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Saturday, July 5, 2008

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Going Home

Thirty-five years and two months is a long time to stay away from a place that you hated to leave at all. The thought crossed my mind as I wandered the streets of the old city of Surat, looking for familiar landmarks and for my family home.

Is that my cousin's house opposite the temple? I can remember playing cards there on a sweltering afternoon in May 1964 when news came that Jawaharlal Nehru had died and admonishing my cousin for her less-than-respectful demeanor. My outburst surprised her for she did not expect a teenager with an Elvis-style pompadour to be politically sensitive.

A few steps down and there's the building that housed the all-girls school that my great-grandmother founded. As we stood and looked, an official came up and greeted us. When I told him of my interest in the school, he became nostalgic and reminisced about my family. However, he got confused between my grandfather, the doctor, and his brother, the lawyer, both of whom were active in public affairs.

Just down the street is Gandiva Sahitya Mandir, the publishing house famed for its Bakor Patel books that brought Disney-like anthropomorphic characters into the homes of the Gujarati middle class. It was into this family that my younger aunt was married. Sadly the `press', as it was called locally, was torn down some years ago.

Across the street from the press is the house where my grandfather's brother lived. He was the lawyer, whose prominence in the city was the stuff of history. However, I remember him for his great collection of mystery books: Sherlock Holmes, Sexton Blake and Ellery Queen and for his ability to produce a coin from behind the ear of any person less than 10 years old. His house was part of the old family home that was really two grand old buildings connected by a bridge. On the ground floor was my grandfather's dispensary, where a quaint old compounder mixed all the good doctor's prescriptions. My interest in his rudimentary pharmacology led some to insist that I would follow in my grandfather's footsteps to major in medicine. As it turned out, I did follow the old man's trail, not in medicine but in public affairs.

Between the two houses is the narrow lane that led to my grandfather's house, where I was born and raised and visited regularly till April 1966 when he died. My eyes brim over as I walk through the alley into the house that was a home and is now a rich trove of treasured memories: of those who have passed like my grandfather, with his inspiring vision and my grandmother, who gets my vote as the sweetest person of the 20th century...and of those who remain, inheritors of strong family ties that have weathered the passage of time and the alienation of distance.

Thirty-five years on, I feel the swirling confluence of the past and the present: as though the youth who lived in that house had journeyed into the future and returned with a 50-year-old man in tow. then the youth disappeared into the past, leaving the older man to luxuriate in the warm and fuzzy memories of the house and its people.

from the times of india august 20 2001