I listened, rapt, feeling closer to six years old than thirty-six. “When I close my eyes, I can see those places as clearly as if it was yesterday,” said my mother.
Here was a bedtime story I had never had. Was it the trauma of roots shattered at Partition that had kept her silent all these years? Or maybe she had already learnt that the present is always more important than the past.
I dreamt, one night, that I was seeing my parents off at the airport. Preoccupied and disorganized, I dumped them with an unconcerned goodbye, careless of their comfort. I suddenly came to my senses, too late. They were in the aircraft, strapped into their seats, inaccessible. Washed over with great waves of regret, I longed desperately for a few last moments of happy time together – and knew it could never be.
What a cliché of a dream! That ‘too-late’ feeling overcame me once again with those fragments from the old days in Sindh.
A year later, recently, I came closer to my mother’s childhood home than I had ever been before. It was the temple of Karnimata, in Bikaner, the fascinating choohon ka mandir – a beautiful and intricate white structure, exquisitely maintained, and completely overrun by hordes of temple rats. They laze and explore at will, gorge themselves languidly from sacks of grain and vats of milk at their disposal, nuzzle passersby with indolent affection and constitute a startling wall-to-wall carpet of fuzzy grey.
A loud voice droned on and on in French to a group of tourists. From the listeners’ expressions it was clear that the commentary was absorbing. The squeamish had stayed home. What could the guide find to say so much about this place? Perhaps he was telling the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
A more familiar language blared out at us, as we stopped for a drink at one of the little teashops that line the temple complex, demanding attention. Like a petulant child, the Marathi song went off, and then on again, until we moved across, like puppets, and helplessly purchased a cassette of Rajasthani folk music. How had the canny vendor identified our state of origin? Was it our jeans? Our loud-mouthed brats? My haircut? Our variously-accented Hindi?
The sales strategy impressed me. How multicultural, how international-minded we have become.
Across the border, too, those alleyways, the box toilets and perhaps even the forty-pound rajais are gone forever. Travelling to the past is not possible. Why wait until our parents are strapped into their aircraft seats, lost to us forever? Mother was right. The present is always more important than the past.
First appeared as ‘Present perfect’ in a Times of India Middle on 16 Jun 1999