A blast from the past!

Don’t you some times feel that your mind is like a compartment? That there are these layered boxes stacked on top of each other? Each box filled with its own unique mysterious contents, sometimes things you are unaware of yourselves? Each unfolding its mystery at unexpected moments when you are looking away, displaced to a new place or memory. That life sometimes throws so many little experiences our way that if our brain is unable to deal with them immediately, it stores or archives them for later reference. And these stored moments suddenly confront us when we least expect them to?
(image: the walk through life is filled with mysteries)

When I closed my eyes, I did not know,
Images will come tumbling over,
Things I had buried deep in my mind,
Will unravel themselves and change my life...

Such were some of my musings when I recently bought a new oven. As probably is the case with most people who buy an oven, I decided that my first experiment would be cake! And so off I went, to assemble an array of items that will give shape to my dream delicacy. Once back from the grocery store, I laid down the master plan in front on the table, and lined up the little items against each step and phase, unaware that very soon my senses were going to be slapped by a blast from the past. As soon as the dough went inside the machine, the house was swamped with nostalgia like nobody’s business.

Back came the Britannia ‘double-roti’ from my childhood sliced in half through its thin paper cover by the uncle as my dad picked up packets of milk  to go along with it. On rare days when we had a guest or my mom had plans to make ‘bread-pakodas / cutlets’, my dad did not get the bread cut into half and came home with the whole trophy. Couple years before, when we were still getting milk from the dairy in exchange for a token, in a steel tumble, my dad would pick a pre-cut loaf from the same shop since the uncle knew at what time my dad would pass by.

(image: the ethereal mother dairy)

On days even before, when we got fresh milk delivered at home, before the days when it was pumped with so much water that we found it difficult to figure if it was water mixed milk or vice versa, the bread was still a permanent fixture at our breakfast table. So each morning, waking up, in whatever milk era we were in, the first smell that assaulted the senses of us brothers and sisters was fresh bread. Loaded with butter, whether toasted or not, and dipped in tea, it made for a wholesome satisfying breakfast any day of the year. On special days, we got jams of various colors in Kissan glass bottles and poured them on our bread, only to gulp it down later with bournvita or boost or juice. Bread in all its glory somehow now seems the personification of most of my childhood mornings / breakfasts. Coated with ghee and sugar on some occasions and mint chutney on some other, it was comfort food through and through.

(image: bread is my ultimate comfort food)

And so, when my newly acquired oven brought back a splash of memories that wet my insides with memories piled somewhere inside me, I did not know how to react at all! It was like compartments had opened inside me that I had forgotten about. We do eat bread now, all the time but whether it is the general pace of my life now or the quality of processing that has started going into all food items, this kind of freshly baked smell I do not remember noticing. And after a night of beautiful dreams, I decided to unravel my own house, and hence my own mind. I knew there were bittersweet yearnings and impressions hidden everywhere and all it needed was for me to unlock them. So I decided was to journal all the little things I notice at various places in my house but did not give much attention to so far.

If a loaf of bread in the oven
Can reveal numerous bittersweet yearnings,
I could not wait to unlock possibilities,
Hidden in each corner of my home...

The first thing I wrote down in my journal happened while I took a bath (of course I wrote after finishing my bath, silly!). Though my bath counter is stacked with fancy crème washes, bath liquids and gels, nothing beats the familiarity of a pink lux bar soap. Scrubbing it all over myself not only helps me obviously feel clean; it brings back another beautiful torrent from childhood – being woken up my father before anyone in the world woke up because our stupid school sent its buses at a godforsaken early hour, then shaken into awakening by my mother, forced to brush our teeth and finish toilet. All this was followed by that holy ritual – for the first few years being washed by our mother with the elixir of beauty – lux – and later once we grew old washing ourselves with it. Somehow over the years the smell of lux became my benchmark of cleanliness, without realizing why. In the years that have followed they have reinvented themselves, and come up with many different colors and fragrances, but the original pink with its trademark fragrance evokes emotions in me like nothing else.

