Conformations of Grief
“Memory . . . is the diary we all carry about with us” (~ Oscar Wilde)
The open, tile-roofed porch, the baranda, the veranda, the porch, with a set of one-step stairs before the bricked courtyard, had a cement floor and a cement bench that was as high as an adult’s waist or more accurately in my memory, at head-level of my single-digit self. The bench and the floor in front of it was always spotlessly cleaned and scrubbed by hand by the household help. Yet, the brownish-black stains couldn’t be scrubbed away. They were the tobacco stains from my great-grandfather’s hookah bowls. He never saw them. He was blind by the time he lived in this cottage.
But did Lord Lytton see them? He visited on March 31st, 1925, a few months before my great-grandfather died. Lytton was the governor of Bengal and the following year he became the Viceroy of India for a brief period. Growing up, I was always told that the “Viceroy” visited. That’s how hagiographies are constructed. The only reason I have such accurate details is because of a photograph in a self-published book from the late 1920s, printed on rough paper, in Bengali, with a caption that identifies several people including Lytton and my great-grandfather.
And now, with the expansion of the road that saunters 380 miles from north of Kolkata to the port towns far south, on the eastern banks of the Hooghly River, the cottage is rubble, hauled away years ago.
I could see out the vertical steel-rod barred window, shuttered in green wood, from my bedroom onto the roof of the cottage and the two-lane road beyond. The house today is an “event center”, sold by the management of the historic school that my great-grandfather built, and will evaporate from any collective memory, as I’m the last of my family who lived there.
I never saw my great-grandfather. He died in 1925 at age 72. There are a few photographs of him. Nothing with his handwriting (before he was blind); no photographs of the cottage. Nothing that belonged to him except a medal that the British rulers gave him, Kaiser-i-Hind, sometime in the early 20th century for public service. I have it in a palm-sized, broken-hinged Kashmiri teakwood box that belonged to his grandson, my father, in which I have some medals that my father received and a pale green camera filter, an attachment for his beloved Zeiss Ikon, collapsible lens camera, which he bought in the early 1950s at Shannon Airport, Ireland, at the world’s first duty-free store.
“ The cradle rocks above an abyss, the common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).”
( ~ Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory)
I had two older sisters. One I grew up with, four years older than me. She died ten years ago. The other was seven years older. She died when she was a few months old. I never saw her. Ever. Not even a photograph. Nothing. Her name was Reena Archana. Reena for gem in Bengali and Archana for adoring. Her name has fallen out of favor worldwide (as there are Reenas in Hebrew and French, English, Greek, Italian, Japanese, and German). In 2020, only 1 out of 97,280 baby girls were named Reena. My parents never mentioned her. I asked a few questions of my mother but I was incapable of realizing at that young age that there might come a time when I’d be the last, the very last, person in possibly the world who would care when Reena’s birthday was.
She was my parents’ first child. Born in 1943 (when? No idea) in a military hospital in north Bengal, 66 miles from Kolkata, in a place called Krishnagar, which is only three hours from where I grew up, on national highway (NH) 12. In 1943, there were no highways and you took your car on crudely built country ferries across the various river crossings. My parents did just that along with busloads of students and staff from the school for the blind (yes, visually impaired) who were being evacuated from the City after the Japanese managed to bomb the port, then a key link on China-Burma-India theater of operations for the Allied Southeast Asian Command based in Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to the south. The school campus in Kolkata was taken over by fire fighting and nursing services of the allied, British and American, forces.
The local prince’s palace, called Rajbari, house of the raja, was where the blind school and its staff relocated. The prince had donated his house. I don’t know how many children were born in Krishnagar in 1943 or how many were born at the military hospital where Reena was born. My mother said they named their first-born after the English nurse who delivered her. Now that’s what I repeat. And that’s what my grandson will know. History after all is fish on a fishmonger’s table, sliced and diced by those who do the dicing.
