Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Quality of Memory

   Inevitable that when I begin admitting to age (senility?) I also have to consider the quality of my memory. At seventy-six, (the new sixties they call it, hoodwinking themselves) I am only beginning to stare down anno domini face-on. I am not winning.
   So I dig deep into my Thalassery beginnings, and sometimes I come up with gold. Brings a smile to my heart:
   My first train journey on the Madras Mail: it usually came in at about mid-day daily (a very elastic mid-day as trains did not care too much about schedules then; there were so few, they took major liberties with time.) and left two hours later, after its journey further north. I could hear the magic whistle of that train as it approached the station, huffing and puffing, and when it went on its way to Mangalapuram, I listened to it clickety-clacking on that flimsy bridge across the Koduvally river. I counted the wooden sleepers on the bridge once when I was older - there were eighty-three of them. And little 'reserves' for people walking on that bridge, if a train came by. They jutted out of the bridge and seemed designed for a small cat.
   I was going to Madras to visit my mother's family, the first time after my mum disappeared from my life, around the age of two-and-a half years. I had not started school yet, so I would be less than four years old at that time. My father got Shekaran Meistry, his tailor, to make me four silk dress; dark, velevety green, rich maroon, sunshine yellow and midnight blue. They all had small white or cream prints on them and Meistry had added piping and frills. For a little girl who lived in white mul-mul slips this was untold luxury. That day I wore my green dress. 
   Just before I left - for all of six weeks- my father reminded me to go next door and say goodbye to our neighbours, the two sisters, Madhavi and Nani, who 'borrowed' me every day for a while. They fed me eggs from their chicken and let me play in the goat-poo, which dried to black nuts and didn’t smell at all.
   Their brother Kannan used the dried waste for his garden and he was a severe looking man. I called him Kannettan. In an age when all older men wore Ettan tags and women were Echis. He was forever chanting the nos. Picking up the goat-poo was a definite no-no.  But that day he smiled and hugged me. Picked a red rose off his one rose bush, indeed the only rose on that bush, and told the women to stick it under my bobby pin. That rose was perfect, shiny, with petals shaped in rose-heaven. I can still remember the lovely smell of it.
   'Motherless little one,' the women murmured as they fussed over me. Memory is not a video; it is a series of stills, crystal clear as in the eyes of a child. A pretty green dress, the silk slippery on me; a red rose to die for; a whisper in my ear, which spelt love. Perfect!
   That day I learned there were advantages to the motherless state, especially if you did not know your mother. Much later, my father fed me books, while most other girls were learning to cook, getting wood-ash in their hair, as I cultivated a reader's hump with bad posture. I learned words and how to play with them, to conquer the world with them. No one told me the parameters of a young Malayalee girl's existence, no one used that horrendous word, obedience. As in obedience to the masters of the household, the all-important MEN.
    My father, well ahead of the pack, insisted that obedience was an over-rated virtue. Could be a serious handicap, he said, and I never knew whether he was joking or not.
   Many years after, when I left my husband and went to England, my Velyamma, maternal grandmother, who had no role in my growing up, said to me, 'You never learned obedience.'  She meant that special willingness to accept what the men decreed. Thank God for that!
   Memory is splintered and the chronology is suspect. However I continue to make my own rules. And when I pull out a special card from that jumbled pack of fading cards we call memory, I colour the bits that are going sepia, fading on me. I can pick my own colours.

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