Memory lane: The big  nostalgia of small things

We accumulate and discard many things over our lifetime, but some stay with us for long. As more expats and migrants move across cities, countries and continents, such items survive the peregrinations and emerge 
often to revive memories of home, family or events from a bygone era.



By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Sat 29 Jan 2022, 10:32 PM

August 15, 2018, was just another day. The sun was out early, the London air  was crisp and warm, and the day ahead was light, work-wise, since it was India’s 
Independence Day and a holiday in my former  office in New Delhi. Before dealing with some long postponed tasks, I went through the usual social media accounts and news websites. Soon, a ping and a post arrived: a message from a friend and a news alert, about the passing away of the former Indian cricket captain, Ajit Wadekar, in Mumbai, aged 77.

Many cricket lovers like me have been put off by commerce and compromise on the field in recent years, but Wadekar held a special place on my cricket radar, and the news triggered a memory that involved a unique ballpoint pen. It was given to me by Wadekar, who worked for the State Bank of India (SBI), when he opened my first bank account in 1971. That memory and its context unfolded vividly on the day, as I scurried around the house and scoured for hours to find the pen in likely and unlikely places.

India was in a tizzy when Wadekar’s team beat England in England in 1971. Soon after the team returned home to an ecstatic welcome, he travelled to Panaji, Goa. Days before he arrived, I, like millions of cricket fans at the time, was riveted to the crackling radio, listening to the commentary on short-wave that brought alive the magic of India’s win in the third Test at The Oval. When Wadekar arrived in Panaji, word went around that he would be at SBI’s main branch near the Betim ferry terminal, and school teachers gave children time off to go to the branch to open bank accounts.

I was in Class 5 in Lyceum, the Portuguese-era school in Altinho (today it houses the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court). The significance of India’s first-ever series win in England was not entirely clear then, but many of us stood excitedly in line to meet the great man, clutching five-rupee notes in hand. Wadekar sat at a desk as, one by one, we approached him. He asked me my name, wrote it on a fresh pass book, signed it at the bottom of the first page, and handed it to me with a smile. He also gave me the ballpoint pen shaped as a cricket bat, with his signature printed across its blade. The ink ran out after some days, but it was a prized possession among peers: who had the bat-pen and who didn’t was a matter of prestige. It was with me until recently, but I just could not find it — which remains a deep regret.

Items like the bat-pen conjure memory and connection across time, with text and context, infused with biographies of their own that include individuals associated with them over time: it could be an old photograph, an old painting that hung around your family house for generations, a quilt stitched together with mother’s saris, a hand-written notebook by an ancestor, a book used by grandfather with his sign and the date of 1917, a portable typewriter that has seen better days, a decrepit audio cassette recorder, or a much-used manual sewing machine that is long obsolete.

Such items, inherited as family heirlooms, collected or used often in a point of time, represent more than just their object-ness; they become a device of reflection, illuminating the past, present, and future. Every phase of life is marked by such items that you are loathe to discard when you move to the next: from childhood to adolescence to adulthood and beyond.

Objects that reflect who we are

Some items become extensions of ourselves, while others shore up our identities, now increasingly projected in the digital world. Objects become significant and important enough to become memory when something else happens in conjunction with it. The story of (the movie) Titanic, for example, is basically about Rose recalling memories of the boat sinking when she is confronted with the Heart of Ocean necklace given by her then fiancé. The trigger for fond memories may come from several sensations and stimuli, including food. Experts say smell is the most closely linked with memories: one accidental sniff of a perfume or cologne used by an ex can send you hurtling down the memory lane.

Christian Jarrett, author and cognitive neuroscientist, writes: “Our relationship with stuff starts early. The idea that we can own something, possess it as if a part of ourselves, is one that children grasp by the age of two. And by six, they exhibit the ‘endowment effect’, placing extra value on an object simply by virtue of it being, or having been, theirs… As children mature into teens, we see possessions starting to act as a crutch for the self… Through adolescence, possessions increasingly reflect who people are, or at least how they would like to see themselves… As our lives unfold, our things embody our sense of self-hood and identity still further, becoming external receptacles for our memories, relationships and travels. As our belongings accumulate, becoming more infused with our identities, so their preciousness increases… As with human relationships, the attachments to our things deepen with the passage of time. Elderly people are often surrounded by possessions that have followed them through good times and bad, across continents and back.”

According to Jarrett, older people don’t just form bonds with specific belongings, they seem to have an affection for brands from their youth too, reflected in a taste for music, books, films and other entertainment from yesteryears.

What would you save from a house fire: a cherished item, family heirloom, or the most expensive laptop or other gadgets? What is the precious item that has stayed with you for long?

