Jun 16, 2014

Sugared almonds, fathers and brothers

North End, Boston

Many years ago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez crafted a Pavlovian association for me with almonds. I'm sure many, many others too think of the bitter smell of cyanide and a tired man forfeiting his battle with disappointment ('Love in the time of cholera'). Yet I had strong memories of almonds in my life before, though I'd all but forgotten. 

They had to do with my father and brother. They were not bitter.

My mother makes our time without Bapi (my father) to be 6 months but it might have been a bit less. He had found a new, better job in Doha, Qatar and had temporarily moved his young family (wife, 2 kids) from Nairobi, Kenya back home to Kolkata, India while he settled into the strange city he'd just adopted for us. 

Doha in the late 1970s, was a freshly laid out city of Hope and plenty. Perched on a desert peninsula sticking off the Eastern coast of Saudi  Arabia, oil reserves and a progressive monarchy had launched an ambitious development scheme for the small country. It was to crest the Gulf petro boom. Expatriate populations of skilled professionals were feted to grow economy and infrastructure alike. We were part of that demographic. 

This separation from our father was 'temporary' however, only for me and Maa: 1977-78 marked the beginning of my 11 year old brother's boarding school education (in India) as our family fractured. Doha's nascent educational services for foreigners did not offer any viable educational options for him. Our parents had financial responsibilities to their family at home and few viable options too. But no more about that here: it doesn't bear thinking about. Decades later, the ripples still reach and touch us. In the yin and yang of our family's history, we founded our futures on loss. Hereon, laughter and sighs would freely intermingle to form a new if odd normal. It was not a bad life in the end for any of us, including my brother ('Dada' to me) who learnt incomparable resilience and remains to date, an incredibly inspiring model of it. 

I was between 5 and 6 at the time of our move so my memories have a frozen-frame quality: little snatches of conversations, sounds, sights and smells that together, draw an impressionistic portrait of my days. So bear with me, as I recall those almonds the only way I can. 

We were in a three bedroom 'flat' whose layout I can still sketch. Our furniture had solid wooden arms that gleamed from Maa's regular attention with furniture polish. I can almost smell the warm, lemony scent. Bapi had placed cinder blocks against a wall and balanced wooden planks on them for shelves. The grey unsightliness of the bricks were mostly relieved by the tumbling vines and leaves of house plants Maa coaxed into abundance. 

But all this came later. 

My first memory of Doha is distinct: the nubbly, black, rubber floors in the airport. I found them fascinating and breathed deeply of the plasticky smell mingling with a salty sea tang that was soon to be familiar. I remember feeling incomplete and disoriented without Dada to share all this with, to give my experiences perspective the way he always had. He was in his far-away Darjeeling boarding school, feeling disorientation on an incomparable scale. 
I also felt oddly shy around the mustachioed man whom I'd longed for these past few months but had started to forget. I'm sure he picked up on it as he didn't try to carry me or claim a hundred hugs as he was wont to before. Instead he ushered us first into a little white car (also a fascination as I was only used to riding in the bright red Lancer we had in Kenya), then drove us by the 'cornice'. A long expanse of concrete walkway by the Gulf Sea, the Cornice held back the endless succession of crashing waves. 
Doha now
It was a promenade offering strollers the chance to taste fine salt-spray, smell the ozone rich air and gaze at the skeletons of skyscrapers across the bay where Doha's future was starting to take shape. Bapi promised us many visits and walks here as I squirmed with delighted anticipation in my seat, hanging out of the windows rolled down for exactly this effect. I couldn't quite see the surf or waves but it's hectic crashing noises held as much promise as the grays and greens of the swelling sea on my horizon. I remember the first shifts of my disorientation - excitement was pushing it aside. 

Then we came home. 

The wooden furniture was already in place but not much else. There was no warm, inviting smell either. A little something acrid instead, smelling of desert heat, strangeness and change. There was a large hole in our midst, where my brother should have been. It would take my mothers loving ministrations and Bapi's reassuring presence, over the following months to start turning that flat into a home. But in fact, the process would not complete for any of us until Dada came home on vacation to offer his benediction and closure on this new fractured existence of ours. 

