Monthly Archives: August 2008

In the Soup, 27-28 August 2008

Dear John, 

What a lovely name your mother has!

All the best, 

Parvati

 

Dear Parvati, 

It is a nice name but was changed to Mandy, while my father was known as Jimmy and, in my case, Yiannis became John. It was the end of the 1950s and we were all making the effort to stir ourselves into the great North American Melting Pot. 

Abrazos, 

John

 

Dear John, 

Yes, I can well imagine how names might be changed to suit one’s location — my own name gives me endless problems (Pavarotti, Poverty, Pavaaarti, Parbati in Spanish and Barfaati in Arabic, etc!). Things have gotten slightly better since the Harry Potter books came out, as I have a namesake there and more people say my name… though usually wrongly!

Un abrazo, 

Parvati

Naadu, `Lost and Found’ (8), Parvati Nair, London, June 2008. (Dimitri & Adamantia Perivolaris, Montreal, October 1957).

The suitcase, I realize, has served as a sort of album. It has revealed memories that I can visualize. Few objects that we inherit are as eloquent as the family album. Inevitably, the album is nostalgic, though one never really knows what it is that this nostalgia stems from. As we look at images of grandparents, uncles and aunts or even our parents in their youth, on their wedding day, in a studio, at a picnic, all before our time, we never know really where to place them. These people, who are so familiar to us, seem strangers here. Their world seems removed from ours. Their clothes are different, their demeanour, even their gaze. Different and somehow unknowable. We feel a sense of loss for what we missed out on, a time before ours when we did not exist and they did. We realize too that we are barred by the irrevocability of time from accessing their pasts. Or from ever touching the core of their lives before our time. The album marks an impossibility of return.
Having lived mostly in Europe and North Africa, I remember the family albums that we had at home and took with us everywhere: my father’s ancestral village in northern Kerala, my mother aged 12 wearing a skirt and seated near the rose bush in her parents’ garden in Trivandrum. Some of my older cousin who had been raised by my grandmother. But none of her. For she refused to be photographed after losing a beloved son too soon, and after that always claimed she was metaphorically dead too. Unable to be photographed. And so my grandmother continued to live for many years more, but in our photographic memories she and my uncle remain the ages they were when he passed away. What these images from before my time tell me is so different from what I can read into the images that were taken in my time, when I was present enough to know the context and the people. I recall the black and white photographs of my father’s grand-aunts, taken perhaps in the late 1920s or early 1930s, great-grand-aunts of mine I never met, who lived all their lives on the Malabar coast … . They had very long earlobes, stretched beyond belief in accordance with traditional ideas of feminine beauty and wore only a white cloth draped over their shoulders and around their lower bodies. I would look at their images when I was a child with no sense of recognition as such. I just accepted that this was how my ancestors used to be. My mother told me that these ladies had perhaps only ever posed for one or two photographs taken in their entire lifetimes, no doubt under duress from the more modern members of the family, those who lived in cities and worked with the British and then came back for short breaks to the ancestral home. They had feared that the camera would steal away their spirit or bring bad luck. When I used to open the album and see their photographs, I would, at the age of four or five, find no way of relating to these ladies, of seeing them as relatives of mine. They were strangers … strangers who looked back unseeingly at me through the faded sepia of time.
Until, one day not so long ago, I suddenly realized that the family album is also a prime genealogical text. We trace our ‘roots’ through the images within and we imagine where we have come from. In a strange, unthinking way, we define ourselves through these others who are strangers but ancestors all the same. It’s probably all in the imagination, but we look at them in search of ourselves. It happened when I was at the library at SOAS, looking for a book by an Urdu novelist. I found myself suddenly before an old anthropological text – I wish now that I had taken the details down, but at the time I was too engrossed in what I found, too shaken almost, to remember to do so – on the Nairs of Travancore State. It had been written in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century by an Englishman, an anthropologist who had spent years measuring the cranial sizes of his subjects and labelling the different skin tones he encountered – wheaten, copper, bronzed copper, tarnished copper, burnt copper … . Black hair and eyes, rounded faces, strong upper torsos. He described the habits of the Nairs, their matrilineal homesteads, in paddy fields, linked to other homesteads by tortuous paths, backwaters and rivers routes, and unusual marriage and kinship practices. He did so with a kind of measured rationality that sent a chill through my spine. He described their food habits, their religious caste-based practices, their social structures and language. The Nairs are a warrior caste, he said, with matriarchs at the heads of their extended households. His prose was clinical, as exact and encasing as possible. What shocked me was not what he said, but rather the fact that his detached and scientific tone was directed at the very symbols that denoted Kerala for me. Naadu … a single word to encompass land, homeland, home, origin. There were some photographs there too, of ladies like my great grand-aunts, bare-breasted, with long earlobes stretched over a lifetime, dressed in a white mundu and neriyal, their long hair coiled on one side of their heads. The photographs leapt out of the book and inserted themselves into the album that I realized I was still carrying around in my mind, superimposing themselves on the photographs of my great grand-aunts. They became one and the same. There was an absurdity about my reading this text. Me, dressed in jeans, earlobes unstretched, trying to find out about my imagined yet alien homeland from this old anthropological text from which my aunts seemed to be gesturing to me!

