This is a piece that was published several years ago in a non-fiction anthology, under one of my other writing names.
We immigrated to Canada when I was three years old. I have a handful of memories—each the size of a Pocket Instamatic photo—of my formative years in India, and a teacup’s worth of sensory impressions.
I also have several suitcases of memories that don’t belong to me.
Those memories—fragile, crumbling, second hand—are my legacy. They’re all I’ve got to link me to a world that has now disappeared—the Anglo-India (sometimes called British India) of the early and mid-twentieth century. Grounded in a hybrid, Anglo-Indian culture, those memories are also unique to the experiences of their original owners.
My grandmother was one of those. The suitcase she left for me is elegant, with a patterned fabric exterior of Victorian-style flowers and curlicues. When I open it, its contents are neatly packed, beautifully pressed and folded. Any rips or tears are mended with tidy stitches.
She was that kind of person.
She used to spend every second weekend with us. On Sunday afternoons, she would make me scrambled eggs exactly the way I liked them—she had the magic touch, because no matter how I’ve tried to make them like that since, they never turn out quite right.
Everyone else would already have eaten, and so Granny and I would sit, and she would take out a few of her memories so that I could have a peek at them. I cherished those afternoons, for they provided me with a privileged glimpse into a present that is now long gone—a present that I would never have access to otherwise. I also valued them because they hinted at the person my grandmother was, long before she became my grandmother—and in some cases, before she was even my mother’s mother. I’d see the girl she used to be, growing up in India.
There were stories of her brothers. Of how Jim used to tease her, but he was really her favourite. Of how Eric was always a little different.
“He followed his own path, once we were grown. No one knows what became of him.”
The thought of losing track of a sibling—someone you had grown up with, who was so much a part of your childhood—disturbed me deeply. I was barely out of childhood myself, at the time.
She talked about her first encounters with my grandfather, and how he had been something of a mischief-maker in his youth.
She spoke with a smile on her face, her skin soft and astonishingly young, her irises dark, but rimmed with a border of grey.
Some of the memories she showed me might once have had a darker side—a sadder undertone. But they had been eased by time, the damage mended by perspective and her desire to see the best in people.
And all of them were steeped in—and surrounded, encapsulated, and defined by—the Anglo-Indian world that she had inhabited.
She talked of how she used to discuss the day’s menu with the cook in the mornings. Then she would see to her correspondence at her desk. In the afternoons, she would call on friends and have tea. Hearing those stories, I thought of the English classics, like Pride and Prejudice, and the lifestyles they depicted—except that every now and then, I’d be reminded that this was, most assuredly, not England at all.
“It would get so hot that you’d have to leave the windows and doors open. But then you had to be careful. I remember going into our bedroom at dusk. This was in Chunar—there was no electricity up there in those days. I saw a long, thin object on the bed. I assumed it was one of grandpa’s ties, so I reached out to pick it up—only to scream when I touched it.” She grinned at me. “It wasn’t a tie, it was a snake—a karait—that had slithered inside, to get away from the heat.”
“Our compound in Gauhati (now Guwahati) was right above the Brahamaputra River, and on sunny afternoons crocodiles would climb out and sun themselves on the stone steps leading to the water.”
“Your mother was off on a trip with her friend. They arrived late at the dak bungalow they had booked into. They were exhausted, so they settled in for the night with minimal fuss. As they were drifting off to sleep, they felt something dropping on the thin sheets they were using as covers. Your mother turned on her flashlight and said, ‘Oh, it’s just baby scorpions,’ then turned it off and went to sleep.”
“Baby scorpions?” I was horrified.
Granny shrugged. “They don’t develop venom until they’re older, so there was no danger.”
Snakes, scorpions, crocodiles: not quite the usual components of an English comedy of manners.
So this, then, was one of the ways in which I acquired my sense of Anglo-Indian culture: via my grandmother’s reminiscences.
My dad showed me a different perspective on the Anglo-Indian world. His father used to work on the railway, checking and ensuring the integrity of the rail tracks and ballast. During school holidays, Dad and his older brother Colin would go along on these trips. They’d bring their guns.
“We would only ever shoot for the pot. We’d bring home whatever we took down, and the cook would clean it and dress it for dinner the next night.”
He never quite said as much, but over the years, I managed to infer the larger story: on one income, with six children to feed—not to mention school tuition, uniforms, and sundries to pay—finances could get tight. His parents used to pare down their expenses, in order to pay for their children’s education.
School itself was rather different, too. This was back in the days when it was accepted—and perhaps even expected, as part of a good, disciplined education—that a teacher would cane his students. Then, there were the meals.
“The butter was often rancid, so when the master wasn’t looking, we’d put it on our forks and shoot it up at the ceiling to see who could make it stick.” Nor was there usually enough food at mealtimes to sustain the appetites of growing boys.
