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Turning the clock back

My niece recently arranged a family trip to KGF, our hometown, which carried memories of a lost childhood. The trip was by rail to capture memories of a passenger train chugging lazily past Whitefield, Malur, and Bowringpet to finally arrive at Marikuppam, where a nondescript station welcomed you. She had planned to visit her old school and the hospital where she was born. She wanted her two daughters and their families to share her joy of revisiting her childhood. She had also arranged a lunch in the once much-sought-after European club, which displayed the prominent notice “Dogs and Indians not allowed!” and where Gandhi had famously quipped, “So I cannot enter here, and why did my hosts (the British) invite me to this place?

I don’t need to tell you her great disappointment when she returned to tell us she could not identify our old home with its lovely trellised verandahs, airy cowsheds, gardens, lemon, pomegranate, figs, and trees galore. She searched for the lawn, the flowers, and the potted plants. There was not a trace of the house that she knew so well as a child—a house with a loving grandmother and a cosy nook to read books galore.

“Have I come to the wrong place?” she wondered.

No. She had come to the right place—for the wrong reasons. She wanted to relive her enchanted childhood when she saw the world as a magical place where even a garret of musty old books became an Ali Baba’a cave that opened to a mysterious, many splendoured world. She made the sad mistake of turning the clock back, which many of us do to relive a happy, carefree past. I too have done it on the foolish assumption that I can recapture my past. I have walked the dusty corridors of Central College, whose English department was an El Dorodo for me with its outstanding teachers and brilliant pupils. The library, the red sandstone building, the timeless clock tower, and the gallery classrooms. When I climbed the curved staircase to reach the English department, where giants unravelled the beauty of English prose and poetry, I felt only centuries of dust cling to my fingers. I dare not look inside the classrooms, where, as a pupil and later, as a teacher, my senses were saturated with magical words and phrases in that thing called literature.

I dare not delve deeper into the past. This much overwhelms me.

Going back to the past is like turning the clock back. It is a futile exercise. A world that seemed innocent and carefree existed because you were innocent and carefree. You had not experienced the ups and downs of life. Now, after a lifetime of joys, sorrows, successes, and failures, you are not the same person peeping at the past in a sad effort to snatch it back. “It’s a bloody rabbit hole,” as the mathematician Hardy said. The more you try to get it back, the more it eludes you.

(Published 22 October 2023, 18:17 IST)

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