A second visit as adults to places we knew from childhood is invariably a bitter disappointment. All the pleasant memories seem but a dream as the nightmare of reality sets in. Where are the lovely spacious houses we lived in? The silent, uncluttered streets? Time and rapid urbanisation have taken their toll. A seedy high rise with scores of children playing in the parking area is what meets our eyes. The pristine neighbourhood is now a noisy, congested area, with streets full of litter and the unmistakeable stench of leaking sewage.
I vividly remember a trip to a hill station in the north-east of India when we were kids. It was a family holiday, a rare occasion when we could afford to make such a long journey to meet relatives we had only heard of but never seen. Even the train travel, which we were accustomed to being army brats, was magical. The excitement of anticipation of journey's end seemed to permeate everything. The siblings didn't squabble. The rare camaraderie extended to sing-song sessions and the playing of games, with no whining about being bored or complaints of being bothered or bullied.
The two-day train journey seemed to fly past and before we knew it we had reached Guwahati. A seven-hour journey by road to Shillong awaited us but we weren't fazed. We were met by the first lot of relatives here itself. Silenced at first by the sight of complete strangers and the unusual experience of my mother speaking rapidly in an alien tongue which neither my father nor we kids understood, we soon forgot the strangeness of the experience as we neared our destination.
We were enchanted by our first glimpse of our grandparents' house on top of a hill with picturesque views all round. The verdant surroundings and the perfect weather complemented each other. Soon we were being introduced to a clan of cousins who had only been unfamiliar names till then. There was the initial awkwardness and then the breaking of the ice as the adults sat down to exchange news and memories and the children were left to their own devices.
What has stayed with me from this visit so many years ago is the rare feeling that one was experiencing life as described in so many books one had read as a child, which seemed to represent some sort of ideal pastoral life, the kind captured so superbly in Heidi, a favourite book of mine as a child.
The next visit more than a decade later was an eye-opener. The once pristine surroundings were now polluted and grimy, hillsides dotted with houses nestled so close together that they obscured whatever was left of the brilliant hues of nature. No longer could one view a sea of brilliant emerald green as far as the eye could see.
With the inevitable increase in population had come the litter and the carelessly discarded debris of humanity. Overflowing garbage skips greeted the eye at every corner of every street. And the pleasant experience of walking or running down the steep hill (depending on one's age) was now marred by the haphazard construction of houses in every conceivable nook and cranny, jostling for space and precariously balanced on narrow ledges in a seeming defiance of gravity.
A visit to a city in northern India where we had spent a large chunk of our childhood emphasised the view that one mustn't go back except in memory. The images imprinted on one's mind of an idyllic place are not strong enough to withstand the harsh judgment of present-day reality. As we view long-forgotten sights and scenes, we wonder if our senses have betrayed us. Were these places ever as perfect as we fondly imagined them to be? Or had they been coloured by the vivid imagination of a child, the brightness of our infantile vision softening and obscuring the dark corners?
This sense of loss is echoed in reminiscences of people who have lived in this country for many years and witnessed the transformation from desert to boom town. While they applaud the rapid growth, there is a wistful yearning for what there was once.