“We’d get our tuck boxes from home, though. We’d each have our group of friends, and when anyone got a tuck box, he’d share it around with the rest of us.”
All this presented quite a contrast from my own life at school. Food was never short and the public school system provided my brother and me with solid educations—and no extra cost for tuition and books.
Of course, there were other things that hadn’t changed. Bullying, it would seem, is an inevitable part of childhood—though at least I could escape from it in the evenings, at home. Still, it was my dad who advocated the direct approach—the one that had served him so well at boarding school, when the torment was endless and inescapable. He taught me how to fight—how to throw a punch and how to undermine your opponent.
As a result, the bully who had been tormenting me all year—stealing my bag and throwing it in the ditch, hiding my glasses, snapping my bra strap—had his comeuppance one lunch hour. With the entire class as witness, he was beaten up by a girl. The bullying stopped.
Dad had other, sadder stories as well.
“Aunty Peg was out in the garden—she was just little at the time—when a rabid dog somehow got into the compound. We didn’t know. We thought the gate was closed. When it tried to attack her, our dog interceded, and their fight was what drew our attention to what was happening. We shot the other dog. But our dog had to be put down, too. I was the one who called him to me. He sat down and rested his head in my lap as he died.”
There was a touch of moisture at the edges of his eyes as he swallowed and grimaced.
“He trusted me.”
When he told it, I imagined my dad as he had been, based on the photos I had seen of him at that age. He’d be black-and-white and two-dimensional, and would have a small edging cut out around him, like I’d snipped him from one of the pictures—which is exactly what I had done, in my mind’s eye.
I don’t remember ever having learned the dog’s name, nor his breed, so I imagined that he had probably looked something like Old Yeller, from the movie.
That’s what most of my inherited memories look like—odd pastiches of old photographs, film images and fabrication, like those Victorian collages that are strangely flat, and have everything thrown in all at once.
As the years went by, it became more difficult for Dad to remember. It was as if all his memories were stored in crowded, jumbled rooms, and over time, each of the doors got locked. Sometimes he could find the keys, and sometimes he couldn’t.
But, more and more frequently as the years went by, the doors remained locked. Often, he’d even forget that he had become forgetful.
After he died, and we went into his apartment to clear things out, it became obvious that at some level, he had known he was losing the ability to open the doors to his memories. To compensate, he kept every piece of paper, every article, every note he had ever written, read, or received. It was as if the apartment itself had become the storehouse of his memories. But there was no system to his collection—no files, no catalogue, no order. And so, over time, those rooms became like his mind: an irretrievable jumble of memories, piled on top of each other, with no way of sorting through them to find the particular one you required.
At that point, he only ever told the same five or ten anecdotes, only ever quoted the same sets of phrases that were most familiar, and only ever asked the same questions, though he rarely remembered the answers I gave.
But then, sometimes, we’d be talking, and Dad would find a key. He’d unlock a door and go into one of his rooms, emerging moments later with some new treasure.
At those times, I felt like I’d been gifted. Once, he told me of an uncle who lived with his family while he was growing up. His uncle had been a young, hearty fellow whose main interest was sports, not studies. He had just begun working when he broke his leg. It never healed quite right, and for the rest of his life, he was unable to walk properly. He couldn’t work after that, couldn’t support himself. He never married, and so he lived out his days with his brother—my grandfather—watching his brother’s family grow, his brother’s children become adults and go off to live lives of their own.
I had never heard of this uncle before—and it saddened me to realise that if not for this lucky chance, I might never have learned of him at all. I brought out the album and asked Dad to show me his uncle’s photo, so that I could add him to my mental image of the family.
“That’s him, there. Though he was much younger, then. This must have been taken not long before his accident.”
That was the only photo we could find of the shadowy uncle who had lived in their house and watched them all grow up. It was as if he, like the life he might have lived, had disappeared after his injury.
Dad also told me about the dances at the Railway Club. It used to take two hours to walk from their home to the club.
“You’d never dress before you went because by the time you arrived, you’d be covered in dust. Instead, we always brought our clothes with us and changed once we got there.”
Growing up in a country of frequent rainfall, paved streets, and closed-in cars, the notion of arriving at a dance covered in road dust seemed as foreign to me as baby scorpions dropping from the ceiling.
All these details—the backdrops of railway colonies, alfresco dances, hill stations, and boarding schools—these are my inherited memories, now carefully stored away in rooms of my own. They’re faded already, with details missing. Though it makes me sad to realise that I may never be able to fill those gaps, except with my own inferences and fabrications, I’m also deeply grateful to have those fragments, which provide me with such fascinating glimpses of richly textured lives lived, years ago and in another world.