Sunday, May 17, 2009

A whiter shade of pale

My maternal grandmother died when I was five so my only memory of her is a blurred image of what I now know must have been the funeral pyre. Over the years we've heard a lot about her and she has always sounded pretty spectacular.

For one thing, when she started travelling abroad on her own after her children were grown, she would have been in her fifties. That's not even middle-aged in our world, but in her era it would have been considered late autumn, time for one last blossoming – grandmotherhood – and winter definitely in the air. My Gran just caught the next plane out.

She did Europe on a shoestring years before the first Lonely Planet on the subject. A person who had never travelled embraced it with gusto. All this I knew from the stories. Tonight I heard it from her – my aunt gave me two letters that she had preserved. One of them was about the first visit to London in September 1970, and the other covered Brussels and Amsterdam soon after.

They recorded her first encounters with a washing machine, canned meatballs and a martini. That she walked from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace and back because "the taxis are expensive". The wonder that an Indian in the seventies felt at the vastness of Selfridges, the fact that "in the West" small towns and villages enjoyed the same amenities as the cities. In the Netherlands, she'd "seen many pretty girls and none of them wore make-up". In Belgium she noted that "most of the tourists are American". In England, she was awestruck by the fact that the Englishwoman she stayed with worked from "morn till midnight" because "she has no help at all". Though India provided a lot of household help, it did not have melamine crockery, Revlon lipsticks or foreign bras then, so she bought these for her daughters and nieces.

Her style of travel writing strung events together on an invisible thread of thought rather than any compulsion of mundane logic. Descriptions of St Paul's, apple trees and the Surrey countryside tumbled together, high art was mixed up with a prosaic bit about having to haul luggage at Heathrow. There was a bipolar swinging from breathless excitement to inconsequent worry. Over it all floated an everything-will-please-me-because-I'm-on-holiday adjustment to the flow.

I recognized it all. At two in the morning I was staring in shock at the place where my voice comes from, the source code written before I was born, before my parents even met, for the many, many emails sent on my own travels.

I didn't know there was anybody else in my family who had this urge to send back despatches with copious detail about where you went and what you did, talking about taxis and telephone booths, being naive about the people you met, and thrilling to the fact that something was exactly as you'd read about in some book.

Her accounts were long and chatty but there was much that she didn't say about a deeply personal roller coaster ride of glee and fear, and a swelling delight in the fact that she could. I looked out for a long time at the dark trees, feeling weird that I knew this.

Interestingly, she also said that "in the air-ports now they check your baggage and yourself because of the recent hi-jackings". I didn't know it had started that early, nor that they used to hyphenate those words.


Anonymous said...

after one of her trips abroad, she came back to whitefield, unannounced! She got down at Krishnarajapuram station and took an auto to whitefield, in those days it was a travel of about 8kmts into the wilderness. Though she said she told a policeman, she late told us that she had a little fear inside ! When she arrived at our place we were away at a Lions Club dinner, but luckily arrived in time to see her alighting from the auto !The next day she gave her daughter and son in law a graphic account of a movie she saw in Amsterdam.... "The Last Tango In Paris", the uncencseord version !Which mother in law would have done it at that era? I was Dumstruck ! ask your mother for proof. ha ha ha. achan

govind said...

Scan the letters and send them to me!

Ananya said...

I want to see those letters too, Mina! With a grandmother like this, who can ever deny that traveling the world is written in our genes?!

Extra No:1 said...

I've only got a gist of what she might have felt on her trip, but the way you've rewritten it made me feel the goosebumps. What a liberated brave lady. We all have some genes from somewhere up the line. Now, if i could find out who the hell is responsible for me being this way!

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