Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Reunion

It is a good dictum, probably borne out by experience, that says: ‘Never return to a place in your personal history that you have fond memories of.’ 


Human memory is selective. We remember the good bits that happened to us. We filter out the not-so-good or the downright bad parts. That’s probably the explanation for the oft repeated view most people have of the songs and movies ‘in our days’; they are always ‘the best’. Never mind that on any objective and unbiased view there were many things that made us unhappy or left us dissatisfied.


But returning to a place many years later carries the risk of disenchantment. Our memory of it is static, frozen at a time of our selective choosing, while in reality the place we romanticize about has moved on, changed as much as we have, kept up with the times, probably better than we have. The asymmetry between what we expect to see and what we find can be baffling, unsettling, even disillusioning.


So should I return to my old school later this week when I plan to travel to Bilaspur,  the second city of the state of Chattisgarh? For better or worse I am committed and so I thought it would be as well to capture my memories in words before reality hits.


Railway ‘colonies’ in small towns in India were and still are set apart from the rest of the country. Indian Railways is a remarkable organisation; a state run monolith, it not only knits the country together physically and geographically, but also brings together people from all backgrounds, languages, and cultures into a workforce ’family’. And like a family it provides for its own:  doctors and nurses to work in its hospitals, teachers to run the schools it maintains for the children of railway workers, and cultural clubs and institutes for staff and their families. 


In most railway towns you could set off on foot from from the railway station, pass the railway school, drop in at the railway hospital, have a cup of tea in the official canteen in the railway management offices, play a game of badminton or tennis in the railway officer’s club, take in a film at the railway institute. Without breaking sweat. All the while you would walk on narrow single lane black top roads, pass neat rows of terraced houses with curtained windows, and large officers’ bungalows with neat lawns set in expansive grounds.


If you’ve read John Masters’ Bhowani Junction or seen the 1956 film of the same name you would know what a railway township looked like.


Bilaspur was  such a town when I was in school in the 1950s and 60s in what was then the South Eastern Railway – one of 9 zonal Railways. It was a small school and it grew along with me. It was only a middle school at one time but when I was in the senior most year the authorities decided to expand it into a high school by adding on a further year. So for the next 3 years, I remained in the senior year. 

In the graduating class there were only 11 of us.  We effectively worked alongside the teachers; I remember in the final year we spent the first few weeks practically setting up the chemistry and physics labs: We prepared bottles of 0.1 normal solutions hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide, unpacked Bunsen burners, variable rheostats, and vernier calipers,  set up  weighing balances. It was fun, more a sense of adventure and involvement and enterprise than of dull and uninteresting lessons.  

And  after school we’d play volleyball with the teachers since neither they nor we had the numbers to make 2 teams. My memory of the library is that it was small but totally accessible and unstaffed. There were no rules; it ran on of trust.  I remember reading both the volumes of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short stories and books. 

Sport was not my thing. Did I make a contribution to the school? Not much, I think but I did at least set up a nascent debating society and recall organising at least one debate. I don’t remember that it was a success.


Evenings were spent in the Railway Officers Club, playing endless table tennis and badminton. I also read every week, cover to cover, Time, and Life magazines; the regular newspapers were from Calcutta (now Kolkata - where South-Eastern Railway had its head quarters); The Statesman, and Ananda Bazar Patrika. It was the mid-sixties and even in small town Bilaspur our sheltered life in school and club was not immune from the major news events of the times: Nehru dying in 1964; the brief war with Pakistan in 1965, and the sudden, unexpected  death of the diminutive Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in Tashkent in 1966, and the killing of  Martin Luther King in 1968.  But if there was one story that dominated the international news at the time it was Vietnam. I am ashamed to admit that at the time, no doubt owing to what I read, I was suckered into believing that the American GIs were the heroes saving the world from the communist inspired Vietcong.  Not even the now iconic picture of the little naked girl running towards the camera, her back burned with napalm, terror twisting her face into a contortion of pain, awoke me to the real horror and tragedy and injustice of a war unleashed on a small poor country by the richest, most powerful military-industrial nation; such is the power of slanted news coverage, such is the gullibility of a young reader with the more immediate preoccupations of life in a small railway township. Somethings at least don't change: half a century on and America is still at war, the terror and the tragedy and the injustice is, if anything, greater.


I remember too being fascinated by the record player they had in the club; it had an automatic mechanical record changer, so you could place a stack of vinyl records and each would slide into place in turn. Doris Day’s Que Sera Sera, and Connie Francis’  Never on a Sunday were two songs  that played almost continuously. Maybe they were popular at the time, maybe they were the only two records they had; more likely the selective filter of my memory has blotted out all the other songs we heard on that record player.

It is with this mental imagery that, in a couple of days, I shall venture forth into the past; not under any illusions about expecting to see what I remember, but it would be nice at least to find, however improbably, the library where I last left it, or the record player still standing. But then perhaps I should have asked someone at the time to explain to me what Doris Day meant when she sang Que sera sera. 

5 comments:

  1. Fantastic trip down memory lane, Nagaraj! And it is a stroke of genius that you have documented all this before you actually go. A follow up blog on the reality that hit you there would be the logical sequel!

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  2. Brilliantly put ! You have echoed my sentiments !

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