I cannot tell you where my odd fascinations with the past eminate from. When I was a teenager, I liked to think I was reading about my own past, a shadowy reminder of a previous life. It was a romantic idea, akin to believing in dragons.
Now that I should know better as I am at an age when teenagers call me old and I call them daft, I think it is probably less about reincarnation and more about escape. I have always found the present to be rather bleak and the future will come no matter what happens. The past is a stationary place, where events no longer happen but continue to remain frozen in a pocket of time. As a child I went back to the days of King Arthur. As a young girl I thought King Rat was a devilishly fine book and how I enjoyed reading Shogun. For a while a scooped up everything about the two world wars and read all I could about Japan and medieval world culture. Books were my life especially when they had something historical in them.
By the time I reached 15, I had outgrown my collection of history books, and the world wars were surpassed by a romantic calling when I read A Passage to India and Shadow of the Moon. I also developed a morbid interest in graveyards and the poetry of Byron, Keats and Shelley. I started reading phantasmagoria – 19th century ghost stories. The 19th century was my new home.
Living in Bangladesh as I had done since 1974, and either home schooled or schooled by terrifying nuns at a Catholic school, I had had very little exposure to the normal world. My place on this planet was very small and secluded, insulated from teen magazines, fashion and television. Not to say I didn’t have any of that but by the time I got my hands on anything modern it was bound to be 6 months old. But I did have access to books. The clubs had lending libraries, I could borrow from my mother’s friends and the bookstore was amply stocked. I became a singularly strange teenager, with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things no one would ever care to hear about.
This put me on an awkward footing with my new acquaintances at boarding school where I was sent, age 16,to the foothills of the Himalayas to a place called Mussoorie.
Mussoorie fulfilled every desire I had in my head -the remoteness, the memories of the Raj nestled in rain soaked trees on long winding paths up steep hills, faded moments of time suspended in everlasting sleep. I had woken up in heaven. I could spend my days roaming the bazaar, exploring old graveyards, reading musty newspapers, and above all, savor in the delights of living in old buildings. A better and truer paradise never existed on this planet.
Of course Mussoorie had been created by the British as a hill station in the early 1800s and much of its architecture stemmed from a time when asthetics meant as much as practicality. It fed my imagination, sitting in an old cottage watching the monsoon clouds roll up from the valley, knowing in my mind that here there be ghosts.
It was these ghosts that have brought me where I am today. An avid reader of a dead past for which there is little regard. For empire is unfashionable and studying it uncouth. Yet I think of the countless feet that walked along India’s dusty ground, some with hope and others in despair, the weak, the brave and the masterful, whose lives we regard now with disdain and yet, as they lived and so they died, like I shall be, thousands of miles away from home, just trying to live as best as they could. Who can say their lives were worthless? And who is to say that one day, yours may not be judged with the same disdain?
We are but temporary travellers who will leave behind a momentary impression.