The war certainly put the pincers on my parents in terms of what they could own and afford. But I find it hard to imagine that my father, such an energetic photographer and my mother with her first child didn’t save anything. I think my mother told me that my dad sold his camera for cash but no photographs of their first child? Then again, I wasn’t there. Reena developed an illness after a routine vaccination and died. There was no Christian burial grounds for the “natives” in Krishnagar. Reena is buried, I was told, in an unmarked grave in the military cemetery reserved for the colonizers.
I will visit Krishnagar. I will say I’m sorry. Silently. To my parents. For an agony that is unfathomable.
“ I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.”
( ~ Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking)
Finding your compartment on Indian railways trains in 1969 was an exercise in agility and muscle power if you were alone. You didn’t have electronic boards telling you what the compartment number was per your seat allocation. You had to find the hand-written form that was attached to the side of compartment as the train rolled into the station. People in the know took there positions on the platform having good prior intel about compartment numbers. For the rest, there was a scrum of bodies—porters with luggage, your brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles---yelling, directing, admonishing and spurring you to the correct spot.
In March 1969, the Indian Railways inaugurated a deluxe train service. It had three levels of reserved chair-car seats in air-conditioned compartments along with full dining car service. To us, this was heaven, though now I think of it as Amtrak on the Northeast Regional run. The service was called Rajdhani Express (Raj = royal and dhani =destination). The first track was Kolkata to Delhi, 906 miles and taking about 17 hours. The speed listed was at 80-85 mph but I think it never reached max speed plus there were long stops at major towns.
I was 19 that summer and headed back to Delhi to start my third and final year of college. Classes started in July. At around five in the evening my dad waved me off and I hopped into the seating car. Remember, this was 1969. I had longish hair but nothing very long. I did have bell-bottoms and a Nehru jacket, unbuttoned and a button on my lapel with a peace symbol and “Make Love Not War” in bold black lettering. The 45s and 78 rpms were “Touch Me” by the Doors; “Get Back “ by the Beatles; “Honky Tonk Woman” by the Stones; “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies. What did my parents make of all this???
That May, a group of landless laborers in a small village, Naxalbari, at the foothills of the Himalayas, in northern-most Bengal, in Darjeeling district, clashed with the police and landlords’ militias after some farmers were killed soon after the landless refused to give up the harvest, which at that time was a rapacious 80-20 split against the sharecroppers. The wreathing of events, political and social, are concatenate and I’ll be doing grievous injustice by trying to describe it in a few words. But know that the ground shifted for many of us. A new revolutionary party formed; it was banned soon after and its followers were going into hiding, going underground, joining the landless. A generation suddenly in motion it seemed to some of us. Violence was blinding and so was the resistance . . . for a time . . . for a brief time . . . lightning sparkled the night sky and cries of the red dawn were sheer poetry.
So, there I was giving the compartment of filled seats the once-over. My college buddies weren’t the only ones headed out of Kolkata. There were the girls. Girls who went to all-women’s colleges named Miranda House (MH), Lady Shri Ram (LSR) and Indraprastha (IP). I would’ve said “women” today but we really were “boys” and “girls”, so very young and cocksure.
To this day I have no recollection how I got into the seat next to a young woman. How we started talking. And about what. All I remember is that she lived in Delhi and was visiting her father in Kolkata. Her parents were separated (but in those days these things weren’t expressly spelled out in India). She had a friend with her. Someone who’d recently moved from Kolkata to Delhi and they were in the same college. LSR. In south Delhi. We were both studying history. I was in the north campus, the other end of town. By the end of that train journey we were friends. In fact, she was my first romance. She died when she was 22. I had left India by then. I have no photographs. No letters. No nothing. I did pull a photo off the Web a few years ago when her high school named a debating championship in her name. Yes, she was a good debater. Her friend is still my friend.
“ Here I must turn around and go back and on the way back look carefully to the left and to the right.
For when the spaces along the road between here and there are all used up, that’s it.”(~ Galway Kinnell, “The Road Between Here and There”)
Excellent. I'm now a subscriber.
The pale green camera lens - the small pieces of memory that we keep and can’t let go of because they tug at our hearts and remind us. Talisman?