Look back in Languor

The past few days have been a blur because my son was giving his board exams and of course, I could not let it pass without reminiscing about how I gave my own board exams. Since he didn’t want to listen to my rambles about the good old days, I’d been reminiscing on Twitter and, every now and then, an old forgotten memory popped up, bright and clear in my head. No, I don’t remember a single math formula that has to do with integration or differentiation. Don’t even get me started about organic chemistry.

What I do remember are little incidents that seemed so big back then. Like the fact that I had to attend my cousin’s engagement ceremony the night before my chemistry exam. Several other such tidbits of memory popped up, some too personal to share, but it had me marvelling at the human memory that keeps certain things suppressed for so long and voila, one day, it just hits you out of the blue. Like this memory, for instance.

Twenty seven years ago, my father took us for Umrah (Mecca pilgrimage, which can be undertaken by Muslims at any time of the year) during the month of Ramzan. This was not as common back then as it is now, when every other Muslim family tries to plan their Umrah during this month. We were foregoing our usual vacations for this, and while it was indeed a sublime and unforgettable experience, there were several other little things that made that trip so memorable. The first was the brief stopover we had in Bombay. What I remember best about that short visit was how I sat by the window and looked at the streets outside, for almost two hours (as early ’90s adolescents, we didn’t have Candy Crush or smart phones). Before my eyes, the almost empty streets transformed into a mela of sorts, with carts and vendors filling up the pavements. All sorts of delicious smells wafted across to my nose. My mother promised we’d go and check out the food during iftaar, so I was waiting for that. I continued sitting there, watching the streets and then, saw something so amazing, so funny, that it was as if it had been scripted and enacted, just for my enjoyment, because I’m quite sure no one else saw it.

Among the many kheema samosa and chaat stalls, and carts with heaps of dates, there was a stall where a man was selling bottles of Rooh Afza. I watched him for a bit and then looked around and then my eyes went back to him for some reason. He had arranged the bottles in his stall in a pattern and was engrossed in talking to someone else. With an almost cartoonish gait, another man crept up on the other side of the stall, slowly put one hand out sideways and took away one bottle.

I was left with my mouth hanging open as the man crept back without anyone noticing him. I wanted to call out from the hotel window in dramatic fashion — “Stop! Thief!” But I didn’t, because apparently, it’s not that easy to shout when you’re shocked. The man melted into the crowd and I sat back amazed that I’d seen it. When my father came back, I think I told him about it, but I don’t remember his reaction. My brother of course, scoffed at me, and I probably hit him for that. But that’s all there was to it.

My mother took me out to the street after iftaar and I had my first taste of ragda patties on the street. I don’t remember anything else about Bombay, apart from that incident. Of course, my husband did not believe it when I told him about this incident, when we visited the city years later. “All that is fine. But how can you remember it so well?” he asked. “You were only 12.”

Well, like I said, my mind has always been rather sharp when it comes to remembering apparently inconsequential events. The thing is, it wasn’t inconsequential to me back then. It was a big story which I wanted to share with my classmates. But, by the time I got back from Umrah, followed by a detour to Dubai where we spent Eid, the story had lost its novelty, and the immediacy of telling someone “look, this is what happened” had somewhat dissipated. It makes me understand why I love Instagram so much, because it lets you document these things that slip away from your memory eventually, unless they’re snared somewhere deep in your sub-conscious for no valid reason at all.

Anyhow, being a writer with a vivid imagination is a drawback when it comes to recalling memories because sometimes people assume that I’ve just made it all up. But how can I, when sometimes, truth is honestly stranger and much more interesting than fiction?

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