Here are four individuals, each along their unique life journeys, describing theirs:

Remains of the Day

Based in Bristol, Carla Contractor, who at one time was a popular school teacher in Mumbai, is a prominent local historian. Married to Phiroze Contractor, she says: “My husband died recently, and for the Covid-restricted funeral, one of our two sons prepared five large sheets of photos (36” X 36”) to remember and celebrate his father’s 85 momentous years. I assembled many photos, letters and cuttings and together the boys and I were able to select nearly 40 photos to fill each of the hardboard sheets, together with a brief explanation. The pictures were chosen to illustrate five separate periods of my husband`s life — in India as a child and energetic teenager, in London as a student and young man, as a husband and later father of two boys, in France at our holiday chalet by Lake Geneva over 36 years, and finally as a business man in Bristol and at home locally with friends and a growing family of daughters-in-law and grandchildren. Every fortnight, we exchange sheets between us and so live with refreshed memories. We are reminded of the various houses we inhabited, of members of our joint families, the several cars he owned and loved, the life we enjoyed together and even the time when my husband still had hair. The sheets prompt many questions and serve as an invaluable aide-mémoire for all of us. The moral of all this is: never throw photos away, nor books, cuttings or letters; they all hold invaluable memories both for the survivors and subsequent generations of a family.”

Venkata Vemuri, senior journalist who has reported from across India and Britain, is based in New Delhi. He says: “I’ve had my share of childhood memorabilia that I kept safe from the prying eyes of my brother and cousins for decades. I dreamt of one day showing them to my kids. When the day did come, it was as an anti-climax of sorts. My daughter couldn’t relate to any of it. She had never seen a spare nib of the Camlin ink pen, or the spinning top, the set of marbles, colour matchsticks from a 1970s Diwali, Gold Spot toffee wrapper, lyrics of my favourite songs in my mother tongue — it was mighty disappointing. I no longer have the stuff with me. It is only when I meet a childhood friend that I recall the trove of delightful things that accompanied me well into my adulthood. But one thing is still with me, even today. It is one memorabilia that grew with me. A set of books in which my mother noted down all the cooking recipes of her lifetime, thousands of them. That she got from her mom, her experiments, or borrowed from her friends, copied from Sunday newspapers, memorised from radio shows. I love her cooking. I can’t imagine losing them. They’re my mom, in a way. If I live to eat, that’s because of the way she cooked. From a thin pad the wealth of her recipes grew into a set of registers before my eyes, until she could write no more. She is no more now, but she talks to me through her recipes. Cube the potatoes….must be the same size….now make a paste of red chillies, cumin…”.

Based in Eastbourne on England’s southeast coast, former British Army officer Iain Shore hails from the family that included John Shore, governor-general of Bengal during 1793-1797, and others who served in colonial India. He recalls a ‘painting’ in his house of the iconic English Romantic painter JMW Turner (1775-1851), which depicted an image from his visit to Italy in 1819 as part of the Grand Tour — the earlier incarnation of today’s gap year, when young men from wealthy families would travel around Europe to finish their education and return to England to look after country estates. He says: “All my life I remember The Turner. It hung, an imposing, gold-framed hazy waterscape of the Grand Canal in Venice, covered in layers of grime, both from smoking and from open fires, in the 13th century Manor House where I was born. It was always revered and pointed out to visitors as ‘The Turner’. It had come from my grandfather’s parents’ house in Northwood, Middlesex, after they had left this earth. When my grandfather, in turn, died, it passed to my parents, who had the centuries of grime professionally cleaned off. It was immediately apparent that this was no ‘Turner’, not even an imitation of one, but an 18th century ‘souvenir’ of the Grand Tour, brought back by some English tyro in the realm of art. It is, in fact, not at all bad, despite the clever rearrangement, with artistic licence of some of the buildings. It now hangs, in its glorious restored state, proudly announcing to all who see it that it is indeed no ‘Turner’, but its own genuine minimalist Italian, self. Hopes of making millions, and supporting us in our retirement dashed, but we still love it.”

Born in Tanzania, Iain’s wife, Kshama Shore, was a senior official in Britain’s revenue and customs department until retirement; she was honoured with an OBE in 2012. She says: “The Singer treadle sewing machine… This well-used commercial machine, which is not small, was the only item of furniture to accompany us on our journey from Arusha, in Tanzania, to England in 1973. I had known it since I was born, with its whirr a background hum to life, as the tailors employed by my father plied their trade on the verandah of our trading station. Leaving Africa, his place of birth, broke his heart, and the cold and damp of England broke his body. This machine recalls a stable, happy and fulfilling past, all broken beyond repair by political upheaval. That we made a good life in England subsequently is undeniable, but there is always a hankering after those halcyon days under the hot sun and the smells of Africa. Why else have I kept it? I have an excellent and multi-talented electric machine, much smaller, which I use. So there it sits, a statement piece of furniture, a repository of happy memories. I wonder if I should pay a visit to ‘The Repair Shop’ on the BBC to restore it to its former glory?”


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