I drew when I was little, but drawing is not a talent that grew with me. Photos are important to me, and I take hundreds of them on my phone, yet never revisit them to tease out the stories they tell. I ask myself what kind of personal archive would work for me? How can I preserve the memories, the stories, and the history of my family?
I visited my grandmother in India after ten years. It was the first time I had returned to my childhood home in New Delhi since my family had emigrated. I was afraid that everything would be different.
To my surprise, the neighbours who had been an extension of my family, while older, were still there and welcomed us. The presswalla downstairs still set up stand every morning, and the smell of his coal-burning iron wafted up to our apartment staircase, as before. The streets felt familiar. And my grandmother maintained the apartment, and her life within it, with the same care, the same routine I remembered.
There was so much joy in re-experiencing these long-cherished memories, but it wasn’t without a fear or inevitable change.
Skilled at recycling, my grandmother reimagined the life of many household things that had reached the end of their usefulness. Her old cotton nightgown, white with small light blue flowers, now hung by the washing machine in the form of a large drawstring bag where we placed our laundry. My old school uniform could be found in the kitchen, now a dishcloth, its fabric perfect for wiping surfaces dry. Old kurtas were handkerchiefs, their cloth soft after many washings.
All of these things had changed, yet held a thread to the past.
When my grandmother visited us in Toronto I learned how to sew. We would sit on her bed, with a pool of sunshine around us. Sometimes we would watch Hindi soap operas, sometimes I would sit beside her as she knitted, trying my hand at making a scarf. Under her guidance I turned a skirt into a tea cosy. I now have a vast archive of old fabrics waiting to be reimagined into new life.
My second child Amrit is named after my grandmother. I later learned that there is an Inuk tradition where a child is given the name of an elder family member. Stories of that person are passed down to the child, keeping their memory and wisdom alive.
My grandmother moved to Canada five years ago. Born in Sialkot, in pre-partitioned India, spending most of her adult life in New Delhi, and now on Turtle Island, where two of her children have made their homes, she has journeyed far. She is cleaning out her closet, getting rid of saris. They are not great in Canadian winters and are difficult to wear as she ages. My sister will turn them into cushions and I have plans for dresses and scarves. My grandmother will be showing us how.