I dont really have any real memory of this house that nobody really lives in for very long anymore. This house where my mother spent the first sixteen years of her life, growing up in its warm filial cacophony, an existence shared by six siblings and countless cousins and aunts and uncles and a great-grandmother even. The kind of existence that I, with my nuclear-family upbringing, wud never really understand or even particularly desire.
Therefore, it was with great excitement and trembling fingers that I held onto this old family photo-album that I found in the third drawer of my uncle's school desk, and realised this was like a lost treasure. This album had somehow been forgotten, overlooked as it were, when the rest of the black-and-white photographs had been diligently scanned and converted into digital format for posterity and committed to their future on various flash drives and hard-disks.
I knew it as soon as I had looked at the date on the very first page of the album. I think it was my grandfather's careful, spidery old-school running script that wrote "May-June, 1974, vacation trip, Miramar beach, south Goa and Bombay. " in red ink that had faded a little with time, but still allowed me to discern his forceful, speedy hand. I knew his writing from so many post-cards he'd sent me ever since I was four years old, although I only began to value them when I was 12 or so. I still regret that I didnt keep more than ten of his letters, written in the grandiose high literary style in which he spoke and wrote English. College principal that he was, my memories of my mother's father were very distinctly different from those that I had of my father's father. My maternal grandfather with his booming voice, and Konkani nasal twang was, I had always imagined, a strict disciplinarian and a somewhat more exotic personality than my earthy, jolly Bombay-bred paternal grandfather. Added to this was the fact that my maternal grandfather was fluent in five languages including Portuguese and Kannada, which were both strange alien languages to me.
I am smiling now, as my memory takes me back to my tenth birthday, for which like clockwork, he sent me his post-card written in difficult English that prompted my mom to ask me to fetch my dictionary like every year. The word that fascinated me that year was 'ineluctable'. I really cant remember anything else that was on my birthday post-card except an invitation to come visit this old house in Mapusa where only my grandfather now lived with my youngest uncle.
We never went, of course, since dad was busy and my school had started and something or the other always came up.
So now, more than a decade later, here I am, in this, my mom's old room, typing this on a laptop borrowed from my first cousin, the Tata Indicomm connection somewhat unreliable, with this album in my lap. I must have looked at it atleast ten times since finding it and showing it to mom and dad.
What I find most fascinating of all is the places. Its all the places I have seen before, but they all look so different, they all belong to another time.
Marine Drive is almost empty the afternoon my mom and her brothers are posing in front of the sea. Which is incredible by today's standards.
There are these regular b-n-w shots of various permutations and combinations of my mom's family, my mom and her sister posing with their mother, the boys posing together, my grand-dad and my grand-mom standing side-by-side smiling but not holding hands, like it was the norm for middle-class, educated people back then. Everyone looking so deliciously retro it makes us giggle to look at the clothes today.
Then towards the middle of the album, are a set of pictures that fascinate me the most.
Mom reckons they were taken by my grandfather or my eldest uncle with this old red plastic Kodak camera that she remembers.
The pictures are all of a particular afternoon on the beach at Miramar most likely. There are six photos all of my mom, then two of my grandmother, and one of my grandfather.
The one I find most striking is the one that has my mother sitting cross-legged on a rock, staring out at the sea, her eyes crinkled with the sun in them, her lips curved in a slight smile.
I am amazed most in this photograph by something I cant really describe, her expression, the way she's smiling a smile I've never seen before, not once in the dozens of photos I've seen of her childhood and youth. She seems joyful, but strangely mysterious, almost as if she knows a hilarious secret that she wont tell anyone.
I showed my mom the photo and asked her what she was thinking. She says she doesnt remember. But its incredible to see her in that photograph, looking so different from anything I have ever seen her look like.
She must have been sixteen when the photo was taken, the next year she wud leave to come to Bombay to study in Ruia college and its almost as if I see her face in the photo, filled with the possibility and the happiness of this new life stretching out ahead of her.
What I find most marvellous is that the girl in the photo is not my mother at all, she is someone I have probably never even met. Someone unfinished, yet whole. Someone vaguely familiar, but also new and strange.
My mom thinks I am imagining things when I tell her she looks like a mysterious stranger with that impish smile. But I think dad understands becoz he loves that photo immediately, like I do.
I wonder again about time and change and youth and life. I wonder if my mother was a whole other person at this stage in her life or if its just the angle of the camera lens or the photographer's skill that makes me so fascinated with that one picture of my mother as a stranger.
And before we head home to Bombay and relegate this album to picasa after scanning every single one of these memories, I just knew I had to capture this feeling in my head on my blog.
You know, for posterity, Altho, I dont think I've done a very good job of describing the exact emotion my mother's photo evokes in me. But then, that picture is worth a lot more than my words.