The longer, slanting rays of sun tell that it is autumn. I have come to say goodbye. It is, indeed, autumn then; how could it be spring.
The same road, taken countless times, takes on an unfamiliar, strangely new aura of finality. I have never gone down this road thinking I would not need to come back here again. The signboards — Toshiba, Kodak, Sanyo — too, belong to a bygone time. Past the Don Bosco High School, Railway Headquarters, Kinnaird Academy High School for Girls. The trees here and there are huge, and very old. I try to see it all with new eyes. Further down, beyond the Railway Station, the endless and relatively new tyre market stretches out parallel to the railway tracks. There is still that heavy volume of traffic that used to have some tangas and more rehras, the rickshaw I cross that has ‘lover boy’ emblazoned across one door.
The dry fruit shops are still there, and the lohaar workshops. There is a solitary tea stall in their midst, pure vintage — for on the counter there is a tray of eggs: the tea with a boiled egg combination also belongs to the past… I do remember. Still further down, and the bagh at the corner of where the road turns inward to Yakki Gate has been spruced up, it is now clean, and welcoming, the massive tree that has seen generations come and go stands firm. I can see swings there too, and children around them.
The lane turns in, and the bazar is far dirtier and more crowded than it used to be. But the house is the same. And the memories unchanged.
That I am in the walled city becomes apparent the moment I walk up to the door of my maternal grandparents’ house. I am here for a last visit to this house that has been sold. It is a very bittersweet moment to know that today, at least, I still ‘belong’… I am recognised here. A random stranger spots me as I stand outside taking photographs, and nudges the fellow standing next to him, saying, “aey karr de maalik ne.” I have no idea who he is though, so I ask. He tells me he lives “across”, with a vague gesture, identifying the gali opposite or thereabouts.
I enter the house. The passage of time belies the countless hours spent at these windows looking at the world’s goings-on down below for entertainment. I feel as if I have hurtled through time. I walk through the rooms, one by one. This ‘showcase’ that held the chinaware not meant to be used, only to be seen… nani ke jahez ka … testifying to the now-obsolete concept that possessions are to be saved away for decades and not to be used. It is now oddly stripped of the china, and its bareness echoes the emptiness of this world that I have come to.
I say goodbye to each room. One after the other. And with it I lay to rest a part of me, of my own journey through life. The spot where the ‘singhar maiz’ used to be… the ‘gallery’ (store room) that was padlocked territory, not ventured into, and one’s little soul longed to discover the unseen treasures therein. Each nook, each moment, has a story, the walls glowing with embedded memories. Of lives lived, joys, sorrows, trauma, drama, and the passage of time. It is a trip into myself, into the inner recesses of my past, seen through the mirror of my present.
I head upstairs, the floor that is part covered area, and part open terrace, you could call it a kotha. This is the second level now. They still play old Indian ditties at a loud volume in the bazar below, in the bazar that all else has changed – the halwai, the paan wala, the sharbat wala and the baraf wala on the corner, all are long gone. At that very moment, one of my favourite songs, ‘Akhiyon ke Jharokon se’, plays down below, making me drift in time and wonder where the past and present blurred. Other familiar oldies follow, which I clearly remember hearing the tunes of, every summer of my childhood that was spent here, living abroad and coming to stay with the grandparents, for a month or two each year.
I wandered the rooms, and it was almost as if, if I stayed long enough the ghosts of memories would become tangible. As if, if I looked hard enough, or waited long enough they would turn up. My grandparents. I looked at everything, committing to memory the unseen, and only felt. That all which can only be sensed and often not said in words.
I never came back here often enough, perhaps. Once you move on the past lives in you only, and forever. Here I stand, surrounded by junk, clutter, chipped and peeling whitewash, dirty walls, and a million thoughts. It has been so long, and yet not long enough. I wonder what it is that we are trying to hold on to in clinging to the past.
It was a lesson in life. Homes are made of people, not walls. And when the people are gone, they are just cages of memories waiting to be set free. I wander around, until I am very sure that I can now say goodbye. And leave.