Surreal pictures, reports from parents, voices from the dark, smells that singe, and touches that soothe — someday you saw a pattern, connected the dots and carved out a childhood from them. Once you decide to believe a story the first thing you do is to sweep the broken links and white bones that jut out under the carpet. You did it smoothly.
A kiss here, a pat there, the aroma of vermilion mixed with Cuticura of my mother’s face, the alarmed words that told me that my father was weeping under with pain as I rode elephant on his back (One part tells me I got down from the elephant-father curiously and witnessed his tears rolling down; another part denies. I don’t know what is true), the stench of fluffy dust-balls that kept growing in size and recurring in my dreams, the bevy of yakshis that climbed to the attic one by one through a trap door on the wood-paneled roof of my old home… my past stands on those stilts; I too drew my childhood from them.
“Amma. You were holding me in your arms to feed me. Sanji maman was also there. Suddenly I saw this strange light in the shape of crosses passing one after the other in the sky in a row. Don’t you remember?” I might have asked this question a hundred times to my mother. And regretted soon.
Each time, my mother threw me a kind of look, a look that stripped and rattled the very foundation of my sanity. “Absurd! Mark it, Manu. No yakshis lived in our attic! And please don’t repeat this foolish question. You are a teacher now (Associate Professor, to be precise). Live up to that.”
But then, whom did I see!
Last month my friend John called to remind me about a get-together of our schoolmates. We were meeting after 26 years; I was excited. I had a few vignettes from my school too. Now I have got my friends to back up my reminiscences.
Q. Don’t you remember the day I cried in the classroom when the teacher asked us to write a composition about our families?
No, Manu. Did you? Well, that’s absurd. No students cry when they’re given assignments.
Q. Don’t you remember how you punched a student from another class for flinging a cork ball onto my balls?
No, How could I do that! A bank manager replies, ironing his shirt by tugging hard at its helm.
Q. Don’t you remember the day I was beaten black and blue by our ‘Moodu’ (the nickname of a teacher who has got a prominent derriere)?
If they cannot recall the pictures I have, who was the boy who made them up then!
Who was the boy who whimpered in the classroom as he didn’t want to wake the memories of his brother, freshly dead, through a piece of composition! Who was the one who smiled through his tears when he saw his friend avenging his wounded pride when a boy from another class flung a cork ball right onto his balls! Who was the child who, when he heard the deafening noise of cane falling on trousers at his back, pitied the poor boy who might have received such sound thrashing on a beautiful morning like that, but only to realize the next moment, as the numbness from his ass wore off, bolts of cold subsonic pain shooting up from his own back!
If he is not me, my life gets serious now; this is then the turning point! Those occasional bolts of nostalgia, its long spasms that I always have felt in my blood, everything would then be false, I’ve stood all my life on false limbs.
In the darkness far away I see a frail, little boy, suddenly orphaned shudder in a cold blast.
But if I am not him, I must not be sentimental, I must cut him out clinically, like infected tonsils, shed him forever – his face, body, memories, dreams, his childhood friends, beautiful little girls he loved secretly, those lights that glided across the skies in the shape of crosses, the yakshis who climbed to the attic through trap doors, dust-balls, everything that he has told me all these years. I must shed the boy as indifferently as a snake that molts its skin. Slowly, but thoroughly.
But what after that?
Do I then grow a new old skin at this age, a new old childhood with fresh old memories that my mother and friends would confirm with surprise!
I have always admired people who know how to play their nostalgia safely without blotting the pictures of them in others –friends and parents. Some really know how to fit an awkward childhood in their present selves. But could they convince themselves at the end, I often wonder. Like them, I too like to fish trinkets out from the trouser-pockets of my own childhood like magic to surprise my mother! “Ah, my boy! You have such a keen memory!” I want to hear that. But I bring only empty shells, plastic, nibs of dot pens, caps of Chelpark ink, Bigfun wrappers, Goldspot caps, and white bones, which had never been part of anything that was full. My trinkets refer only to themselves, which refer themselves again, until they get entangled in their own infinite references and die back on themselves. “Absurd!” My mother says. Can such things happen, Manu! Anyway we don’t remember. Friends shake their heads with listless eyes.
I look down and walk with them across the school ground to an old classroom. They scream, opening the doors wide, and make a mad rush towards their old benches, my 40-year old schoolmates. I laughed with them, even with a worry growing in my mind. Where should I rush to?
To me all benches look alike. Like those grimy walls, and the dark wood-paneled roof polka-dotted with white duster marks.
Where did I sit? Who were my best friends? What did I laugh at? I weave through my friends sitting in the classroom holding a camera like a shield; a hundred questions beset my mind. I will not ask because those pictures are the only strands by which I hang to these good men, who kindly take me for the boy (Or are they pretending) who stands with them in the mildewed group photo we all have at home. If they deny more of my memories I might then have to pull a chair and sit opposite my childhood and deal with the boy who claims that he saw crosses of light in the sky.
“Manu, you sat there. Don’t you remember?” Sanjeev asks. I put the camera away and sit where he kindly points at. But the boy I remember never had a boy named Manikantan near him. “Were you sitting on my bench, back then, Mani?”
For a moment Manikantan seems lost; his face falls. He rises from the bench and looks around blankly; the classroom has painfully shrunken in our absence. A sudden gloom has descended. More friends rise from their seats now, my 40-year old classmates, and begin to shuffle around uneasily to find the benches they left behind 26 years ago. I look at them, my friends, their eye-bags puffy, their forehead creased, they have come all the way from distant places, wearied lives, back to their childhood to seek some blissful moments of unconditional love they once enjoyed and left behind somewhere in this room. They have come believing the tales the boys in them have told them.
Don’t worry. Let us not talk or bother to share our thoughts, my friends (our memories do not have any meaning outside). Let’s pick our way back slowly, each through his own narrow stretch of memories, each to his own school, classroom, bench and each to the boy no one else would see.
Venu sir will come, and teach each one of us, boys, separately.
We sat waiting.