The Pictures in Mamabari

I spent the bottom half of my childhood (meaning the birth end) at my uncle’s place. My uncle from my mother’s side. Actually it was my Mom’s house, but since in India sons don’t move out when they marry, that’s also where my uncle lives. A maternal uncle is what you call Mama in Bengali. House is called bari. So my uncle’s house is Mamabari. The house was not at all sophisticated or anything. It was an old house, on quite a bit of land. But half of that land was a garden-turned-jungle. We used to call it a jungle. The rest was this poor old unsophisticated house full of poor unsophisticated things.

Now, there used to be quite a number of pictures on the walls in different rooms in mamabari. Among a lot of things in that house, these pictures also had a place in my childhood and so they come to the mind sometimes. They used to be special. I decided to write about them today after being reminded about them by an incident.

There were only two floors in the house. I will start with the first.

When you walked up the staircase to the first floor and emerged into a sort of living room space, on the wall right opposite was a photograph. As far as I remember, it was a photograph and not a painting. The photograph was of a group of zebras lowering their heads and drinking from a water-hole. The photograph was clicked from the opposite side of the water body. I don’t know if it’s just my memory colouring these images, but I remember the water was a sort of baby blue, and the zebras were of course black and white. There was quite a number of zebras in that photograph. Around twenty I guess. The photograph was old and framed in an old frame and hung above the door to the present kitchen.

I don’t know what has happened to this photo now. Maybe it is still there, I don’t remember.

Then I guess (this one’s a lot more vague) there was a painting from some old Indian story, probably Shakuntala or Ramayan. It was a forest scene, and there was a woman and a number of deer. It was a dark-colour based photo with the scene being shown in light colours. It was very tranquil. I am really not sure of this photo. I might even be making this one up, but I think it was there.

Then downstairs, there used to be a tiny little room at the corner of the house facing the ‘jungle’. It had two doors, one going into another room of the house, and the other opening on to the jungle, and two little windows. It used to be a favourite spot of mine. The house has gone through a lot of structural changes, and I think, I am almost sure, that the door going into the house was blocked and a new one made that opened into a different, more inner, room.

The reason this room was a favourite was because Mama used to work there. I don’t remember what work. But he had an old typewriter then (no typewriter ever looks young) and used to do something on it. There was also his old Hero (or Hercules) cycle, that shares a lot of its old memories with mine. Mama used to unlock the cycle with his key and prop it up on its rear stands so I could sit down next to it and turn the pedal with my hand and watch the rear wheel spin. That used to be a nice pastime for me.

Anyway, this little room Mama had decorated with some little pictures of his. Cut-outs from newspapers and the like. Small photos. At the jungle-side corner there was a Bruce Lee photo, flexing his muscles, and a bloody scratch on his chest. I think the scratch was actually three scratches side-by-side, as if from three fingers.

On another wall, above the table where the typewriter was kept, there was a small photo of a tiger. A Royal Bengal tiger, I guess, sitting in jungle grass. And then I guess another similarly-sized photo of some Indian historical building. I don’t remember that because I wasn’t too interested in that. And somehow it always seemed to me to be odd, against all the other photos, that were all in some way or the other about strength and fighting and a youthfulness that Mama still has.

Above the new door, into the house, there used to then hang a small photo, but framed this time, I guess, which I used to like a lot, and which I just love now. It was a photo full of white, with only a black speck. The white was a huge, colossal field of snow, and the black speck was an explorer in snow gear, standing on the snow and looking out at the horizon. The photo was shot from his back. It was the photo of one man’s stand against the hardships that nature could offer. There was a powerful spirit of adventure in that photo.

All these photos in Mama’s room are now gone. They aren’t there any more. I don’t know where to look for them.

Then, lastly, the photo in another ground floor room, that I guess holds the biggest space in my heart.

It was also a pretty small room, and I usually remember it dark. This maybe because even if you opened its two windows, not enough light from the jungle side could filter in to make that room bright. The photograph, or painting, was on the left wall immediately after you entered the room through the door. I don’t remember whether it was a photograph or a painting, so let’s call it a picture.

I remember that the picture showed a long extension of a path, in the nighttime. It might have been a path, but I think it was most probably railway tracks. The picture was very dark, in the night, and whatever could be seen was mostly based on blue. This track went a long way forward and vanished in the distance. I don’t think the observer was standing in the middle of the tracks, but was off to a side, the left side. Then I remember there was a ghostly and fuzzy bluish light blob hanging in front, to the left of the track. It might have been a lamppost. I don’t remember.

I used to like this picture a lot. It used to give me a lot of strange thoughts about what place it was, where the tracks were going, and such other childhood romantic fantasies. I used to go into the room and watch it, I guess.

This picture is also lost now. I asked about it in mamabari, but nobody could say anything.

Then, a few years back, a strange thing happened that brought my memory of this particular picture back.

I read a story called Midnight Express by Alfred Noyes, in a book called 100 Ghost Stories, I guess, which I borrowed from a friend called Prithviraj. Here’s a link to the story. It won’t take any time to read it. In this story, there was mention of a picture that was very similar to my picture, and a little boy who could not bear looking at it. Except for the man under the lamppost, which my picture did not have, the rest was strikingly similar. I also got hooked to the story, not just because of the connection, but also due to its own merit, and I typed it down on my computer before I returned the book. I lost the typed file later because of some disk crash or something like that. Then today I just thought of searching online for the story, and I found that website. I read through it, and it gave me the urge to write down about the pictures of mamabari.

A lot of things have changed about mamabari and its inhabitants, and everything just isn’t the same any more, and not just because I’ve grown up. What remain are such bits and pieces, vignettes and little anecdotes about a childhood that was so mine, that was so mine because if it had been different, today here I would be a different man. I don’t know, I can never be sure, of how much of the memories are facts, and how much my imagination is painting, and there’s no way to find out because it is gone now, and one of those things there’s no use being sad over. But you keep getting sad about it.

I am sure, however, about the existence of this picture, and I would love to take another look at it and see what it was really like. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that. If I am, I’ll try to tell you.

Thanks for listening.


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