Memory’s oases

When we were six or seven, we used to live in an oasis in the heart of Calcutta. Everywhere else the city was teeming with people, concrete, dust, dirt, cars, buses and street hawkers–an overload to the senses.

Yet, in the midst of it all was our oasis of a housing complex and a quiet street of some offices–a collection of buildings owned by the Railways to which change had not come in a long time.There had been few new constructions since the days the Brits were here and so the buildings were solid but not modern and the trees were all old and shady.

The wave of change had washed over the area creating fly-over construction dust and a railway station teeming with millions of busy commuters leaving this place untouched like a quiet, green bubble.

There were huge, shady Krishnachura trees that flowered in flaming red here, swift squirrels that ran around, long pods full of seed that you crushed on the road as you walked and vast expanses of well maintained grassy lawns–a rare sight in the city. The place was complete in its quaintness with a Shiv temple under a very old banyan tree as in the story books.

The trains whistled merrily by to our young ears and servants thronged around the drinking water taps in the mornings and evenings daily waiting for the water to come during municipality designated hours–chatting in loud voices that seemed so happy, even when they quarrelled, clanging their metal buckets.

When the heat of the long summer afternoons would become unbearable and the strong sun singed every leaf on the trees and when every drop of water in our plastic water bottles would be over as we returned from school, I would look forward to playing with B–one of the daughters of the domestic servant family who lived in the garages in the neighbourhood.

We would select the ripest, juiciest-looking tamarind bunch from the pantry, take liberal amounts of salt and sit on the verandah for our imaginary games. Then, after we finished sucking on the sour fruit, we would save the seeds to use as pawns in our board games (without boards).

On weekend mornings, other girls from the neighbourhood would come and we would run out under the trees and play Rannabati with tiny plastic cups and saucers and cooking utensils or go around to the back of the buildings to play hide-and-seek until the sun grew too hot or our respective mothers called us back for studying or washing other people’s vessels, eat lunch or help prepare lunch–as the case would be.

As nature and concrete, people and stray dogs panted and breathed the fiery air for what seemed like a never-ending summer, the Kalbaishakhis (nor-westers) would finally come. The dark clouds would suddenly make the sun mellow in the afternoon, refreshing our minds and bodies with the cool winds.

The strong winds would make the Krishnachura flowers fall on the wet grass and we would rush out to collect the buds amongst the small rippling rivulets and the sparkling puddles and the freshly washed railings and concrete as soon as the storm stopped.

The semi-flowered buds were the most prized by us girls  for they were reddish inside, green outside and each individual petal closed in a bud were just mature enough for us to take apart, one by one. They matched the shape and size of our nails and the moisture enabled us to stick each one, albeit temporarily, one by one to our fingers like artificial colourful nails.

Krishnachura (Photo credit: lokenrc)

We moved away from that neighbourhood after a few years. Yet, that oasis has remained with me a long time.

It has come back in strange unrelated moments in my life. On a sudden rainy afternoon in Florida. On a very stressful day at work in a characterless office space. In a grassy park in New York. At the sight of Fall down below on the ground from a plane window high up over North Carolina. In a room in Calcutta closed in from all sides with concrete buildings. At the sight of a solitary tree in California.

So after a decade and a half, I went back to my oasis with my brother who was equally eager to revisit.

My oasis. The buildings were all there. Freshly painted. A new park had been constructed for children at one end of the compound with children’s paintings on the walls. The old Shiva temple was still there. The concrete patch around it was freshly repaired. A big swimming pool had replaced the drinking water tap and the surrounding lawn. On the whole, someone was taking good care of the place without making jarring constructions.

And yet, for me, the oasis was gone.

It was as though the whole compound had shrunk compared to my oasis in the mind. The cleanliness of the place and the whiteness of the concrete somehow clashed with my recollection of the place as an enclave cordoned off from the goings on of the outside world. This was a place where the wild things roamed free. It was supposed to be overgrown.

We knew no one here. We were outsiders. Even the stray dogs were a different generation from the ones we knew.  We saw sarees hanging from the verandahs and one or two kids running around and well-cultivated bright flowers growing in the tiny gardens around the buildings. I did not remember these carefully grown flowers at all.

The past was not here.

I took some pictures with my digital camera in desperation to catch what was not here. To make my memory real.

And yet, was the oasis ever real? Did things from outside never encroach upon the green bubble ever?

Even then, was I not constantly plagued by the blank test sheets I submitted in terror in school admission tests when even as a six-year-old I knew getting into a good English-medium school was imperative ? Was my friend B not plagued by the rashes on her skin she sustained sleeping in the superheated garage in the summer? Did not the music of the clanging buckets at the tap seem like noise to her? Were we not depressed when the older kids playing Gaadi would not include us because we were too young so that our Rannabati seemed like a poor substitute for the more ambitious games people played?

Memory. It has a way of filtering things and filling  gaps with beautiful green grass and Krishnachura flowers and docile stray dogs who never snarl.

It has a way of including us in the oases of our memories where we can never be outsiders.

©bottledworder, 2013.
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22 thoughts on “Memory’s oases”

  1. Thank you for sharing this beautiful memory and taking me away from all the issues of my day. You are a master at creating scene. I would love to read a novel with this setting:)


  2. I lived in Airport Colony, in Calcutta, for five years when I was in high school. It was beautiful too, compared to the rest of the city. I have no ‘oasis’ like memories of there but I can relate to how you could. Well written!


  3. Beautiful! Do you prefer your memories to be of the good things without the bad, or would you like them to be more realistic? It’s amazing how often the places and things we remember from childhood turn out to be so different when we return as an adult.


  4. Yet, the things one would wish memory to filter maintain clarity – and pain – on those moments of trespass in our ‘present.’
    As always, your writing is most eloquent – whatever the subject…


    1. This experience presents such a corollary to my reflections from this morning! Yes, indelible moments of pain from our memories do encroach on the present just as the banality of the present encroaches on golden memories of the past creating the sense that both past and present are illusions–victims to our perceptions of them. Perhaps that’s enough ponderous thoughts for one day! 🙂


  5. Your descriptive words are powerful. And, you are right – our memories often alter the past to transform it into a version we want to remember.


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