My conversations with my brother Dorian were mostly about the past, even though I couldn’t remember much of it.
“Didi, do you remember that time you ate so many selrotis on Christmas Eve, you fell sick and had to miss Christmas service the next day? You were so upset you missed the service, you even cried. And we couldn’t stop laughing at you!”
“No, not really. Did I really overeat? I mean, I never overeat.”
“Maybe not now. But you used to overeat sometimes, as far as I remember. It’s okay, didi.”
“But do you remember the time we were in the Forest Bungalow at Dowhill, and there was a ghost scare? How you had brandished a cross at a cat!”
“Really? That’s so aggressive. I’m sure I didn’t.”
“I remember di, but you seem to have forgotten so many of our childhood memories, our growing up days. Can you really not remember the time you said the English ghosts in the bungalow would haunt us speaking Shakespeare’s English?”
“Oh! That I remember. Yes. Where art thou? I shalt have thy blood…”
When Dorian came home for the holidays from his college in Kolkata, he would be delighted to talk about our glory days as children, the adventures we had while growing up, significant family events and milestones in our lives. Dorian was particularly fond of the past.
The past. To me, the past seemed like a distant relative you only met at weddings and funerals. Like somebody else’s dream. Or nightmare. In any case, I remembered so little of it. But I was amazed at the wealth of memories Dorian had within him; how he had a horde of anecdotes, ready references whenever anyone brought the past up. It really gave me joy to look back on the lives we had lived so far through his renderings. Maybe it was his grey matter, or his intellect, there was something about the way he remembered things, down to the very last detail. Maybe he had been very sincere about his diary entries. Or maybe, I had forgotten.
It tired me out too, this futile exercise of sorts we tussled with every time Dorian and I got talking. He would bring up or hint at some memory from the past and I would draw a series of blanks. It was getting pathological, my forgetting, and it scared me. It must have scared Dorian too, but he never said anything.
Every time Dorian said, “Didi, do you remember?” I’d cringe, and feel really bad I could not add any colour to this beautiful collage he was drawing up as he spoke. I would feel utterly helpless and dejected that I couldn’t co-operate. I’d try my best to recall some things and find that if I tried really hard, something, some detail, some fleeting sensory experience would assail my senses, sparkling a fire of hope that had the potential to illuminate the event in question. But then, it would disappear into thin air, this hint, just like that. I was surprised I couldn’t hold on to it. I was terrified I couldn’t build on it. I was thoroughly shaken when I realized that I was getting really good at forgetting.
Forgetting. This word would float around my head like a phantom, like a chant, like funeral bells sounding the end of my blank and empty days. I started to wonder how terribly sad and hopeless it would be to lose my memories. My memories. What were they but a conglomeration of days and nights, rotations and revolutions around the sun, seasons and climes, surfaces touched and dusted, food eaten and digested, air inhaled and exhaled. A life lived in a way only I could. With my body, my limbs, my senses, my mind, my heart, my soul. My memories were me. Myself. Was I losing myself? Could I find myself again? Put back the collage pieces of my memories together, put myself together, piece by piece, anecdote by anecdote? Could I?
This question, thankfully, saved my life. It gave me a silver lining of sorts, drawn with borrowed ink which had flown so generously from my brother’s arsenal of memories. As desperate as I was to live, and to re-live the bitter-sweet moments in my mind once more, I was increasingly angered by the fact I couldn’t keep up. It almost felt like I was trying to annoy him on purpose by staging a one-person non-co-operation movement of sorts. So, I decided to come clean. I told Dorian about the blocks, the blotches, the blank spaces that came up and threatened to seal me into an oblivion that simply terrified me. I told him how sorry I was at not being able to relate to most of what he enjoyed talking about.
“Didi, you don’t have to be sorry. It’s not your fault. It happens,” Dorian assured me with a maturity beyond his years.
“When your mind blocks out memories, it’s actually doing its job right. Your mind is actually trying to protect you from harsh memories, or traumatic events in the past. It’s okay. Really. You don’t have to be sorry.”
I had guessed as much. I knew it was a good thing I didn’t remember much of the traumas of the past, that my mind was doing its job after all. But somehow, in trying to shield myself from all the pain and the loss and the trauma, the good memories were gone too. I had ended up closing myself off from me altogether. I had lost touch with myself. I had started to lose myself. Maybe I was a coward, but there was comfort in cowardice. Wasn’t it the cowards who outlived the brave who took the bullets in their chest?
Bullets. Bullets somehow always reminded me of my father’s Louis L’Amour novels I read when I was in school. They were about charismatic cowboys from the wild, wild West, rounding up their cattle and their women. Macho heroes picking up beautiful women onto their saddles and riding away into the golden sunset, without a care in the world. That was my first encounter with romance as a teenager.
Romance. The word was a hazard for most of us girls who looked on boys as some kind of Princes Charming. Even if the boys were not so princely, or charming, we generally believed they would somehow change. With our loving care, our efforts, they would change, just like the Frog Prince. How we always believed in the transformative power of love.
Love. What was love really? Love was a box of expensive chocolates, roses with fresh dewdrops on them, teddy bears, photographs folded and unfolded a hundred times, gifts. Things, all. Love was a paraphernalia of objects. Bought with our parents’ hard-earned money which could have been invested in something more productive. Love was not unproductive, though. We heard of many cases of unwed mothers, unwanted pregnancies, girls being shamed as if they had fallen pregnant all by themselves. The men and boys almost always got away scot-free; it was always the girl who had gone astray, the girl who had not listened, the wayward girl. Everyone would make an example out of her—not the good kind of course. The wayward girl was the perfect example of who not to be, whom not to talk to.
