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     Volume 7 Issue 28 | July 11, 2008 |

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A Roman Column

Of Old Books, Letters and Faces

Neeman Sobhan

Standing on top of the ladder and reaching to dust the books on the topmost of my ceiling-to-floor book shelves, I rediscover one of my favourite books, 'The Go-between' by L.P.Hartley.

I hang the dust cloth from my shoulder, perch myself on the flat top of the ladder and open the book on those famous first lines: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

I glance through the book trying to re-establish connection not just with the novel read many years ago, but also with that long ago reader, the 'I' of the past. I am wondering whether reading it now the book would still be classified by my present self as a favourite? More to the point, is this current 'I' asking the question very different from that old reader of the past?

My position, literal and figurative, sitting suspended between the ground realities of my present and the dusty pages of the past gives me an odd perspective on my evolving self, which is magnified a moment later when I dust and open a box on the third shelf marked 'Old Letters'.

I touch hoary envelopes, aerogrammes, letters and cards written by myself to my mother and my brothers and sisters, from my newly married life away in a literal 'foreign' country-- the United States of the seventies, as well as the literary foreign land of the 'past' alluded to by Hartley. Every scrap of my correspondence with my family had been preserved by my mother; and after her death I had brought back this collection, and with the same squirreling instinct as my mother's, saved this record of a time when hand-written letters were the only links in family chains. Now it's a link to my own self.

I knew one day I would sift through this junkyard, looking for clues to my own evolution. Today, as I reopen some of those old letters written in a hand that is familiar, I realise that the person behind the words is but a shadow of my present self. I don't readily recognise the girl. Yet at some other point, I feel as if I were staring at a mirror. In spite of some superficial differences, the letter writer is myself after all, unchanged. The events also feel as if they could have happened just yesterday; the distance of the past seems like an illusion. Maybe Hartley is wrong: the past is not a foreign country; it's a home left behind. The very next instant, I turn to another letter and my mind draws a complete blank. I said that! When did this happen? Was this really me?

I quickly put the lid back on the box. Yes, Hartley, I do feel like a visitor to a foreign country. The home I abandoned is now inhabited by strangers and haunted by the ghosts of my former selves. Today, I don't even dare approach the box containing, 'Old Photographs'. The past is a country to which I don't feel like granting myself a visa today.

And old photographs are even more confusing. My earlier photographs often show a persona that is reassuringly familiar, unchanged, (at the superficial, physical level); but I know that the girl of yesterday is at a deeper, internal level, a stranger. The protagonist of my Past resembles me but is not necessarily me.

I scramble down the ladder and land onto the reassuring present. Enough dusting for today!

Talking about old letters and photos and transformations, I would like to share a poem I wrote recently for my husband on a landmark birthday of his. The theme is universal. And if anyone has a problem with poetry, think of this as prose with curious line breaks!

Birthday Photograph

Can you recall anymore a time
when your face was yours alone?
A time before it was lent out
as the male half of the bridal pair
now silver-framed
on the fake antique bureau
the couple would pick up at a flea market
one Roman Sunday?

Your face, under the bride-groom’s turban,
yet helmeted like a headache,
is raw with youth,
struggling to retain
its first-person singularity
in a ritual celebrating dual-ness.

And now can you still return
to a time when your face was one-half
of a couple, and not lent out
to those two thieving young men
who forced entry
into your life and mine, laying claim
to all that we held precious?

They took away everything:
your brows, my double-jointed
fingers, your smile, my temper,
our truths and dreams,
our human frailties,
and left us only
a pile of photo albums
scattered with faces
that were once ‘I’ or ‘you’ or ‘they’
but now are fused exemplars
of the First Person Plural.

So today as you enter an age
when certain trees like the olive
finally begin their true life
of fruition, tell me
can you still recollect a time
when your face was your own,
and not lent out for safe-keeping
to those others, the ‘us’:
root and fruit
of your life’s tree?

Today, you no longer recognise
your own face. You have
spread beyond your image;
shared your self, become
the mirror
of all that you have created.

Today, perhaps,
your birthday photo
shows a stranger to yourself.
But to us, your face is our very own.

Today, we wish you
the best part of the journey:
to finally find the face
that in spite of being forever ours
was always yours alone!


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