By Rashida Murphy
“Last night your lost memory came to me
As spring comes quietly upon a wilderness” – Faiz
Brass bells were only put around the necks of elderly cows. The rest had copper or tin bells along with vermillion marks on their foreheads. On special occasions like Krishna’s birthday, senior cows wore marigold and jasmine garlands and went right up to the big houses of the moneylenders who sought their blessings. Maybe it was something to do with the idea that cows were human, more than human, they were ancient mother goddesses whose patience was supposed to make us think about our own hastiness. We weren’t allowed to cuss at them when they plopped their soft pats in the garden or thoughtfully chewed all of dad’s prized dahlias or settled down outside the lopsided front door, blocking it completely. We were the interlopers, not them, and we had to be as gracious as they were about sharing the space.
Our house was an afterthought, added on after the cows in the barn were moved to the neighbouring field where the grass was fresh and the well filled with sweet water during the monsoons. A conglomeration of tattered boys would herd the cows past the house at 5 am every morning, bells ringing, voices mingling in a hoy oy, aye a a aaa chorus that signalled the end of another unquiet, chaotic night for me. There was a sweetness, an other-worldness to the sound that even in its insistence was already a thing of the past.
The peculiar house that framed my childhood resembled the warehouse it had once been. My grandfather had been a shopkeeper during the dying days of the British Raj and posters of Quaker Oats, Nurses Cornflour and Bluebell Margarine were still used by my mother to line the insides of kitchen cupboards. Although our cuisine was devoid of margarine or Clive of India curry powder, it never occurred to us to question these remnants of raj regalia. A grand uncle who moved in with us once went to jail with Mahatma Gandhi and accused my father of being an Anglophile, a charge so deeply resented that the uncle was ushered out quickly to an adjoining communal home before things got ugly. One didn’t accuse my freedom fighter father of Anglophilia, no matter how senile or advanced in years one was.
Rooms were added as the family grew. Grandmothers no longer capable of living on their own were installed in larger rooms in the house while children were moved to smaller ones. Distressed cousins were rehabilitated in the garden room and sisters broke their hearts in the dark. A confession not meant to be heard by me convinced me that I was either adopted or unwanted and made me look at my mother with suspicion for years. One afternoon I had been lying on my stomach listening to the aunties chatter and drop shelled peas into steel bowls when my mother came in. She didn’t see me, her voice low and cranky as she complained about the amount of food the kids ate each day, a statement that provoked instant reproof from the aunts.
‘Don’t talk about your children like that,’ said one, ‘every child comes to this world with her own destiny.’
‘But not her own food,’ said my mother bitterly, ‘I’m the food provider for all these destinies then, am I?’
‘They are your children, are they not?’
‘Yes, they are, even the ones who aren’t thinking they are.’ My mother’s voice rose slightly as she turned to go, looking blankly at my suddenly upright frame and round eyes. That was the moment my ten-year-old self regretted what had just become my past. But an illicit look inside my father’s diaries many years later laid those fears to rest; I was indeed theirs and could no longer pretend that my real family was somewhere in a civilised city home waiting for me to claim them.
My favourite uncle went deaf one evening when we were all playing cards. We didn’t notice and he didn’t say anything. His wife complained he didn’t listen to anything she said and my mother told her to be patient and not complain so stridently. I don’t remember when it was discovered he was profoundly deaf and nothing could be done about it. Always hesitant, his speech dwindled completely. He gave up work and the old bicycle he used to ride everywhere and started walking purposefully through what remained of our childhood. One never knew where he would turn up. This became a major inconvenience to the girls growing up because it meant there were no secret places to be with boys that he would not walk into. He found the renegade cousin smoking in the abandoned barn and hauled him home by his ears, shaking his head softly and confiscating the cigarettes. He continued to favour me with an occasional smile and an indistinct mutter while ruffling my hair and years later he would do the same to my daughter and call her by my name. I told her how we used to call him Uncle Walker and imagined him in purple tights riding a horse, with a dog called Devil galloping beside them. We laughed raucously – my cousins and me – at the memory, while she, my daughter, looked at us politely with a shake of the head and a shrug and I felt dated.
It was easier to recall our childish cruelties with affection than talk about the crumbling of our collective memories along with the house. Easier to evoke the memory of the garden-room where the soporific cousin was installed for several months, than think about what really happened in that room. Because after all, we survived that idyllic childhood, didn’t we? Of course we had different coping mechanisms. For some it was easier to spend the teenage years in a hashish-induced haze or tie tin plates to the tails of stray dogs for amusement. Some left and never returned, or worse, came back with foreign partners and asked, ‘what happened to the house?’
And on that afternoon we don’t talk about, we learned something vital. We learned that most things can seem normal in a certain light. Especially when the afternoon sun is contained behind drapes and the shape of a child is lengthened till it’s not really a child; so what we see is not really a crime. Yet another memory persists. Someone’s mother crying; crying loudly, disgracefully, with loud wails and uneven hiccups while the aunties shush her and our grandmother leads her to the room where she must spend most of her days now. And we think, whose death does she mourn?
We hear the bells outside. It’s Krishna’s birthday. The rich moneylenders have moved on to the street markets where business is brisk and Ganesh is more popular but the cows still come home the old way, pausing outside the house to bestow blessings.
Rashida Murphy is a Perth-based writer and poet. She has been published previously in Cafe Dissensus, Westerly, Marginata, and Poetry D’Amour. She has just finished writing her first full length novel.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.
Such a beautiful piece of memoir, Rashida. So many lovely images and fragments of childhood, and the reflections of family members, glimpsed through loving and truthful eyes. Some phrases will haunt me, like ‘And sisters broke their hearts in the dark’. Keep writing, please!! this is a world I can only enter through visions like yours.
Wonderful words, again. Thank you for sharing this evocative piece from a favourite writer.
Christina and Frances, thank you very much for reading and commenting. I guess the whole process of losing a country and familiar faces, either through choice or by accident, manifests itself in these ways.
I am so glad that I read this. Having been to India twice, I could so easily visualise and recall the same images that you have brought to life here but now I have a greater understanding of what was seen. I loved the juxtaposition of these images as well and found it very moving. You have a rare gift in bringing memories to life in such a beautiful way.