There are two of us who share the same memories of childhood, my sister and I, barely two years apart; and yet, not only the curation of our recollections but the filter of our lens is unique and divergent. It astonishes and delights me how her perspective embellishes mine by providing a nuance, a scintillating detail. It also confuses me sometimes with a contradictory record of what I remember.
Both of us remember in vivid detail how our mother had established a ritual of a rain dance when the first monsoon arrived after a sweltering summer. We would scramble off the rickshaw hired to ferry us from school and race to a spot beneath the lush mango trees in our garden. We would hastily strip to our petticoats and dance with abandon in the pouring rain.
Oh, what unfettered joy!
Our love of reading took genesis when our mother established the ritual of reading a story to us every afternoon, after lunch, from a monthly children’s magazine, “Parag’. I remember curling around her, her “mum” smell comforting and fragrant; my sister remembers the texture and pattern of the bedcover on which we would lie and how she would insist on an afternoon siesta after the tale was done.
We were too young to read ourselves but the world she spun was so magical that we became insatiable in our desire to be transported to a fictional world. And so, we learnt to read.
Dad's loud arguments
I remember our father’s loud arguments with the ticket collector, every time we travelled. We would cringe at the frowns of fellow passengers and clamber onto the top berths, trying to become invisible. My sister remembers a comical detail: how my mother would stand far away from our mountain of luggage, pretending that it didn’t belong to us because she was too embarrassed.
Our mother was classically beautiful, with a fine aesthetic sense. Being fat, in her eyes, was tantamount to committing the sin of gluttony. Neither of us can eat more than a small portion of food at a time, even today. We inherited her love of saris and we recently realised how both of us, for decades, have tried to buy saris similar to those that our mother wore.
We are, who we are, because of our memories.
Our prejudices, our biases are due to the conditioning we have as children. We deliberately use our education, rationality and experiences to overcome them. Our grandparents, for example, had the very Indian obsession for “fair and lovely”; it took me years to actually love every colour of skin, all ethnicities, shapes and sizes. In our cosmopolitan world, we embrace all cultures, nationalities and religions. That is a far cry from the beliefs of our grandparents.
And yet, we continue the rituals and traditions we enjoyed as children in their house: the card games we play with our family every year on Diwali where the spoils of all winnings are given to children is reminiscent of our childhood. We fondly remember our grandparents who would unearth from a safe, a jar of silver coins on Diwali, a treasure augmented year after year, by the patriarch of the family.
Beyond monetary considerations
Today the coins would be a numismatist’s treasure. We wonder what became of them, with consternation; for us, the value of the coins would be immeasurable and quite beyond any monetary consideration. Our memory colours their glitter with deep sentiment and the recognition of our heritage.
Are all memories real? Does the prism of time warp or imbue them with a rose- coloured lens? Did our dog really die of heartbreak when we went to boarding school? Did I really try to save my sister when she fell off an elephant that tried to trample her? Were our houses as big and grand as we remember them? Was our father as fierce as we think he was?
As our lives spin on, we understand that the rituals and ethos we pass on to our children is our nod to immortality. Somehow, through them, our family and we, will live on. Our children will one day recount tales of love and laughter as well experiences of trauma and angst. They will, certainly, remember the cadence of our voices, our eccentricities, our pet peeves.
When my father grew mellow and old and his many siblings passed away one after another; he told me how lonely he felt because he was unable to relive his childhood memories with them.
We know with absolute certainty that parents are extraordinarily important in their children’s lives. It is every parent’s utopian dream to create an environment, rich with memories that nurture and heal in the future. Such memories that provide an indelible and precious continuity in their existence; a heritage to be proud of, a legacy to pass on.
But herein falls the shadow: the best-intentioned parent notwithstanding, life is a mixed bag. Without doubt, every childhood has many shades of black and white, and perhaps, some technicolor too.
My son tells me to not scold our dog if some time has lapsed since he destroyed something. “He doesn’t remember, so its useless to reprimand him”, my son says.
But we, the human race, are blessed and cursed by prodigious memories; we are who we are, because of them. The onus of good memories falls on parents: the baggage that our children carry must remain a nurturing heritage and not a traumatic burden.
Rashmi Nandkeolyar is the Principal and Director of Delhi Private School, Dubai and has authored several books for children