No one waiting down memory lane…

Long ago I went to Rome

 As pilgrims go in Spring,

Journeying through the happy hills

 Where nightingales sing,

And where the blue anemones

 Drift among the pines

Until the woods creep down into


A wilderness of vines.

There is this thing about nostalgia  – it is a diaphanous bubble, seen through a magnifying glass. And because it is magnified, the colours are brighter, the patterns more miasmic than you would expect. If you reach out – you can almost touch the flimsy, translucent covering of these cherished time-stamps. The wise thing to do, as one eventually learns, is not to reach out to touch a feeling, any feeling for that matter.  All that remains is a dyed stain on your fingers, a reminder of what once was. A memory is equal parts imagination and equal parts a slice of the past. Make no mistake, there is a fine balance here, the slice of the past is a muted, sepia backdrop: it is the imagination that colours the greys and the beiges to create a vivid, effervescent landscape of a time long past.

So, where were we? Yes, nostalgia and bubbles that leave stains on your hands.  There are places in our heart that we treat with a reverence normally deigned for fragile things.  Loss brings with it an almost sacred dignity. It talks of the roads we traversed since, it points to places that can now be no longer reached and it makes us believe that anything that is no longer a part of the present or the future, suddenly has more significance than wisps of the roads yet to be taken.

It starts off as a harmless exercise – you find a school community online, and you join it. Because in some remote corner of the mind -you can still smell the ink on Lekhak books, you can still see the roughly hewn piece of cast iron metal that acted as the school gong and you can still remember the peeling paint from non-descript lettering above each classroom door.

The colours come in now, fast and thick. Green for the lawn cuttings from the little side garden next to the Principal’s office. Blue for the relentless summer skies that gazed at you as you marched down the school grounds while the school band played its solitary tune. Dark brown for the football ground where you sat on the sides with empty water bottles and cheered the home team on, when the boys from St Paul’s, came for a match. White for the crisp letterhead paper that your father used when you neede absentee notes for missed days. Orange for the Camel pencil boxes with the silhouette of the camel against what was presumably a sunset in the desert. Black for the polished stairs and the cuddapah tiles that led to your classroom on the second floor. Navy blue for house colours. Lilac for the blossoms that covered your BSA bicycle in a blanket of buds when you parked it near the jacaranda trees. 

I am no longer dealing with a lifeless sepia memory here, you realize – I can see the blossoms, I can feel the gravelly surface of the football ground and I can almost reach out to touch the cold metal of pencil box. I can feel the crinkle of the old students register, with its alphabetical list of names, its checkered cover and its dull, red binder rim.

The sounds come in next. The dull thud of a book clattering to the ground during the afternoon Chemistry class. The soothing sounds of “Humko man ki shakti dena” on cold mornings when Assembly was conducted in the main hall and not on the school ground. The squeaky and shrill tones of the bicycle bell as you navigated the main road to cross over to the parking lots. The jarring drone of the school bell when you had one last question left  in the maths exam. The sound of rain slashing against the green glass panes during the months of July and August. The off-pitch tones of the rusty harmonium being coaxed to produce a song for the Independence Day celebrations. The best friend’s giggle and the sound of secrets being whispered during roll-call. The collative thud of canvas shoes on the stairs when school ended for the day.

They are taking on a life of their own now, these memories. The oranges, the greens, the clanging bell and the cheering for the school team. The blues, the browns and the school prayer. The blacks, the whites, the silences and the reams of words. Snippets of words, mind you, because memories are always about the hours and not about the minutes.

This is when the brighter colours and the subtle hues, the muffled whispers and the crazed shouts firmly pull you away from the present into a time-sucking chasm of the past.  Time stands suspended now. Suddenly, you are not the outsider watching the spool unwind, you _are_ student number 52 with a green tunic and brown shoes and a bicycle that has a jacaranda blossom stuck in the spokes of the front wheel.   You have exams to write and puddles to jump over, you have treats to buy from the road-side vendor selling slivers of green mango with a dash of chilli powder. You can smell the make-up on your face during the annual play, you can see the half eaten remains of a school lunch discarded for an extra game of tag. You can act out this part well:  you know your way around this topography, you  have been here before.

But what you dont realize is that while a memory is a personal thing, the fate and the future of the memory lies at the mercy of those that make up this memory. Those people on the online community that you joined – they have their own memories. They talk of a time and place that you no longer recognize. They talk of people you haven’t even heard of. They jest about the things that you once revered. Their experiences do not resonate with yours – you knew this, of course you did, but the depth of this realization hurts you. You are surprised that a chunk of the past still has enough life in it to hurt you. You wonder where those people, the ones that laughed with you, the ones that chased you down the school corridors and shared your lunch have now gone. There is a poignant ache that comes from thinking about those that held your hand and taught you to draw a picture and dot your ‘i’s and hold a racquet.

It strikes you then that what you stored in your heart was a little snapshot of time. And when the camera was put away- those times, those people and those places came to life and moved away and merged with the mileu of change. They are not there anymore because like every true memory, they became part of an irretrievable past. 

Nostalgia, after a while, becomes a one way street. There is no warm welcome for those that brave this journey to the land of the past, for the past moves on too.  Like a mythical creature from a fable, the road rolls itself up and is swallowed up by the recesses of time. 

Somewhere across a flowing river, you will see the flickering lights of a place that was once home. You cannot go there anymore, you should not go there anymore. There is no one waiting for you because you left on the premise of a goodbye and you left with your face towards the future.  Some journeys are defined only by their destination, yet others by the milestones – but a walk down memory lane is only defined by how long you stay there. Sooner or later you have to leave – when you think about it, that is not such a bad thing. You cannot build your home in the past…

Now every year I go to Rome

As lovers go in dreams

To pick the fragrant cyclamen

To bathe in Sabine streams

And come at nightfall to the city

Across the shadowy plain

And hear through all the dusty streets

The waterfalls again




(Long ago I went to Rome – Margaret Cecilia Furse –(1911-1974))