At the breakfast table, along with my favorite comfort food as you know by now – the evergreen bread, I had stuffed parathas. With the parathas, I had butter and pickle, and here I found my next muse. The tangy colorful mango pickle took me down the next lane of memories. This time it was my naani (mother’s mother) chopping kachha aam (raw green mango) into tiny pieces and then putting it to pickle on her terrace. All of us visiting her for our holidays would sit around her awed by the expertise with which she did everything, the speed, the accuracy, the beauty, the grace, the love. Along with the pickles would be different kids of papads, made with all different kinds of ingredients – the most delicious and my all time person favorite being her trademark aaloo papads. After a few days of waiting with bated breath, the pickles would turn out to be sumptuous and luscious and all of us cousins would lap them down with gusto.

(image: tangy aromatic pickle)

As my day progressed, I realized that some of my strongest memories come to me when I smelled something that reminded me of something from the past. I realized that so much treasure form my past was stored primarily as a sensory experience and recalled every time that sense was activated. While I had my breakfast, my dear maid cleaned my house in the background and instantly I had my next wave of nostalgia. The phenyl we bought this time was something new and its smell mixed with water being mopped around the house instantly transported me back to my school corridors. Every morning running to the classroom before and after assembly prayers, I remember soaking in the sharp smell of phenyl all around the school. Cleaned regularly for a bunch of unruly school kids, my school was not one of the best places for me plagued that I was with lots of anxieties, complexes that time. And so now, this fresh odor in my house reminded me of so many nervous days when I would have had a fight with somebody / bullied by somebody in the class because I was not part of a ‘clique’ / ‘cool gang’ or pressure to be the smartest one in studies / wit and even looks! Yes, believe it or not, a young child’s school life can be very harrowing, inundated with tones of worries and angst :)

(image: the odor of phenyl tells a thousand stories)

Later on, sitting on the terrace in the late afternoon, a waft of tulsi drifted in from somewhere. A plant that was a permanent fixture in the lobby during my childhood, it had myriad of purposes. Added to tea if somebody was not well, prayed to on special days of the year and sometimes rarely added as a leaf to a food item (mostly for a holy purpose – never ever as seasoning in the form of basil leaves! That would be sacrilege!) The impact this experience had on me was indescribable. Instantly I was transported into that little bedroom in that old house where three brothers lived together with wives and children. A narrow alley leading to three bedrooms, each with a tiny attached hall / store room along with a common kitchen that was later broken down into three smaller ones because the sisters-in-law had enough of each others’ eccentricities. This tiny house where I spent most of my childhood was right there before my eyes, with the tiny tulsi plant right in the center as I walked down the staircase.

(image: tulsi plant at the center of the courtyard)

In the evening as I sat down after dinner to note down these observations and impressions from the day, I could not help as a few tears slipped down my eyes. Usually I'm the one for drama, but believe me these tears were devoid of any drama – they were simple expressions of ‘homecoming’. Suddenly having confronted so many moments from the past, I felt re-born and re-energized. Nostalgic memories that had left prints on my mind’s clay but were boxed somewhere had been brought out, dusted and re-arranged in new places inside my head. There was a combination of joy of what once was and a twinge of regret that it is no longer. I was never so fully aware that a faint fragrance can bring a memory of a long-lost moment in time crashing back to the forefront of my minds with such force. I was never so fully aware that such an unreachable corner of my brain existed and was capable of giving me so much joy!

Believe me when I tell you
Nostalgic memories can be magical,
They unlock the positive power of old experiences,
And bring back what you thought is lost.

Before I close the blog post, I want to share a classic example that was described by Marcel Proust in the first volume of his novel A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu (English translation Remembrance of Things Past). The aroma of madeleine dipped in tea evoked in the author a flood of memories and feelings of nostalgia. Here’s Marcel Proust, explaining the madeleine:

“When from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

(This post is written as part of ambipur's wonderful contest. Check out here for more excitement!)


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