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