Excerpt: Raw Umber: A Memoir by Sara Rai
This extract lingers on the memories that inhabit the author’s home in Allahabad
There is something melancholy in the act of writing about one’s past. This is especially the case if most of that past has taken place in the same house in which you still live. It is your family home — the house where you have always lived, and yet it is different. There were people who lived here, but many of them are no longer alive. Absent, they are still palpable. The air is saturated with their presence, their invisible script written into each corner of the house. You pull the door, and with a creaking of springs, it opens. The rooms are all there; you feel around you the weight of the air inside them, you know the pictures that were on the walls, the exact position of the furniture, the objects in the room; nothing has changed but everything feels changed. You remember the way light fell from the skylights, some of which are now blocked up or have disappeared in changes made to the house. There are cobwebs hanging from ceilings too high to be cleaned, not that you want to clean them. There are termites too, which swarm out of the ground and make mud tubes, reaching the most unlikely of places. You can, if you listen hard, hear the quiet clicking sounds they make as they move and munch away at the woodwork, hidden from sight. You want to disturb nothing. Each space in the house has a history, and it’s as if everything in it casts a shadow, has a sort of ghost life. You try to catch the shadows, to pin them down. The harder you try, the more elusive becomes the business of shadows, and you come away with nothing.
You become obsessed with mirrors. Some mirrors are blind and reveal nothing. There are others in which you look and find in your face your mother or your grandmother. You see resemblances and patterns you had not noticed before. You hold up your hand to the mirror and look at the blue veins on it, that taper into the fingers with their neatly pared nails. The prominent, busy lines intersect and connect with the lesser ones, like so many rivers meeting with their tributaries on the triangular delta of your hand. With a start you realise that it is your mother’s hand you are looking at. It is then that you know that you cannot ever be separated from your history. Your past is embedded in your body. But sometimes mirrors are false — distorted, damaged, or askew. These are the abstract mirrors, mirrors that you have imagined into being and that can play a trick on you.
There is a patch of black chillies in the garden — black leaves, deep mauve flowers, and the little chillies like black tongues. They look mysterious, with a hint of menace about them; watch out for those black tongues. They can put a hex on you. The black tongues curse and the curse comes true. You think of the chillies when you look at a photograph taken on Nauroz in the year 1971 in your mother’s home at Nawab-ki-Deorhi in Banaras — you know that house well, for your history begins there. White was the colour for that year; it was the year of peace. Everyone in the photo is dressed in white, and all the food on the dastarkhwan is also white. You look at the faces in the photo and realise that all of those twelve people, except for you and your sister, are dead. There is nothing strange about that. Everyone dies. This is no narrative of loss. Dying is merely a function of living.
But then you see your mother. She is wearing a white sari printed with a paisley pattern in green. Short-sighted, she always wears glasses, and these particular ones have an onion pink frame. The family has gathered round the teapot in the front veranda of the house. Uncharacteristically, she does not participate at all in the conversation and a mysterious smile plays on her lips. Quite suddenly, with an absolutely impassive face, she winks. Only then do you see that the lens from that side of her spectacles is missing! It is a comic moment and everyone laughs, but it also brings home to you that there is much that you do not see.
Your father comes to you when you are not thinking about him. He is laughing. He does not speak. But he laughs. His laughter is loud and resonant, and the whole room rings with it. It flows down the stairs in a stream of gushing sound and it gathers in a pool at the bottom of the steps. It rests on the laburnum that is in full bloom, startling into flight a flock of roosting sparrows. His body shakes, his eyes fill with tears; it is not clear whether the laughter is happy or despairing. Then he stops all at once and is his solemn self once again. The laughter and then the stillness have the quality of something held in check just in time, arrested mid-air. It is like the angle of the sofa on which he sits; the precision seems to define his state of being. A knife-edge precision, almost.
One day you enter a room and find your brother sitting there. He leans back and closes his eyes as he does when he doesn’t want to listen to what is being said. His wife is speaking. She is always speaking, a complicated web of lies floats just beneath her skin. For twenty-six years he has tried to get to the meaning of what she says, but the truth can just be glimpsed in flashes, for it can be found only in what she has not said.
None of this happens, of course. It cannot, because none of these people are here any longer. It’s the mirror again, your personal mirror that keeps reflecting the past moments of which your life is composed. It invents some moments too, and you can never be sure if something really happened. The strange thing about living in the same house all your life is that you cannot go back to it, for you are still in it. And yet, you keep going back. It is not the house that you are returning to but a time; the house merely holds the accumulations of the years, evidence to the many layers of living in it that are transposed one upon another. You turn the things of the house over in your hands— threadbare fabric, rusty biscuit tins holding loose clattering buttons of all description, old watches that stopped long ago, opaque lamp chimneys, issues of Lilliput magazine yellowed with age — and you don’t want to let go of anything, for those things, unbeknownst to you, have become part of who you are.
Sitting on the terrace you look about you. The Argyreia nervosa has spread its abundant foliage all over one side of the house. It’s the elephant creeper. It grows rapidly, so quickly, in fact, that you feel it has grown another tendril or two in the moment that you looked away. You wonder if its roots go as deep into the earth as the plant does into the air. It has the house — and you — firmly in its grip. You shake yourself and try to leave. You’ve been trying to leave for years, fearing that in this stationary town with its two rivers and its narrow roads, you will become a pumpkin or a gourd. You look at other houses in other cities. Other lives flash across your mind. Hypothetical lives lived hypothetically. For you know that you will never go away. The house will never let you go.