Such Brightness Outlasts Us | Amna Ali Khan
This essay is one of the winning entries of the inaugural edition of “First Word 2022, the Undergraduate Writing Programme’s (UWP) essay prize for Ashokans in their first year of undergraduate studies.
“It’s a summer day, / and I want to be wanted more than anything else in the world.”
The amaltas are the first warning of summer. They arrive raucously, with a suddenness that could almost knock you out. The trees would be naked in May, but just at the turn of the month, when the wind sours slightly and the sun splatters itself on the street, hot oil coating the edges of a pan, the leaves erupt with great abandon. Emerald, copper, sometimes even shy purple. They descend without apology and flutter in the summer winds, while the pavement becomes a carpet of bright yellow flowers that have shed from the fruit of the tree. On days like these, I like to walk the streets of Lucknow with nothing on my person—no camera to capture the landscape, no earphones to drown out the noise of traffic. I like to walk through the city an empty-handed woman.
It’s a peculiar trait that I’ve picked up from my grandfather. I still think of him, walking upright, hands clasped behind him, not a single crease on his starched white kurta, or anything to suggest a departure from his staid, reserved self. Yet his eyes would give everything away. Impish. A little too grey to be entirely trusting. Here and yet not here. When I was young, the man seemed to be an encyclopedia in human form. He would have something to say about everything. We would sit on the cool marble floor with an atlas of the world laid out before us, and he would guide my hands across the straits of Africa and the Great Lakes of America, tracing the cartographies of the planet through his raised finger. The world was shapely, well-defined, and understandable. There were no mysteries too complex to be understood, no buried treasure that seemed too far out of reach. Life was sweet and round, like a melon ball, meant to be chewed and swallowed.
I suppose, a part of the allure of nostalgia is that the reconstruction gives way to some sort of narrative to our lives, even when the memories are fragmented and uneven. It isn’t the past we long for, but the illusory clarity it brings. Nostalgia is a pilgrimage of sorts, where the believer walks around the temple of the past, surveying it with wide-eyed wonder. But the real curiosity lies in the mirage of memory, which dapples everything in shadows, where the past and present coalesce into one, where the living and the dead all reside in the same house, or, as Berger puts it, “[the past] grows gradually around one, like a placenta for dying.”
A few summers ago, I walked past a perfumery in Qaiserbagh and smelt the notes of gulaab and khus wafting through the ittar store. I turned my head to see a small, windowless shop, with the word “Sugandha” etched in rasmul-khat on a wooden board. Inside, a few dusty bottles lay on the tabletop, and I reached to grab a purple one to survey its contents. Twisting its metallic top, I dropped the oily perfume on my wrist and raised my hand to smell its scent. At once the presence of honey and cinnamon pervaded the air, almost as if I could taste it. And there I was, back in my paternal home in Aligarh. My mother, her head bent on the jaanemaz, smelling of the same ambiguous perfume, that musky fragrance lingering in the air.
Rows and rows of books in Arabic and Urdu lined the shelves, which were too high for my ten-year-old arms to reach. With eyes closed in rapt devotion, she would make a prayer with her hands cupped like a half-moon. I would listen, entranced by the guttural syllables of Arabic and their metallic aftertaste; each long-drawn-out word, each throaty intonation of its vowels. Her faith—as simple and as necessary for her as water—was merely a string of strange syllables for me. I wondered then, as I wonder now, if I would be better equipped to make sense of it all when I was older, but the same incomprehension envelops my present self as it did that ten-year-old girl.
Despite my inability to believe, I still tread the terrains of faith with that same childlike fascination. I try to imitate faith, or find variations of it that can fit in modern life. I try to find instances of it in poetry, in the business of everyday living. Couldn’t attention be a prayer in and of itself? It makes me feel like a faker or like a snake-oil salesman who’s trying to convince you to buy cheaper alternatives to the original product, with the only exception being that I am both the deceiver and the deceived. Despite my incomprehension, I keep returning to those same beautiful verses, keep reading those strange, guttural words. Maybe someday, I’ll know what those words mean. Or to quote one of my favorite filmmakers, the Polish director Kieslowski, “I don’t believe in God but I do talk to him every day.”
