by Raju Peddada
"While time and death turn life into a vacuum -- an emptiness; they also give life to inanimate objects that once were part of our experience, with the departed."
—Raju Peddada, 27 January, 2012
(Swans - February 27, 2012) Recently, I opened an old book, Drucker on Management, that I had purchased on Saturday, 11 November, 1981, in St. Lucia, only to find my dad's gray hair inside the cover. As I stared at this little strand of hair, it suddenly took the form of a rogue compass, which cartwheeled me through time to that sunny afternoon when I went with my dad to the book store in Castries where we bantered, browsed, and brought my book. Minutes later, we had sauntered over to the barber shop for our haircuts. He flipped through the book while waiting for me after the barber was done with him. His gray hair remained in the book for three decades, patiently waiting to trigger my nostalgia. I taped the hair in its place, sat down, and drifted away to that Caribbean day, on that paradise we called home from 1980-1983.
For some of us, even the smallest of objects can mean something as they transcend their material manifestation to symbolize our experience in a given time. What do the museums, the National Archives, and the Library of Congress represent? Emotional-historical value will always displace the material value, unless you are living on Enceladus.
I traveled to India in 1989, but sadly, my maternal grandmother passed away in the first week of October, three months before I arrived. This was a grand lady I wanted to see, a person that always appeared aged, but as a mature adult, I wanted feel her legendary aura, her divine presence; she who ran a homestead for fifty years, with sporadic income, and managed to raise eight good human beings. In 1991, I had for the first time come in contact with my four-year-old daughter in Wisconsin and drove every weekend from Chicago to be with her. It became an emotional tug-of-war after I had announced that I was leaving for India to see my grandfather.
Despite understandable protests, my roots drew me in. I left for India on the 5th of December, 1992, to visit my maternal grandfather, RBR, who was nearing 90. On that December day, at the O'Hare in Chicago, I walked right up to the gate after checking in with the airline. Those were the days when you could, with no effort, go through the airport like you would at your uncle's place with no questions asked, even if you inadvertently ended up on the tarmac. Air France gave me a free week in Paris, on my way to India, with a five-star hotel stay.
The Charles de Gaulle Airport was like the old Midway in Chicago. It looked architecturally anachronistic and overused. The first cultural shock came early when I trudged into a unisex washroom without recognizing the sign, immediately following my disembarkation. As I relieved myself, I heard two women cackling behind me. The effect of this was an involuntary nervous vascular contraction, made only worse by an exigent furtive stuffing of the penis back into my underwear, which again triggered an involuntary release of urine, in that zone of discomfort. Long story short, the inside right of my khaki trousers had a dark brown streak of drained urine, from the crotch to the hem, all of thirty-two inches. The sympathetic Punjabi janitor saw my expression, understood, and offered: "Munda... yeh bathroom to dono keliye heii," meaning "boy...this bathroom serves both genders." She was surprised by the five francs I gave her.
Inhibition squeezed me. I didn't want to change in the washroom with so many women now jamming the facility. These women spoke nonstop, as if in a lounge, with three men urinating right behind them. Privacy, I discovered, was certainly not a premium in Parisian toilets. Anyway, in my partially soaked trousers, I took a cab to the hotel Le Méridien. It was about 8:30 am, as I had lost almost two hours at the airport, with another 35 minutes in travel time ahead of us. I stank of piss, and the driver knew it -- turning around to look at me twice. I think it was because of my destination, Le Méridien, that he never did question me about the odor that permeated his new Peugeot 505. A ten-franc tip over the fare did bring about a reluctant smile. This bloody piss had already cost me fifteen francs.
In 1992, the twenty-year-old Méridien was decadently traditional, which turned me off, except for the delectable receptionist that looked like a twin of Isabelle Adjani. Her name was Béatrice, pronounced "Beaaatriss" with a diaphanous "T" in French. She had somehow succumbed to my weird midwestern-Asian charm and took me walking the three days she wasn't working in the Saint-Germain-des-Près area, and then driving to Rouen, the ancient capital of Normandy, 69 miles from Paris. There, we held hands, sat at the cafés, and walked the narrow medieval, yet incredibly romantic lanes of the old town, enveloped in her delicacy. Rouen was dense with history. A place where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. We also burned amorously as we promised the world to each other. And, while away in India, I thought of her every day -- international calling was a bitch, as we moved constantly. A month later, when I came back via Paris again, she was gone, without a trace. I could never find her again. A faint impression of her face wavers in my mind's eye. For a long time I avoided the sultry Bois-de-Violette fragrance, and Isabelle Adjani's films.
