House of Memory


Often, a building ceases to be mere brick and mortar. The cold, concrete cement assumes radiant warmth. As its walls begin to feel human breath, and its floors bear the gentle weight of our footsteps, the lifeless structure begins to throb with the sound of laughter and joy.

Often, a building becomes an integral part of us. It springs to life with a soul, and an overwhelming bond grows between the pile of stones and mortals like us.

The other night, a friend telephoned me to say that the two-storey building I called my home in Calcutta for well over a quarter century was pulled down.

I was overwhelmed with nostalgia, perhaps much in the same way most of us grow fond of their dwellings or localities. If I could have empathised with those poor folks about to lose the roofs over their heads in, for instance, Mani Ratnam’s “Nayakan”, I could certainly do so with the 102-year-old woman, who, along with hundreds of others, stood in a candlelight vigil over her beloved Queen Mary’s College in Madras some time ago.

She must have been, that night, tormented by a beautiful memory. As I am now.

My memories of Calcutta and my home still endure, memories of a life that strolled by in a more leisurely era when men had time for stimulating “adda” (small talk) over endless earthen cups of steaming “chai” (tea).

Even as I watched from the balcony of my home streetcars unhurriedly rattle on melted tar to their various destinations, I could see clusters of men animatedly discuss (probably) anything from the historic moonlanding to disastrous Vietnam to Ray’s poetic “Charulata” to the “life-threatening” price of “maach” (fish), a delicacy no Bengali could stay away from.

It was a balcony with a view to a city life filled with moments of agony and ecstasy. Boy, was I not frightened to see through the Venetian slits of my window police teargas students in the dead of night at the height of youth unrest in the mid-1960s. Some of them, I vividly recollect, hid inside a small restaurant across my road. As the cops looked around, I prayed that the breath of those youngsters with a dream in their eyes should not give them away. My sympathies clearly lay with the fugitives, at least that night.

This was my view that hot and humid night many, many years ago, a view that was perhaps shaped by my house that I called my home, the cement and sand structure that moulded my beliefs in my very formative years.

I do not know whether my “ideals” have held on as I now move from one step to another. Higher and Higher. Maybe. For, I am not so sure that the bliss of today is any greater than the innocence of boyhood, the hope of just sheer hope.

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