© Parvati Nair, 2008

Visitation, `Lost and Found’ (7), Parvati Nair, St Giles-in-the-Field, West End, London, 13 June 2008

Surely suitcases are not merely about departures or memories? For they are also about arrivals! Suitcases are about landing.. Greeting. Unpacking. They bring with them the newness of visitation.
To remember my father at the age of nineteen, to recall him leaving home, is also to think in the same breath of the other nineteen year old, my son, his grandson. Even as it imagines the past, my mind also reaches out to the future. Whoever said that time is linear must have got it wrong. If time does move forward, as they claim, then it surely does so in spirals. For I see Jamie, my son, now unwittingly seek out his grandfathers footsteps as he goes off to university. The same university, even the same college. Both aged nineteen. Nearly seventy years apart. My son is getting set to go where his grandfather has already been. Memory leaps forward now, transposing itself on what is yet to come. I always knew that memories can fill the present, but I realize now that they can also map the future. The suitcase confounds the linearity of time. There is no break with the past. The past is right here, in the midst of the present. It defines the present and is inextricable from it. Like grandfather, like grandson. Like my son and my father or like J.D.P., grandfather and grandson
This suitcase that is here, in visitation, unfolds to me the wondrous loops of memory and time.

[Text by Parvati Nair, © 2008]

Revrobes, Parvati Nair, `Lost and Found’ (6)

I am shocked. I have got it wrong. Yesterday I rang my father in Delhi to ask him about his Revrobes. He was surprised.
`Why on earth are you thinking about that?’ he asked.
`Because,’ I replied, `I was thinking about the time when you left Madras to go to England and…’
`What do you mean?’ he cut in. ‘I didn’t have those cases then!’
I was silent for minute
‘ You didn’t?’
‘No,’ he said, ‘you’re mixing things up. I bought those Revrobes in Singapore. Long after my stay in England. As late as 1956.’
‘Then …’ I was lost for words, ‘why did I think all along that those were the suitcases you took to England?’
He laughed. ‘My dear, you were probably too young. Well … actually, come to think of it, you weren’t born as yet. I used to have a beautiful large trunk, a cabin trunk as they called it those days that my parents gave me to take to England. I had it with me on the ship and then I brought it back and travelled with it to Cairo and other places. Then it fell apart and I couldn’t get it fixed. So, when we were in Singapore, I got the two Revrobes instead. I had my initials put on them because the cabin trunk also had my initials engraved on it.’
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to tell him that he had just shown me that the memories I held most true might well be fictions.
‘Hello!’ he said. ‘Are you still there … ?’
‘Yes …’ I tried to hide the sense of shock.
‘What’s the matter? Why are you, of all people, thinking about all this?’
‘Just a bit taken aback. That’s all. I thought the Revrobes had always been with you.’
‘Well,’ he replied, ‘they’re very sturdy. Still in good shape, actually. I could still use them if I wanted to. Though I have to say they need a good clean. They’ve been up in the loft for so long. I was very sad, though, to have to give up my old cabin trunk. I was very fond of it.’
‘So what did you do with it? Did you throw it away?’
‘No,’ he replied. ‘We made one more trip with it back to your grandparents home in Madras and then we left it there, I think.’ His voice trailed off a bit. ‘Now I don’t know what’s happened it …’ He paused for a moment. ‘Who knows, maybe somebody has it and is making use of it.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked. I hesitated to carry on, lest it bring sad memories to him. ‘The house was… sold, wasn’t it? What happened to the things inside?’
‘You know how it is,’ he replied, ‘Here, in India. people don’t just throw things away. There are too many people needing things. Someone must have found it. That’s what usually happens. People come looking for things, when they know a house is about to be sold. They take what they can find. Then they recycle them and somehow use them again.’

[Text by Parvati Nair, © 2008]