Today, Le Méridien is a veritable museum of modernity. My reason for staying at this hotel was predictable. It was walking distance from the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs-Elysées, the Eiffel Tower, the Avenue Montaigne, the Louvre, and Montmartre -- the typical tourist haunts. Today, my itinerary would be a little asymmetrical, in pursuit of such destinations as Henry Miller's and Richard Osborn's apartment; the old location of the Shakespeare and Company Book Store during 1919-41, where the pre-war literary artists like Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce sought refuge with the owner, Sylvia Beach; Natalie Barney's Literary Salon; and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. I would go on a pilgrimage to John Paul Jones's apartment, where he had died, and the place he was exhumed from, in 1906, by Horace Porter and the French authorities. I wouldn't dare go to Paris without reading at least six guidance books on it. And I would begin with Parisians by Graham Robb.
Now, allow me to skip directly to south India, especially Andhra Pradesh, from the cultural sophistication and metropolitan sophistry of Paris, to the naïve and primitive rural charm of an ancient culture, epitomized by my maternal grandfather. (Please refer to an earlier article I wrote titled "The Man They Called Baldy" published by Swans Commentary.) I was actually visiting a living monument of a bygone era, when men could rely on an individual's word. My brother had accompanied me as we traveled from New Delhi on a train, which in itself was a tale, making a detour into the Tirupati station on our way to Peddapuram. There, I videotaped a living relic of the past, a steam engine, in use in 1992! Looking at this hissing steam engine I again dissipated into a reverie, into the '60s, when we used to travel for two full days from New Delhi on the Grand-Trunk Express pulled by a WG class of steam locomotive to reach Kovvur station, where I could see my white-toga-clad grandfather leaning on his walking stick, waiting as we pulled onto the platform. Kovvur was the last stop after a five kilometer nerve-jangling bridge crossing on the mighty Godavari River.
My grandparents had moved to their older son's place in the '80s, RR, a doctor in chemistry, lecturing at the local college in Peddapuram. Upon our arrival, my grandfather and my aunt, Sheshagiri Pinni, walked to the front to receive us. When my eyes rested on my grandfather, what I saw was this emaciated, bespectacled, and wrinkled man, standing erect, with that same walking stick from decades ago, addressing me in his nasal-tobacco-tainted gruff masculine voice: Aaela unnavura baabu... chala kalam aiyindi ninnu choosi ("How are you my boy... haven't seen you in ages."). As a little boy in the '60s, I saw him as an intimidating giant with an air of invincibility. That day in December I saw equanimity, a sort of resignation that comes with age. A man who commanded the homestead, the village, and the region, and had elicited fear and reverence, had come to this. A detached backyard room... and for company, his youngest daughter, who had been handicapped since birth. Yet, I did not see any self pity; there was this resistance in him, a fight still left.
In the two days I stayed with him, he regaled me with his dry comments and his piercing sarcasm, like: "Does this taping machine make one younger?" after I had declared to him that "this is for posterity." I soaked up his voice. Earlier, in June of 1992, my uncle RR, the lecturer, was involved along with his wife in a horrifying accident that put him in a coma, with a head injury. This accident unraveled RBR. A man who had never shown any weakness, and was the rock of Gibraltar with emotions, according to my mother, broke down and wept continuously, asking everyone, who had passed by their gate, Na baabu bagunnada... televi vaccinda... aydena kaburu vaccinda? ("Is my boy OK... has he gained consciousness... any news at all?").
There was also an occasion, during their harrowing wait in June, for the news, when one day, RBR came, and suddenly sat right between the sisters on the verandah, who were dumbfounded and taken to see their father, so broken for some company. My mother, then 55, choked back her tears and for the first time in her life enjoyed this rare and unique proximity to her dad. A man, once legendary for his gumption and giving -- who was fiercely loyal and loving, who held court in his village -- now felt helplessly lonely. But, despite the experience of that summer, he now looked composed and stylish, devoid of diffidence, and having the presence of mind not to look at the camera while speaking... he was the consummate performer. A month later, after I had returned, he passed away at the end of January, 1993, on Rada-Saptami.
I had to find an overnighter in the basement for my mother's impending trip. So I extricated this gray Samsonite carry-on from the back and opened it, found nothing but the keys and a ballpoint pen, then, in the outside pocket, I found this faded Air France boarding pass, with this on it: "PEDDADA - 1VML - NS; 05 DEC - PAR Y - CDG - VOL - AF 034 - SIEGE 07K - PORTE 10 - EMBARQUEMENT HEURE 18H45." I stared at this 2.75" x 7" card for interminable seconds, sitting down on a carton under the light. About fifteen minutes later, I came out of it and went up to my library with this card. There I sat and swam in my memories again -- Paris Saint-Germain, Rouen, and Peddapuram... a fraction of which I shared above, with you all. I also realized that the separation with someone loved has a way of freezing our videos within the most mundane objects, making them suddenly dear. And the tandem of time and death have a way of giving life to seemingly the most insignificant things, like the boarding pass, which becomes an invaluable memento of my last visit to see RBR, and... that vanished promise of love.
If you find Raju Peddada's work valuable, please consider
Feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Raju Peddada 2012. All rights reserved.
Have your say
Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number (the city, state/country where you reside is paramount information). When/if we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.
About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)