We didn’t quite know whom to talk to about these things. Even if we did have questions, nobody would listen. Nobody spoke of these things. Nobody, except the “expert advice” panel in “Cosmopolitan” magazine that sold like hot cakes in the bookstores in town. We read them to our heart’s content, learning about fashion, lifestyle, and all things taboo at home, or school, or anywhere else. It was “Cosmo” that taught us things about our bodies, our fragrances, our nail paint. And “Cosmo” gave us detailed lessons on “How to Impress your Man.” It told us about what men liked in women, what men thought about us, and how we could put our best foot—oh, sorry, body part—forward to impress them and keep them. Those men, how precious they were in the eyes of Cosmo. A women’s magazine, about men!
The other stuff I read—Sidney Sheldon, Mills and Boon romance novels—all of them featured powerful men in suits with big mansions, guns and a whole lot of money. They also featured a few women, women who brushed shoulders with these men, but only after making unspeakable sacrifices. When anybody asked me what I enjoyed reading as a kid, I’d say Enid Blyton. The Secret Seven and the Famous Five, especially. That was the good stuff. Curious kids solving mysteries together. But Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew was my absolute favorite. Oh, how I loved this smart girl detective who could outsmart the wiliest criminals. Nancy Drew would always sniff out clues, put them together, and solve cases like a professional detective. But smart girls like Nancy Drew were forever trapped in those books. They never got out. When I tried to be like Nancy Drew, alert, suspicious of everything and everyone, always trying to sniff out what was wrong with the world, nobody liked me. They didn’t want me sticking my nose where it wasn’t wanted. The only place I was allowed to stick my nose into was my books. Smart girls lived there, and so did my nose. If you started playing Nancy Drew in real life, you’d be in so many dangerous and strange places, and you’d end up pregnant, inevitably. Nobody wanted that. So better play dumb, sit still, and stay safe.
I couldn’t kick ass like Nancy Drew, quite literally too. I had always wanted to enroll for Taekwondo classes. My father had earned a black belt in Taekwondo, and I always fancied having one too. Like father, like daughter. But apa said it wasn’t for girls like me. I could break my hand, or my legs. And hypothetically maimed for life, nobody would want to marry me. I was rather taken aback by my father’s denial. And I was shocked at how he had already decided to send me packing as soon as I was of marriageable age, limbs intact. Apa explained, by denying me a small dream, he was protecting me, he was saving me from ending up with broken limbs. I didn’t make it to Taekwondo class, no limb attached to my body broke. Only me. I was broken.
Broken. Reminds me of my mother, of how she was broken by the rigors of domesticity, or maybe the stasis of domesticity. As she washed our clothes, our dirty dishes, the floors we constantly dirtied, she must have washed parts of herself away too. Layer after layer, just like the immortal dirt on every surface she cleaned. It was not like anybody forced her to work herself to death. We always had people to help us with the house work. But my mother wouldn’t take time off from her endless chores. Maybe she thought she had to compensate for the fact that she didn’t earn a salary—with her arranging, her pickling, preserving, frying, and entertaining guests. She used to make endless cups of tea for people who would come home to ask my father for favors all the time. She put so much of herself into everything she prepared, be it tea, aloodum, or bik mon, everybody’s favorite at home. She cooked with real gusto and soul. She said that was the only way. You had to put your soul into your dishes. I wonder how much of her soul went to strangers who drank her tea, to people who ate her food, and family members she fed all her life. All this while, we had been feeding on her soul.
Soul. Because the soul was something you did not see, I never saw my mother actually break. She was whole to the naked eye. Nobody really noticed the cracks, the jaggedpieces. Even though that was what mattered the most. The soul, it mattered more than the body. The body had to be hidden under baggy clothes, long dresses, and suffocating scarves.
The Body. My body. My body thus became insignificant, irrelevant even. I owned it, but I didn’t own it. I felt it, but I didn’t feel it. But I felt the times it was battered, abused, spited, pinched, pushed around, shut down. That didn’t matter though, what mattered was my soul. My body was insignificant, bruised, second-hand anyway. And then, my body had to forget. My body learned how to forget. My mind simply followed suit. I didn’t know what my soul did. But I think it preserved me, preserved my happy bits. Or the whole of me.
The whole of me. Whole. To be whole.
“What is that really, to be whole?” I ask Dorian, who always seems to have the most sensible answers.
“To be whole? To be whole may mean to be truly yourself, with all your flaws and strengths. To claim yourself.”
“To claim myself, all of myself. How do I do that?”
“By claiming your memories?”
I find that I agree with Dorian.
“Yes, claiming my memories would be a good place to start. Claiming my memories would be like claiming myself. Claiming my blank spaces. Claiming my forgettings. Claiming my whole self.”
And with this exercise, this exchange of memories, this stock-taking, and assessing, we are on a journey to seek wholeness, my brother and I. To seek ourselves. To fill up the blank spaces with flesh and blood, hurt and delight, with meaning.
I hold on with all my might, with all my desperation, to maps of the mind, the body, the heart and the soul drawn up by my brother, the curator of my memories.
I begin this journey to my memories.
This journey to myself.
My whole self.
Didi: elder sister in Nepali (di is short for didi).
Selroti: A traditional Nepali dish made of rice flour, butter, milk, and sugar as the main ingredients. Selrotis are round in shape, like doughnuts. While cooking them, the batter is released into the cooking medium (ghee/oil) in the shape of a circle.
Aloodum: a dish made of boiled potatoes prepared with a rich and spicy gravy.
Bik Mon: Lepcha term for beef.