Monthly Archives: June 2008

`About to Embark’, Hanger Lane Station, West London, 13 June 2008. Parvati Nair, `Lost and Found’ (4).

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]


Parvati Nair, 6 June 2008


Hanway Street, 6 June 2008

The blurred borderline between movement and identification.

Blurs, Parvati Nair, Hanway Street, London, 6 June 2008

`The border in this day and age is never unified, quantifiable or easily located.’

[From Parvati Nair’s `Europe’s “Last” Wall: Contiguity, Exchange, and Heterotopia in Ceuta, the Confluence of Spain and North Africa’, in Border Interrogations: Questioning Spanish Frontiers, ed. by Benita Sampedro and Simon R. Doubleday (Berghan, 2008), pp. 15-41, p. 17]

Borders, Parvati Nair, Hanway Street, off Tottenham Court Road, London, 6 June 2008

The entire city has become a multiplying digital border as, with every footstep, our identity is continuously scrutinised, our trajectory mapped from above.

ID Issued to the Photographer’s Father by the Panamanian Consulate, Montreal, Canada, 1957 / `Lost and Found’ (3), Parvati Nair, June 2008

Dear Margareta,
Its odd to think that our paths are crossing in and around a suitcase. To sift through the sheets of text you left behind in the case is quite a different experience from seeing images of them on John’s blog. On the screen, the words are loose, their meanings hard to discern. In my hands, they come to life in a cryptic kaleidoscope of meanings. I’ve being trying to shuffle the sheets and put the words in order so as to build the narrative of what you left behind. But, of course, the stories defy me. Sometimes you break into a language I don’t know, that must be yours, and mostly you keep me searching.
In strange, unseizable flashes, though, the meanings and references of what you indicate explode before me. All those words around airports and immigration I’ve known them all my life. So many flights, so many landings, so many departures and so many arrivals, so many tense, interminable pauses at immigration. While the officer looks closely at you and the papers you present. As if they must surely be fake. The colour of you skin, your hair and eyes all tell him so there are about a billion of you all wanting to come here from one country alone, aren’t there? And so he or she asks why you wish to live in the UK or how it is that you got your right of residence or how long you plan to stay or why you have not applied for naturalization as yet. As if everyone who wishes to live in the UK would have naturalized themselves by now! But for a split second your fears turn wild and you begin to doubt the authenticity of your own documents. Like when the sniffer dogs come round and graze your shin or when they ask you to wait on the side, seated on a sofa, or worse still, take you off to a separate room, one with glass walls that appear as mirrors on the outside, so no one can know that you are inside, and then take your passport and go off without saying why. Then… that moment of relief when the stamp comes down and he or she gestures asking you to move on. I have arrived! It’s only then that you dare text home to say you’ve landed. But still you wonder about those three Tamil guys you sat next to in that strange room and what happened to them.
So many other thoughts come tumbling out too. I recall that other man I once met on a border, who had no papers and got stopped. Who then lived for two and a half years in a makeshift camp for people like him. The illicit ones. The conversation with him was so predictable. Without papers. I want a better life. Stateless. Nowhere to go. What next? The same old story over and again. What else could we have talked about? He asked me to help him and I could not. Sister, do something, please help me if you can. I want to work. Make a good life. I could not. I could not help. You see, I didn’t bring myself to tell him. We were on two different sides of the border. Legal versus illegal. Who said when you went back to see him in a desperate bid to ease your conscience, ‘They give us food. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. But still I’m hungry. I’m always very hungry. I feel I haven’t eaten for two years because my food is rice. Here they give me only bread.’
Margareta, your words spark journeys. Real, imagined, broken ones. The road is never straight. It is scattered. Broken. Splintered… like our selves.

[Text by Parvati Nair, © 2008]

`Not scars, but traces’, `Lost and Found’ (2), Parvati Nair, Corner of Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street, London, 6 June 2008

The suitcase is here in my study now, where it will remain for the duration of its stay. Mark took a photo of me as I came home with it. My plan is to find objects to put into it. Objects that will somehow be meaningful and symbolic. However, as I begin to think of what these might be, I ask myself also what I shall find inside this case. Pandora’s box, maybe, or, perhaps, a treasure chest?

In the morning light, the marks on the suitcase looked at first like scars. Some were deeper than others; there was one like a bruise that had scratched the surface, others no more than faint lines that petered off. Then it occurred to me that indeed perhaps they were not scars, but traces. The casual imprints of collisions, happy encounters, rough resting places, the rubbing of shoulders between strangers. . . Like the traveller who comes home, the suitcase has many stories to tell. And like the traveller from afar, the suitcase is mysterious, impossible to know. All I could read at first were the letters J.D.P. My thoughts went to John’s grandfather, Captain John Perivolaris. My sole reference points for him were the words and photograph on John’s blog and of course, this suitcase. I tried to imagine the suitcase in a cabin on a ship. Might there have been a porthole in the cabin? An endless, shifting seascape outside? Had I ever known any sea captains? Ports? Or ships and anchors? I remember my mother once telling me that when she was young, she had spoken to a man who had travelled widely on ships. She was still in India then. He spoke of faraway places, of having been in Las Palmas, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Singapore, Aden. At the time, my mother had yet to travel much, though she wanted to. The names seemed glamorous. Exotic and faraway. So she had looked at the globe to find these names, but it was hard to tell what the places were like or how far away they really were from home. Later, she found herself visiting nearly all those places and each time, she would retell the story of that man and of how he had ignited in her the desire to see the world.
I remember too the port of Ceuta back in the 1970s, a small Spanish town on the northern coast of Africa that I used to visit as a child. The main street would fill for a day or two with sailors whenever a ship came in to port. This happened often, at least twice or thrice a week. They would fill the bars, speak foreign languages, laugh, drink and buy things and then, of course, disappear forever. They came from all over: Turkey, Italy, Greece and further afield… India, Japan. Strangers who came and went with the sea breeze.
That old, forgotten memory made me realize the suitcase itself was a sort of port, a solid rectangular object that stayed the same whatever the tide. Perhaps it was so for Captain Perivolaris, as it accompanied him throughout the voyages of his life. Now it was here moving from hand to hand and we were the sailors, the travellers who visited it and stayed for just a little while. The suitcase is resolute. It remains unchanging regardless of what we put in it or take out from it. My thoughts turn from John’s grandfather to others I do not know but have become linked to, Margareta Kern, Caroline Watson, Dinu Li, and John by whose desk this suitcase had remained for some months. Somewhere, in some ineluctable form, their traces were also on this case. On its surface. Like me, they had held the handle. They too had opened the lid, looked inside, wondered where it had been, what thoughts it had triggered. They too had sought to inhabit it for a while, filled it with their memories and the haunting of what once was. By bringing the suitcase home, I have entered an invisible weave of strangers, all of us bound by the ephemeral, the fluxes of displacement that are uniquely ours, and ours alone. In so doing, I am encountering the odd familiarity of the stranger. I know nothing or very little about you, and yet when looking inside this case, I feel your presence here in my midst… As I pour my memories into this case, I watch them swirl and mix with yours. I had not expected this… This unexpected connection with those I do not know.

[Text by Parvati Nair, © 2008]

[The photograph above has also been used by Fiona Bessey Bushnell in her post on the Case for Hope project.]