite) is of a lady (his wife) in a sari at a grocery store, wheeling a cart in front of her - a cart which contains many, many things, in addition to her young son. Nothing remarkable about it until you read what he has to say about it. I paraphrase:

"Supermarket. That's what they call really big stores in which one can buy almost anything of any type. Different shelves stock fruit, vegetables, spices, ice cream, milk, and meat - with their prices neatly printed in front. You can pick whatever you want and place them in these carts with wheels, which you can then push around the whole store. You can see one in front of me in the picture!"

The second is a picture of them in the kitchen, narrating the wonders of an electric stove. And the final two are of them using a telephone - and mentioning the modern phenomenon of booking trunk calls (which I am familiar with but is anyone else?!).

I wish I knew him. I wish I knew more stories about him. But I sure am glad my children are going to see these pictures and get a glimpse of life at a time when it was still simple.