That perfume was a time machine; it was a portal back to my ancestral home. And yet, foraying for too long into the shape-shifting terrain of memory can be a hazardous task as well. It holds too much. There are objects, places, scents and sights that open up doors to the past; people we used to be, streets we used to walk on, neighborhood faces that formed the backdrop of our childhood would all come flashing by in one quick succession. It almost seems to me as if the world entire could be created merely through the evocation of these sensory perceptions, as if I could look at a box of key chains that belonged to my grandmother and be thrust into time, not only into how the world was, but the child that experienced it. Could it be so? Could I see the keys of an old piano and be changed by it? Could tasting apricots bring back the sweet days of May?
I would never taste the fruit myself, but I always carried it in the pockets of my school uniform. Those plump, tender seedlings; their colour a gentle shade of green, like the surface of the Gomti on a windless, sunless day when the river looks like a solid cube, a hard blueness of water. They would be everywhere on the grounds in early summer. My old school had an abundance of neem trees. Of all the things I remember, they stick in my mind with a strange insistence. They form the backdrop of all my memories there, coating them in greenness. Their hardened trunks provided a reassuring solidity at a time when the world seemed impossibly large and endless, a terrible odyssey undertaken by a child who could hardly reach the kitchen counter, let alone be in the agonizing company of adults whose long legs seemed to be like tree trunks in themselves, their voices too loud and aggressive, their mannerisms too crude or complacent.
No, the trees were a respite. In early summer, there would be a ceremony at my school to usher in the spring season. Long hours of standing in the sunshine, eating oranges, and singing hymns. I remember the choir of voices would sound like one giant instrument sending its vibrations higher and higher into the air, the voices rising, melding into one another, a brilliant harmony. The trees would shed their fruits on the school yard, and every time we walked, our feet would stamp down on the sticky, fleshy innards of the seeds, causing us to slip and fall and bruise our knees on the grainy concrete.
Around the canopy of the trees, the world was circular and complete. A fixed phenomenon. The students milled around the basketball court during lunch time, and the teachers congregated in the assembly halls. The building would be filled with a gentle hum till late afternoon, when the bells would ring and everyone would retire to the classrooms. I would stand by a window on the first floor, apple in hand, listening to some errant strands of conversations that my friends partook of while I eyed the quiet circus unfolding in the school lawns. Students might be talking animatedly on the courts, a teacher would occasionally pass by, the circle of students would disband to make way for this regal figure on their way to some important task. The compound would be filled with students singing songs, doing cartwheels, running races. Time was thick and smug and wore itself like a warm overcoat. It was a strange life, unrelated to the goings-on of the real world outside. A caesura of sorts. The battery of time running slow and unhurried. The slow languor of the days.
When I think of childhood, I think of summer. I think of sunlight, only it didn’t come through the sun itself. It was all over the place, streaming from the vault of the sky, dripping down the leaves of the banyan trees, reflecting from the surface of the lakeside. And the rub of time was cleaner, more real somehow in its essence. Each memory that sticks in the recesses of my mind—the atlas, the perfumery, the school yards—is encrusted in this thick jelly of time. Children are greedy things; they function in complete self-absorption. All these sights, sounds, perceptions were electric to me; my first love. The rising of the choir and the rustling of the leaves were the only feelings that were real to me. Love was distant; it wasn’t something to be felt. It was present in the sound of my mother offering me tea in the morning; it was present in the sound of a friend offering her books to me to read over the holidays. All I can gather in my memories of the past are these fragments, these sensory perceptions that overpower all other feelings. Anger, fear, even hate was trumped by the sheer electricity of a child tasting the world for the first time. All I recall of the past, all I recall of summertime, are these fragments. Those voices in the choir. The smell of perfume. Sunlight. Sunlight. Sunlight.
Amna Ali Khan is a poet and writer hailing from Lucknow, India. She is currently pursuing a major in English with a minor in Philosophy at Ashoka University. She spends a considerable amount of time reading letters written by dead writers ages ago, and can also be found walking around the campus listening to Fiona Apple because she is, as the kids say these days, such a vibe.