Vidya Balachander

Rarely does a day go by when I don’t think of my childhood home – and miss it. I grew up in the utterly unremarkable little town of Ratlam in central India, best known for being a railway junction and for making a cameo appearance in Jab We Met. Nothing stirred in sleepy Ratlam, not even the curly-horned ram that stood motionless under a railway bridge, in the same spot day after day.

In the blazing summer months, the already lazy town would envelop its residents in an even more profound stupor. Businesses would shut shop after lunch, and when the wheezing cooler filled with khus-scented water failed to douse the 45 degree blaze, we would pour cold water on the mosaic floors and sleep fitfully in the afternoon. The hot, dry wind called loo would blow through in these months, and everything would acquire a fine patina of dust.

Yet, this inconspicuous town, oblivious to the urgencies of big city life, held a magical appeal for my four-year-old self. I grew up as the youngest grandchild in a sprawling home of septuagenarian grandparents, granduncles and aunts, smothered by their special brand of love. It wasn’t a childhood filled with material comforts, except for a large, open home, with enough room to accommodate the busy, make-believe world of a toddler.

My earliest playmate was my grandfather, Thatha – I taught him the alphabet, armed with a wooden ruler…

There was enough space for me to freely spread out my treasure of heirloom, miniature copper utensils and pretend to play house or arrange a few vegetables on a bed sheet and imagine I was a street vendor. My grandma would unfailingly stop by to ‘buy’ a brinjal or bring a steady supply of treats from the kitchen to complete the domestic fantasy.

I happily wore hand-me-downs from older cousins, and never missed playing with Barbies so long as I had the tamarind tree in the verandah, drooping under the weight of its sweet fruit, and the garden with mango and jamun trees out back, where my Alsatian puppy first learned to hunt squirrels.

My earliest playmate was my grandfather, Thatha – I taught him the alphabet, armed with a wooden ruler, and he would deliberately trip up just so he could earn my reprimand. My granduncle, Motu to me, whisked me away on his Kinetic Honda to kindle a lifelong love affair with street food, secretly plying me with the samosas and kachoris that my grandparents frowned upon.

My grandaunt, Akka Mami, would allow me the indulgence of tasting her mango pickle long before it had fully matured, and when I complained about being hungry in the dead of the night, my grandmother, Pati, would unfailingly warm up some milk with two teaspoons of sugar stirred in, because she couldn’t abide the thought of a child going to sleep hungry.

When I was very little, Thatha would return from business trips, clad in his grey safari suit, bearing gifts of still-warm and flaky khari biscuits for me. I remember waking up in the middle of the night to receive him, and the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled at me. I remember how Pati’s clover-shaped diamond nose pin caught the evening light as she admired the fiery Gulmohar blossoms on our terrace, and how the refracted radiance of the gems seemed to heighten her own.

It was a snug and perfectly content life, snuggling up between my grandparents every night, and waking up feeling utterly safe and incredibly loved.

I miss crisp winter mornings spent walking our puppy, and the way the gentle fragrance of eucalyptus hung in the tree-lined roads. I miss the fragrance of basmati rice at lunch, the banter at teatime, and the crackle of the transistor as it came to life with the evening news, just before dinner time. It was a snug and perfectly content life, snuggling up between my grandparents every night, and waking up feeling utterly safe and incredibly loved.

The treasures of my childhood were of the wholly intangible kind and yet, they enriched me in ways that I am still discovering, all these decades later. Everywhere I have gone since Ratlam, in each of the half-a-dozen cities where I have lived and every home I have occupied, I have found myself longing for that ideal, sharpened by the un-cynical innocence of childhood – and felt its absence viscerally.

The Portuguese describe the melancholy of missing most beautifully – they call it saudade or constant yearning. But I’m still looking for a word to define the unique melancholy that comes from goodbyes, growing up, and moving on. How do you describe the grief that comes with memories growing distant? What do you call the tender spot in your heart that your grandparents once occupied? Is it possible to ever stop yearning for a lost home?


4 thoughts on “Saudade

  1. A lovely poignant piece. I could almost ‘smell’ the food being described as an image in sepia floated across. Keep writing Vidya. I sense there is a lot more good stuff waiting to pour itself out!

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