I don’t think that you can call it a crisis or even my coming of age. It might be true that I have now spent 20 ignorant years on the face of this earth, but in my mind – seven fo lyf, yo.
I’m seated somewhere in the middle of the hall at Alliance Francaise, at the far end from the door. The place is dimly lit and is filling up quickly. This, weirdly enough, is my first time at the centre of French in the city. How have I survived this course, I say under my breath, as I dig into my bag for a sheet of paper and a pen. Raghu Karnad is about to come on stage, with ‘that cow’ apparently chosen to moderate.
Ila cranes her neck to get a better glimpse of him; Timothy is as expectant and captivated as her. Rolls eyes. These suckers for good looks, I tell you.
The book launch of Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War changed something in me. I had not and still have not read the book, but it affected me. Karnad, to shorten everything for you, decided to look into the history of three men in a photograph that he found at his grandmother’s house, with special focus on the character called Bobby.
As Karnad elaborates, rather confidently and eloquently at that, I phase out – my vision gets blurry and there are no longer any sounds. The only image that persists is that of my eldest grand uncle but I do not know why.
In that brief period of peace and quiet in my mind, I try understanding why the image is all that is apparent. Karnad had used the words, ‘world’, ‘war’, ‘army’, ‘history’ and ‘investigating’. I associated each of those words with my grand uncle. He’d been around the world, fought in wars, been part of the armed forces, and by doing so, now possessed a minute yet ever so important mention in the shabby scribbling on the edges of an unwritten history of our country.
I want to know more. I must know more.
I’d decided – I simply must hear my grand uncle out for all he had to say; about the Sino-Indian war, about flying planes, about bringing back souvenirs, about having a wife that still visited the Club each week, and about his travels around the world. You’re rather fortunate, fool. Not many people have such treasure troves of stories in their life. You have multiple, said the tiny voice in my head, breaking the silence and letting all the worldly noises back in again.
This fateful intervention changed my relationship with my past, and how and when I choose to look back at it. Let them flow, I’d told myself that evening, as I walked out of Alliance and into the rain. Rather filmy it seems, now that I think about it. It was the 10th of July – 16 days before I turned 20.
Let it flow.
My grand uncle, the man who ever so unknowingly brought about all these profound thoughts in an otherwise oblivious mind, was a pilot in the Indian Airforce back in the day. If there ever was a person that my mother looked up to in the family for the way he or she carried oneself, it’d be him. “Hello! Welcome, welcome, young man!” he’d boom as I walked into his rather massive house at Thiruvananthapuram. He was as thin as me and I was about 15. His cheek bones were prominent and he stood with a straight back, straighter than a lanky 15-year-old, atleast. With eyes sunk into their sockets and a cleanly shaven face, he looked like a character that’d fit right into a zombie movie. He enunciated each syllable with considerable amount of stress and his accent seemed to tilt towards an English one.
A Karnad-esque back story I cannot have, for my grandparents have never consciously kept record of their present through photographic documentation. Well, they’ve not been too much into displaying it, atleast. Apart from the photo of them taken a couple of years back for their 50th anniversary, nothing was put on showcase at home. I have vague memories of grandad sifting through palm-size stacks of photographs, occasionally looking up at me to smile while recollecting an incident many, many years back – evidence that photographs from way back do exist; a massive relief.
“She sounds nice. Tell me about her,” I was asked by a friend, about a month after the Karnad incident.
Looking across the room at my table, I could see a photo of us – her, mum, grandmum, and the brother. To them, her name was Lakshmi. To us, it was Lakshmikutty amma. If I was ever proud of being related to someone in the family, it would be her: my great grandmother. She was brought to Bangalore by her mother at a fairly young age; her father, I have not heard much about. She was a strong woman. Mum constantly recounts hosts of stories of her from her childhood. They range from watching her male companions from school being scared out of their minds by her grandmother, to her telling mum and her siblings, stories of her pallikudam, that is, her school. Each story is peppered with humour that more often than not leaves mum in a good mood for quite a while after the story has been recited.
“She’s the biggest boss I know,” I say, in response to the question.
There seems to be somewhat of a dominant oral tradition in my family. I haven’t been able to track down much writing by the generations before my own. Narrating a good, solid story filled with humour and emotion has always been how it’s done. The only time I have seen a member of the family penning down a letter for instance, was at Pink House. Pink House was, well, painted pink on the outside; the grandparents lived there. I was about 7. Grandad wrote in Malayalam, his handwriting extra-rounded and neat. Every letter was written on blue paper that doubled-up as its own envelope – inland letters.