In addition to these amorphous portents of change, were two blissfully identifiable things: a bowl of pastel colored sugared almonds on the coffee table and a cellophane fronted boxed doll on the sofa. Bapi offered me little Suzy (as I immediately named her) and demonstrated her key features as I unconsciously resumed my accustomed but long vacant place on his lap. As I played, enraptured in the foggy mist of talking-doll delight, he gently informed me that I was to start soon, at a British school. More importantly, no-one there spoke any Bangla so in preparation, I had to start speaking in English at home from now.

My loosely held-together 6 year old self immediately disintegrated into about a thousand shards of dismay. I knew many random phrases in Hindi, English and Swahili but my substantial chattering was carried out exclusively in Bangla. This enforced switch-over to a strange, indecent language that was sure to shackle my motormouth felt like the ultimate assault on my life, freedom and what joy was left to me. I'm sure Bapi was dismayed at the wails issuing from the area of his knees where just a few minutes ago, a happy little girl had perched, yet I doubt it could match MY horror: its immediacy and utter consumption of all my senses.

That's when the sugared almonds made their mark. 

His reassurances that I'd learn the language in two ticks made no headway until the smooth, hard, sweet treat slipped through my lips. It was possibly my mother's wise intervention to distract me through my taste-buds, or maybe my father's frantic impulse to restore balance to an understandably overwrought child. For me, it was yet another new thing but this one, not unpleasant. Sucking on it - out of instinct rather than intent - short-circuited my dismay and tears the way only sugar can. Parenting judgments not-withstanding, it checked the cycle of horror and stress that my little mind had entered, triggered by overwhelming life changes. I remember many hugs that followed as well as a distinct cessation of grief once I'd vented some of my pent up frustrations and discomfort through those copious tears. 
I think we went to the Cornice that evening too. There, I caught my first glimpse of the Persian Gulf that was to become an immovable yet constantly moving part of my life the next 6 or 7 years. 

The bowl of sugared almonds stayed out on the table for the foreseeable future. I was given incredible, free access to it whenever my heart desired, evidence that not all new things are disturbing. It provided succor in times of change - of which there was plenty. 

In the following weeks, my mom tutored me in the scary new language that thereafter became my first language. To any multilingual person, it will suffice to say that it became the language I 'think' in. (I now see that my English language skills came at a significant loss as my mother tongue permanently moved into the background.) The furniture in the sparse apartment took on a loving glow and scented the air with lemon. The third bedroom acquired a table on which Bapi carefully laid out the balsa pieces of model planes he and Dada slaved over on Dada's visits home. The cinder block shelves sprung up, allowing Maa to flex her green thumb while making a home, caring for her family and filling our days with song (she was always humming back then). 

The 'Dada' shaped hole remained intact but we learnt to live around it by focusing carefully on his bi-annual visits. For months after each trip, Maa would refuse to cook his favorite spinach dish (and cry quietly every time she made chicken curry), Bapi would dust the aero-modelling table every week to relieve the pangs he wouldn't show as easily and I tearfully gave up the favorite backseat (behind the passenger) even though Dada wasn't there to squabble with over it.

Through it all - the sweet smell and smooth hardness of those sugared almonds. 

All new experiences are destined to become old but some leave ghosts. They hover as proof that every little thing that has passed - has made us who we are. 

Overheard chatting with a friend who was over...
Oyon: My mom said if she could control time, she'd make the weekends long and the weekdays short.
Jacque: Your mom can DO that?!
Oyon: She said IF she could.  I wanted weekends to be like, 900 hours long and we were day-dreaming. She said maybe I'd grow up and invent that technology. 
Jacque: Yeah. I wish.
Oyon: We're reading this book about a time-telling dog and do you know what? Time stops!! How cool is THAT?
I couldn't hear anymore as they disappeared into O's room from where shortly, a faint thumping noise commenced. I'd like to hope they were reading 'The Stupendous Time telling dog' (by Himanjali Sankar) but more likely they were playing catch with it while musing aloud about 900 hour weekends. As they should. 

1 comment:

  1. I was moved reading this entry. It seems to me you should be focusing your time on writing a memoir. This kind of writing comes easily to you and you paint a vivid picture with your words. I'd be eager to read this memoir! (as would a lot of other people) Enjoyed the read, thank you!