Divining the Past - Amit Shah
“Memoir is not an act of history but an act of memory, which is innately corrupt.” ~ Mary Karr
There is nothing like perfect recall. That’s a scientific fact. It would follow that there’s no perfect remembering either. We know that eyewitness accounts are suspect for infallible recounting of the original. As experts maintain, there’s a difference between malleability and reliability. Childhood memories are often of emotional and coherent memories that binds the durability. What we remember and how often is of great consequence to our adult lives. It’s the narrative arc of our lives.
I can’t remember many cloudy and rain-soaked days of my childhood. This from a Bengali boy growing up less than 70 miles from the Bay of Bengal delta where the monsoons sent sheets upon blinding sheets of rains each year!
One such day (was it a weekend or simply a weekday evening?) was when the sky was a deep gray green and the rain was falling faster and faster, straight down and landing with splotchy phlat phlat, creating a muddy heaven on the grassy fields across from my house, the playing fields at the blind school in Behala. I remember being on one of the fields playing with a soccer ball, dribbling, kicking, chasing, and back-footing, bare feet, in the torrent, glasses barely functional and soaked to my skin. Why? I have no memory. What’s the narrative here? I wanted to escape my parents’ squabbling in the house? I wanted to do something alone? I was doing something that most adults wouldn’t do? Whatever, it was, it was emotional and coherent in its pleasure that I retained all these years.
We would angle northwest out of Kolkata in the dead of the night to avoid the traffic, especially the long-distance trucks and head toward Hazaribagh via the Grand Trunk Road ( known then as G.T. Road), which wound its way through narrow roads past jute mills alongside the Hooghly River.
The Grand Trunk Road is of Kiplingesque renown. For a few thousand years it fused Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent as the major trade route. It was rumored in my family that my ancestors traveled from the Punjab to north Bengal along this highway and eventually converted from Islam to Christianity in the early part of the 19th century. ( To establish that as fact will be another day). Nowadays, the G.T. Road is a part of a series of national highways, laned and svelte where BMWs, Mercedes trucks and Indian Maruti Suzuki Balemos, Tata Safari SUVs and Nissan Kicks jockey for lane positions.
I cherished these long-distance drives, usually at the beginning of the summer and then again on the return trips about five to six weeks later. Going is always more thrilling and hopeful than returning. We were all happy as a family. No fights. No squabbles. No tensions. Just anticipation for each of our private destinations.
Without modern highways, the truckers dominated the road, and passenger cars slid off the tarmacadam to the sometimes-precipitous edge of the gravel path before the drop to the paddy fields or forested brush. There were no roadside motels or restaurants, only government PWD (public works department) bungalows from the colonial days when the tax collector or the district administrator went on tour and needed lodgings. In post-independence India, these were rented to the public, but arrangements had to be made in advance. The dhabas by the side of the road were for truckers and you could get huge portions of rotis and vegetables and dal for a few rupees. There was a charpoy or two, coir-netting on wooden frames for a quick nap any time during the day or night. Plus, the tea was spiked with country alcohol. You said “60” or “100” (meaning kilometers, the distance you needed to stay awake for) and the strength of alcohol would be measured out. The romance of the highway is always enticing when you don’t have to be a long-distance trucker in India in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
The coalfields of Dhanbad behind us, we’d speed along the Chota Nagpur plateau, at one of its highest points, in Palamau district, where Parashnath Hill was at about 4,000 feet. The plateau was the northeastern part of the Deccan Plateau, which was where Eurasia and India nicked each other. Tropical and subtropical forests girded the place names that have a Proustian flicker still--Koderma, Topchanchi, Netarhat. Today, deforestation for grazing land and mining by private corporations are changing the landscape beyond my imagination.
One night, we blew out two tires ( can’t remember which ones) in quick succession. With a spare, we still needed to repair the other one and not risk a puncture far from the villages. Plus, And the tire that was on needed air badly.
We asked around at the trucker tea stalls. Yes, there was a “fixer,” but it was late, and he was probably drunk for the night. So, the decision was made to take the tube out of the tire and stuff it with straw so that it would ( would it?) go for a mile or two to another tire fixer’s village. I imagine it worked out as I don’t remember beyond that.
Another time, this time during the day, about 40 to 50 miles out of Hazaribagh, the carburetor started leaking profusely. Cork gaskets were needed, and we had none. I have to say my dad impressed me no end that day when he said we’d take all the soap we could scrounge out of our luggage and melt it slightly and cake the carburetor’s casing. Then he’d drive as fast as he could till the engine would start stuttering and then we’d stop and repeat the soap-caking maneuver.
I stuck my arm out of the back seat car window, carefree, unafraid, and unworried, as my dad gunned the engine and sped toward home and safety. I trusted that. There wasn’t a doubt. That’s what adults did. They made do. They melted soap and caked the carburetors where the gaskets should’ve been.
Amit Shah, a retired publishing executive, lives in Somerville, Massachusetts and has recently published a collection of essays "Instincts of Beauty."His previous work has appeared in small-press magazines Thimble Lit, The Bluegraph Press, The Raven’s Perch, and Turnstile. His book reviews, feature articles, and interviews have appeared in Louisville Courier-Journal, Publishers Weekly, Small Press Magazine, Cineaste, and Outlook.