From grades 1 to 6, I went to St Xavier’s boy’s Jesuit boarding school. First grade had barely started when one day, my uncle came to pick me up at school. I was called out of class and told that I was to go home. My uncle took me to a doctor to take a look at my stomach that I said had been hurting even thought it hadn’t. The doctor gave me a digestive enzyme that tasted like pineapples and told me very seriously to wash my hands before every meal.
On the way home, I sat in the back seat of my uncle’s red SUV, cradling my medicine in my arms. I felt a vague foreboding, nausea in the pit of my stomach, but maybe it’s something I attribute to that moment now. I embellish my memory, rewriting it like an author, diligently working on capturing the moment. Of course there’s nothing special about memories. Our brains are like a video camera on record, simply pressing image and image, 22 frames a second, onto the film of our neurons. There they lie, waiting to be recollected and if they are remembered soon enough, they scar, making their own embellishment. But most often, they are forgotten, and the moments disappear, hiding in nooks and crannies. But I can’t have been vacuous, I must’ve suspected something. Why was I going home?
At home, I opened the door and stepped into the foyer. There were people I didn’t know lining the hallway, all dressed in somber, muted colors, their faces dark. There was a shrine in the corner, a small table with a portrait of my father garlanded by a wreath of yellow marigolds. This shrine, the same kind that I had seen countless times in Bollywood movies, meant only one thing. And then, my small child brain comprehended the situation: my father was dead.
I walked into the living room in a daze, still not quite comprehending. The room had been divided into two, with long swathes of impossibly white floor seating on both sides. There was an empty space in the middle, where the coffee table had been, where the carpet had been. My mother was on one side, all in white, her long hair down to her waist, and on the other were my grandparents, and various uncles and aunts. I remember trying to run to my mother, she who would make it all right. My grandparents held me back, holding me around my waist. You can’t go to her, they said. No one’s allowed to touch her. My mother assented from the other side, Stay there, she said, and burst into tears. And I did too. I cried, not really comprehending death and mortality. I cried because she cried. That’s where my memory falters and starts to break apart, like a piece of old, creased paper. I don’t remember what happened next. No memory at all.
My mother was 27 years old when my father died. She had married at 19, had me at 20 and then had proceeded to meet the fate of every Nepali housewife: boredom and middle-age. My mother had majored in social work at college, not because it was something she was passionate about, but because it was easy to pass. She told me only recently that she wanted to take dance, but her mother disapproved. The arts led to nothing, she said. This was the same lesson my mother tried to hammer into me. Throughout school, I was made to understand that I would become a doctor. I was interested in the sciences but my passion was always elsewhere: writing. I wrote my first story, one modeled after the Hardy Boys, in grade 5, sketching out the cover in pen and adding a copyright mark next to the title. I wrote “by Pranaya Rana” in a flourish, my schoolboy handwriting dirty and childish. I wrote the story in a yellow St Xavier’s notebook. It was around 30 pages long, including the art. I kept it for a long time. The last time I remember seeing it was in eighth grade, the yellow cover faded into white and the lettering almost invisible.
It was my father who enrolled me in St Xavier’s. And it was from my father that I inherited most of my genes. And I believe that it is from him I get my passion for writing, my love for Pink Floyd, the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, my love of movies and film: all that is creative in me. From my mother, I get my hands, my feet, my eyes. But it is from both of them that I get my rashness, my temper and my foul mouth. My pessimism was handed down from my parents, carefully inculcated since childhood by my mother who very rarely looked on the bright side.
Shortly after my father’s death, my mother tried to kill herself. My brother and I were sleeping in a bed next to hers. I heard a thump, and only later realized that my mother had rolled out of her bed and fallen to the ground. She had swallowed some rat poison, a predicament that now I would find clichéd, if only it hadn’t happened. I can’t remember what happened after the thump. I must’ve called someone, I must’ve cried, yelled, anything. When did my grandparents come running? When was she taken to the hospital? My memory doesn’t just desert me here, it’s a blank open hole through which time, events, people and circumstances all have fallen. The purpose of memory is only to reinvent what was once forgotten, and in a way, we are all writers of fiction. We write out our stories each day when we try to remember. I only recall the hospital, a tube in my mother’s arm and my brother and I crowded around her.
I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of remembering, which is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather its lining, says Chris Marker’s narrator in the film Sans Soleil. Sometimes we forget what a luxury forgetting is. I have forgotten much of the aftermath of my father’s death, I have forgotten the moment of my mother’s suicide attempt, I have forgotten my first kiss, I have forgotten the first time I had sex, I have forgotten the first time I got high. We forget just like women forget the pain of childbirth. It is a mechanism, a technique. We forget so that we may remember. We do not remember, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. How can one remember thirst?