Sunday, 2 March 2008


There is a moment in Local Hero where Mac returns home. He is the negotiator for a huge US oil company and has been sent to Scotland to buy an isolated village. His home is a Houston flat overhanging the big city. On return, he watches the night-time streams of traffic below, the lines radiating out like pulsing veins, driven on by industry, economy, realisation of American dreams. Mac puts his hand into his coat pocket and pulls out the legacy of his travels. Sand and sea shells. I remember this scene everytime, because it is true.

Looking back, years ago, as if I am now watching someone else's life, without children, with few responsibilities and fewer cares, I lived a while with Dig in Mysore, India. We rented a small flat above a grocery shop. The shop opened out onto a wide unsurfaced road which was the daily place for the swirl and eddy of commuting Ambassador cars. They parp-parped their way to and fro, vying for space with taxis, auto rickshaws, bus queues, women with laundries, the man who flat-ironed Dig's shirts for 2 rupees, cows and goats, women cooking for the builders who balanced the scaffolding on hollowed out coconut shells, children suicidally piled three atop motorbikes with dad on the school run, and the dog, who had lived all his life with hens and cockerels and who barked with a cock-a-doodle doo; he ran back and forth between the traffic in a nimble game of chicken.

There I learned to walk carefully, test rice at the market for quality, and speak a little Kannada. Mrs Umesh from the shop below taught me to cook vegetables I had never seen before and, after a few months, I became shocked at the sight of Western tourists who showed their arms and sun tans and the blonde women, who laughed, loud. It was probably time to come home.

I threw out all my clothes and brought back the following: a silver finger ring, one wooden Ganesh, one cooking pot, one vegetable knife, a brass candelabra (which wobbles still), and bags and bags of stones and pebbles and shells. The shells I had meticulously finger-picked, one by one, out of sands and rocks and seas on our many Indian journeys to see moon eclipses and enjoy brief holidays in Kerala and Goa. And when I brought back this treasure haul, I persuaded Bal, who then was story-telling in art and pictures, to make a mask for me, one that used the shells, and sights and sounds of other worlds. He made two. Both are displayed, still, on the kitchen wall.

And now it's the same. I have thrown out my clothes and brought back bags of papers; jottings, notes, children's sketches, tickets, hand-drawn maps, notes of hellos and goodbyes, cuttings from newspapers and magazines, brochures, flyers, leaflets, and bags from shopping malls and market bakeries.

And suddenly, I have to make sense of it all.

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