At first, what rises up from this suitcase are memories… Memories that are my own, memories gleaned from others. Whoever said that everything we recall is based on our own lived experiences? Memories can be borrowed, stolen, acquired, gifted. Memories are even imagined. Turned into words. Stories we weave to cover the gaps of oblivion. Knitted stories. Crocheted stories. Darned stories. Memories stitched and held together by words … by images. Images and words.
When I first read John’s blog on Left Luggage and when I saw the photograph of a ship on high seas and of you, Dinu Li, in a train station with suitcase in hand, my mind leapt to a hidden memory, one that I had never really thought much about or ever consciously recalled. It was about two Revrobes, as they were called, or large suitcases, both in a leather somewhat more tanned than this ones, my fathers initials engraved in gold: VMMN. They have in fact been part of my life ever since I can remember. I seem to recall that I always knew the cases were special. My father put his belongings in them. The rest of us did not. Whenever we were about to leave a country, he would open them and begin to pack. With great care, I see him now, here in my minds eye, bending over and carefully laying his best suits in them. It was a sort of ritual. The Revrobes. They were his. They were special. In 1939, when as a boy of nineteen, he had gone from India to Britain to study, his parents had purchased these cases for him to take in them the things that he would need for his long stay abroad. Warm clothes, of a kind not needed at home, a formal suit, and books a copy of the Oxford English dictionary that he had won as a prize, his prayer books, his History textbooks, his beloved tennis whites. And so I remember my father, though I was not there to see him then, travelling with these two identical cases by train from Madras to Bombay, embarking on a ship that would take him to England, leaving India for the first time even as England entered the War. In a sense, though, going to England was also a sort of landing, for my father was born a British subject. This was the much-anticipated journey to the land of the ruler, who had long taught him and those of his generation to read Wordsworth and dream of England from the distant edges of the tropics. Indeed, such were the inner displacements not untypical of colonization that perhaps there was more that was familiar in England for my father in his own literary imagination than there was in his native India. Indeed, I know for sure that the spires of Oxford and the lights of Piccadilly were in my father’s store of remembered images before he ever saw them. For colonial incursions are all too often displayed most keenly in the mind.
When my father returned four years later, the cases came back with him. Shortly after he began a life of travel. The cases went with him everywhere. From Madras… In cabins and holds, in the boots of cars, on luggage racks in trains… To Oxford and then to Cambridge, to London, to Bihar, to Delhi, to Cairo, to Colombo, to Delhi, to Kuala Lumpur, to Singapore, to Phnom Penh, to Oslo, to Delhi, to Warsaw, to Rabat, to Tunis, to Madrid, to London, to Delhi again…
There are no photographs of my father taking the train from Madras to Bombay, or of his mother and sisters waving goodbye from the platform… None of him embarking on his own for England from the port of Bombay. None, that is, except the ones I carry in my head, imagined from the shards of knowledge that I have of his life before mine. I see him clearly though, aged nineteen, a boy rather than the man I know, excited and also fearful at the prospect of the unknown. I see him, leather cases in hand, on the threshold of his life. About to embark.
[Text by Parvati Nair, © 2008]