Visiting Own Youth
The year I became 60, I got a chance to go back to my home where I had spent about 15 years of my childhood, adolescence and youth until the age of 22.
This time I was more like a tourist myself. I was also a kind of a tourist-guide for my Danish girlfriend and a common friend from Italy, who were visiting India for the first time. They really wanted to see my childhood home, even though no one from my family have been living there for more than 20 years. Deep inside, I also wanted to visit my own youth “back home” in Amritsar, while living in old age “abroad”.
Jallianwalla Bagh and Harimandir Sahib – the Golden Temple – are less than 1 km from my home. Each and every cell of my body still carries the visuals, the smells, and the sounds of those narrow, winding crowded dirty streets of the city, and the cleanliness, freshness, peace and gurbani-keertan-music of the Harimandir.
Walking through the gates of the locality where my home was, and reaching near the front gate of the house, made me feel as if I was back in the days of my childhood more than 40 years ago. But I could not recognize anyone in any of the shops on the street, although they all looked the same as they were then.
Just in front of my home, I saw the shop of a tailor master – the same old shop. An elderly man was sitting there alone working on a sewing machine. Our eyes met and I greeted him with a “Sat-Sri-Akal-ji”, and added “Do you recognize me?”. And three seconds later the reply came: “Of course, you are Shashi…”.
I had returned…! I had never gone away…!!
My girlfriend was crying. Our common friend was crying. I was silent – yet.
The old man was the same young teenager, a bit older than me of 40 years ago. The other two shops next to my home – a general store and a washer-man’s shop – had two younger men watching us with curiosity. The tailor master told me that they were the sons of the earlier owners who had passed on some time ago.
“Knock, knock, knock – I knocked at the front gate of the house.
A couple of eternities passed, and I was about to knock at it again when someone opened the gate. A man of about 40-45 wearing not-so-clean trousers, a woolen sweater and a cap stood there. When I told him that, once upon a time, I used to live in that house and that I wanted to see it again from the inside, he just smiled and gave us the way with a gesture of welcoming – no surprise, no questions, no hesitation.
It was all the same – the courtyard, the walls, the dry toilet in the corner. What was missing was the tall Jamun tree which must have been cut down at some stage. I used to sleep under that tree in the summer time and day-dream.
I entered the first big room which, once, was our main multi-purpose room. The same uneven black and white tiles on the floor. The same darkness, humidity and the winter-chill inside. There was no other furniture there. Not even a chair. Only a cotton carpet spread on the floor on which some newspapers, scissors, glue and thread were scattered. Perhaps the man was making paper-bags for his living. Otherwise, the room was almost totally empty. The adjoining second room, a smaller one, was similarly devoid of any life or things, except a single unmade bed.
We used to be 9 persons living there – we four brothers and three sisters and our parents. One of my elder brothers had killed himself there, my mother had died a year or two after this, and my other brothers and sisters moved away for jobs one by one. I was the last one to move out leaving my father to live there alone for another couple of years, before he moved to another city after the Blue Star, to live with my elder sister.
I could see the framed black-and white pictures of my parents and grand-parents on the wall. I saw the old colonial clock on the wall. I saw our book-shelf over-loaded with books. I saw my father’s white kurta-pajama-turban hanging in a corner. I saw the almirah where I use to keep my books and clothes. I walked towards that wooden almirah, and just as I was about to open it, my mobile phone rang…
It was my eldest brother calling from another town about 250 km away. When I told him where I was and what I was about to do, there was a total silence from his side. I don’t know how long it stayed like that, but then I heard him take a deep breath and a cough, and I could feel the lump in his throat – that is when my dam bursted.
I did not feel embarrassed or ashamed. I actually felt good about it. I felt I had met my youth. Everything was exactly the same. Everything was totally different. The house was full of life. There was nothing alive there anymore. I would love to relive my life there. I will never come to that place again. My time-travel is over.
The road to Jallianwalla Bagh and the Golden Temple was all transformed. There was almost nothing to go back to. The long ques to enter the garden areas of Jallianwalla Bagh stopped me from searching for my father and his friend sitting near the fountain while I and my younger sister will run around playing hide and seek.
The area outside the Golden Temple was all “beautified” and modernized. The noise from the souvenir shops and the tourism touts drowned any sounds of memory. I will not even try to find the crumbling old building of a printing press where my father used to work. Inside the temple, hordes of tourists self-obsessed in taking selfies; the noisy sounds of keertan translated into subtitles running across big screens; the bridge to the sanctum sanctorium overcrowded and tightly regulated; the glittering shine of gold gold and more gold all around. My Harimandir was nowhere.
Living in old age, I don’t need to be there where my youth was. Let it be there as it once was. Let me keep seeing it from within – if I dare, if I can, if I should….