Writing nostalgia again. with due apologies. Old habits die hard.
Nostalgia, perhaps. but this is also a story about power and control.
I went to Pine Mount in Shillong in the seventies. I lived close to school, just behind the NCC office. So, my parents had made an arrangement with the school and I would come home to eat lunch with my mother (something I hated so, as I missed out on playtime and having lunch from a lunch box, but I was powerless and could not resist). Anyway, there used to be this kiosk on your left as the road went down from the NCC office to the then-wooden bridge with missing teeth and our house was at the end of a lane on your right opposite that tiny shop, which was run by a Khasi mother and her son. The young man went to work in the daytime, and as far as I remember he used to work for the PWD, must have had a desk job, for I remember my parents saying: See, this is the dignity of labour! Would we ever do this? We would think it below us to be educated and have a paan-birir dokaan. (So the ‘babu’ also had moments of critical self-realisation!). Anyway, you could buy kwai, sweets, cigarettes and I can’t remember what else, but what I remember most vividly is the tamarind paste you could buy for five or ten paisa, and they gave it to you wrapped in a leaf. That tamarind paste was sweet and sour and salty. We savoured every bit of it then licked our fingers till we could lick no more. The salt-sweet-sourness lingered in the mouth as it still does in the mind.
The girls who stayed in our school hostel–they were the boarders while we were day-scholars–they were not allowed to eat such outside food and they went out shopping with their class teacher once a fortnight (or maybe once every month) and bought their own things of desire with their pocket-money. (God! All those words are so loaded with meaning! ‘Pocket money’ meant something beyond us in those days, By ‘us’ I am not talking about a general ‘us’ of course, but ‘a kind of us’; there was no concept of pocket money in our ordinary middle class homes. Children were not supposed to have money. Money was the big, bad thing. If they wished for something they could ask, which they could be granted or denied, according to the parents’ discretion and means) Anyway, coming back to the tamarind, some boarders of my class knew about it, I don’t know how. Maybe they had tasted it from us and longed to buy some for themselves. So, one day some of my boarder classmates gave me some money. I cannot remember how much, but it was a lot, maybe five or six rupees in all. And they asked me to bring them some tamarind. after lunch. I don’t know why I agreed, must be because you also wanted to be close to those girls who came from a different class than you. Boarders and day-scholars were two differently-abled (and divided) social groups within the unequal space our school, only reflecting deeper inequalities of the outside world.
So that day I hid the money in my blazer pocket, quickly ate with Ma and I picked up my raincoat although I don’t think it was one of those days when there would be rain. I bought a mount of tamarind paste, which the shop gave in a paper bag and I hid it under the raincoat and went to school.
All through my life I have always failed to hide my emotions. So, I just must have worn my guilt and fear and thrill all on my face, like a notice saying, ‘I have smuggled in the forbidden fruit and it is here under my raincoat!’ Because I did get caught, by, perhaps. Mrs Joseph or Mrs Warjri (poor souls, maybe it wasn’t them at all but I tend to associate all my pains and fears of my school days with the two of them; bullying leaves unhealed bruises). Interestingly, and predictably, those who had given me the money went free, I didn’t.
Reading Gertrude Lamare’s piece on Raiot, I remembered a recent Facebook post about Shillong and nostalgia and how some were entitled to feelings of loss and others weren’t.
I thought of how fractured we were and still are. Nostalgia is not necessarily about remembering pretty things which are missed now, it is also about remembering past, unresolved pains. Those pains don’t go away. The past cannot be changed. Our mistakes cannot be undone. Manindra Gupta, a Bengali poet once said in an interview (I am not quoting but remembering, so maybe this isn’t exactly what he had said.) ‘A long life is a good thing,’ he had said. ‘The longer we live, the more time we get to learn from past mistakes and to try not to repeat them.’ However, sometimes it seems to me that we keep making the same mistakes again and again.
Do we not have any other option then? The task is not easy. To walk through wind and water saving the flame. For Andrei Tarkovsky, (he was referring to his 1983 film), nostalg(h)ia ‘could be compassion, but it’s even stronger than that. It’s identifying oneself with the suffering of another, in a passionate way.’
Featured image based on Samrat Ray’s work