Looking through a box of old pictures is sometimes the best way of bringing the past alive
In one my periodic fits of de-cluttering, I stumbled upon a box of old photographs tucked away at the back of my closet. I sat down to take a desultory look – and before I knew it, I was neck-deep in memories, and the clear-out plan had been postponed to another day.
There I was, in my Class II year-end picture, peering out suspiciously at the world from behind a mop of hair, perched safely three seats away from my class-teacher, Mrs Murray, always an object of terrified fascination. I can still remember her orange lipstick, a shade I have never since seen, and how her short legs dangled under the desk, never quite reaching the floor. But while most of the faces of my fellow-students look vaguely familiar, I am hard put to match names to more than four of them.
Never mind, I tell myself, that was a long time ago. Maybe I’ll have better luck with my Class XI photograph. And sure enough, the recognition factor goes up significantly. There’s my class teacher Malti Puri, who taught me that history wasn’t only about mugging up dates of important battles but about stirring stories of flesh-and-blood characters who lived and breathed in her lessons – and for that I will always be grateful. (She also taught me that a sari could be sexy, as she dazzled us teenagers with her diaphanous chiffons worn with knotted blouses.) And there are the giddy young girls I grew up with, scrubbed clean for the camera in their prim blue skirts and white blouses. Only three girls have been courageous enough to wear the sari uniform for the class photo, braving the inevitable ‘behenji’ jeers – but, sadly, I am not one of them.
Yes, old photographs have a way of effortlessly transporting us back to the past, dredging up memories that we had thought lost forever. But far more importantly, they also provide a window into a world long gone.
There’s an old black and white photo of mine, for instance, taken on a trip to Jammu when I was 11. It’s that mandatory shot that all tourists took in those days: wearing a pheran, a Kashmiri headscarf called the Kasaba, tied turban-like around the head and fixed in place with loads of costume jewellery, and gazing soulfully slightly off camera. But the picture, despite its undeniable corniness, resonates with me because I have only recently returned from Srinagar, where the Kasaba seem to have disappeared off the streets to be replaced by an Arab-style black hijab. And therein, as they say, lies a story...
But I am getting ahead of myself. My memory bank starts with a family portrait of my grandparents, seated on imposing armchairs, flanking my father (a teenager rigged out in his first three-piece suit, complete with a flower in the lapel, and looking absurdly proud), with a massive expanse of lawn spread out behind them, fringed with immensely tall trees. But while the men are decked out in Western suits and ties, my grandmother is wearing a seedha-palla sari with a full-sleeved blouse. Clearly, in keeping with the double standards of the time, the Goswami family’s embrace of modernity did not extend to the ladies.
And then, there’s the wedding portrait of my parents. My mother, all of 18, is lost in a voluminous salwar-kameez, head covered with a gota-bordered dupatta, weighed down with jewellery, almost trembling with nervous tension as she gazes apprehensively ahead. Her husband, whom she has never met before, is perched awkwardly on the arm of her chair, trying to look at ease, but failing spectacularly. They look like the strangers they are, pitchforked into matrimony by two sets of parents, and petrified of what lies before them.
I can’t help but contrast this with the wedding picture of my mother-in-law, which occupies pride of place on her bedside table. It was taken by her husband, on her wedding day. She is a strong and confident 31 year old, wearing a simple Patola sari and a big bindi, holding a bunch of flowers and grinning delightedly into the camera held by her husband, with whom she has eloped to marry in a simple Hindu ceremony in Paris. This is a woman in control of her destiny; a choice that was denied to my own mother. Which makes me all the more grateful that she brought up my sister and me to make our own way in the world.
It’s only because of that, that I now have a treasure trove of pictures to fill my memory box. Here I am on the slopes of Machhu Pichhu in Peru, part of President Narayanan’s press party, smiling gamely despite the asthma brought on the altitude. That’s me on the Wagah border, waiting for Prime Minister’s Vajpayee’s bus to trundle across. And then, there’s the photo I took of Aung San Suu Kyi on my first trip to Burma, perched on a step-ladder on the boundary of her bungalow, with thousands of her followers across the fence hanging on to every word.
The memories flash by, frame after frame, and with each one, I am grateful for the life I was granted.