Come to think of it, up until I joined this course, writing was never a medium for me to tell a story. Telling stories, as I have come to realise over the last couple of months, is an integral feature in almost any kind of conversation that I make.
I have always been a talkative child. Mum always attributes this rather never-ending feature of mine to a gene also possessed by my grandfather. I have noticed that gene in him, alright – we cannot be compared. But I must say, we are similar in our approaches to conversation – we tell but struggle to listen, and when we say, it’s more often than not through a story. Every photograph shown to him, especially the ones from my mum’s collection of family photos, he can go on and on about. My dad is never slow to point out similarities between his father-in-law and his younger son as I hijack his wife and subject her to long bouts of conversation in the living room, usually while getting my hair oiled or over a cup of tea.
We are at India Coffee House. It’s been about half an hour and I’m almost done with my cold coffee. I contemplate another to keep the conversation going, but the grumpy waiter seems a little too keen on giving us our bill. Wait. What conversation, I ask myself. I’ve been talking for the last thirty minutes and she’d mostly contributed only with nods, smiles and looks of anticipation. I’d spoken about my last time here, when I came looking for a company that had ceased to exist a couple of months prior.
This piece is going just as a regular conversation with a friend would: filled with tendencies to blurt out the most random stories and a certain amount of disregard for structure. I am not quite sure why I possess this tendency. The one thing I do know about is that I have become far more conscious of my story-telling post the Karnad incident. As I look around my room, I realise that literally every object around me comes with a story attached to it; be it how it came to be a part of my room or who I got it from. It does feel as if each object is a prompt for a new story of an old memory. My life really has begun to feel like one of those free association classes we did as part of our creative writing exercises.
I was once told that I’d run out of real stories to tell one day and that I’d begin making them up to prolong conversation. I do not think that I can make stories up. The stories that I say or recall are well and truly rooted in one real memory or another. Memories are made each day and besides, retelling stories are often more enjoyable than telling them the first time; they are more organised and structured, something that I usually don’t indulge in but do find some amount of comfort and pleasure in doing.
My great grandfather had fought in the Sino-Indian war of 1962. I was quite young when mum had mentioned to me that he’d signed up to serve the nation by joining the army back when she was a kid, being an able adult citizen and all, so I’m not quite sure which war it was. His ‘army number’ as I’ve always chosen to remember it as, was forever etched in the memory of his wife, who even many years after his death uttered the combination without the minutest hint of an error, right till her end. I must look the number up, I thought, as the brother proudly displayed the new tattoo he’d gotten done on his forearm; it had the number inked onto a medal of honour. Grandmum had found this tribute to her father very touching and fascinating.
My grandmother has five siblings: one elder sister and four younger brothers. Of the four brothers, the youngest were twins. Kusha Kumar, my youngest grand uncle by a couple of minutes, had once tried to enter the army. He was rejected during the physical test on the grounds of poor eyesight in one of his eyes, a problem he’d developed after receiving a rather nasty blow to the face while in the boxing ring many years back. His son is currently in the navy.
Enough about mum’s side.
It has always been one of my biggest regrets that I know close to nothing about the family on my father’s side. Whatever I do know is based on second-hand accounts by mum or little give-away’s from dad when there are specific triggers like certain mallu dishes.
Dad’s dad was a pilot in the Airforce. If there ever was an award for the smartest and most charming man in the family, it’d most probably go to him. I remember flipping through a photo album previously owned and maintained by him a good number of years back and sitting back in awe. He does look like dad, I thought. There were photos of him standing next to planes in different parts of the world. According to mum, he’s probably the first person in the family to have travelled abroad and to so many places at that. He was dressed immaculately in every photo; the blazers fit perfectly and his posture was commanding. This was the first time I’d come across a light blue blazer.
I suppose you could say that my family does have a decent armed forces background and that this was what drew me towards the storyline of Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War. I too, at some point in my life, had contemplated writing the National Defence Academy test after my Pre-University. It wasn’t to be. In many ways, I’m happy that I’m now in a course that demands that I produce the sort of stuff you’ve read over the last couple of minutes. Besides, it’s nice to write your own story, no?