Thursday, February 26, 2015

On Memory, Writing and Learning Stillness

This post was written in the run up for the publication of the Dutch translation of Hotel Arcadia. The Dutch and English editions are now available for pre-orders from the links above. I wrote this current post for so you can read it in translation here.  I had a quite an unusual childhood and it continues to impact my writing today, in terms of themes, styles and content. I hope the customary readers of the blog will find this post interesting. And perhaps new readers will get a little insight into my life and my writing.

One of my earliest memories is of sitting near a bonfire, amidst mounds of snow, watching Tibetan soldiers clean their weapons.  Even now, in my mind’s eye, I can see the eerie brightness that snow creates at night, the orange-red licks of the flames, and the glint of metal against the olive green of the uniforms. Over the fire, a massive petrol can had been repurposed for a cauldron into which all leftovers were chucked, and its perpetual bubbling yielded the most delicious ‘everything’ soup.  And most of all, I remember the terror and sorrow, although I only understood it as an adult.

The year was 1971, and the soldiers were part of a specialised unit of the Indian army that my father led. They were heading to war and many – and I have never stopped missing them – never returned.

Another memory rises. From later in the decade. Of a bamboo hut with dirt floors and a freshly dug snake trench.  At night, I would peer through the green mesh that formed the walls, watching for the wolves and foxes that came to forage in the garden.  When we came home from playing, my mother would make us stand beyond the snake trench and empty out our pockets before letting us into the shack. With no toyshop for miles, wildlife – often of the creepy-crawly kind – tended to be our playthings.

Much has changed since those early days of living in cantonment towns and remote border posts.  By the time I entered my teens, my father had changed his job, albeit still within the Indian government. Instead of isolated villages on the Indo-Tibetan border, we started moving to places like Islamabad, New York, Windhoek.

Yet some things remained the same as the family grew, and moved. My parents were always most excited about travelling, exploring, learning, and these are loves they passed on to me. I remember learning basic Swahili by candlelight with my father in that bamboo shack because he was being prepared for a posting that never materialised. And then doing the same in light of a storm lantern for Urdu, and then in the brightness of an camel skin lam, and with greater difficulty, for Xhosa.

For many years now, I have travelled on my own, although my parents get perhaps more excited about my trips than me.

I used to think that those early days had been left behind, that I had outgrown those early memories. But increasingly my writing goes back to those impassive, kind faces that I loved and lost as a child. I want to know those lives, if only in my fiction, and learn about what they loved, wanted, feared. And I want to understand where they found that silent, unending well of courage.

A final memory. I am five and the Tibetans are teaching me to remain still. They are soldiers and monks so the lesson is two-fold, for physical survival and spiritual progress. I protest that stillness is frustrating, difficult, may be even futile. They tell me I can only master the enemy, the world, and myself when I learn to be still.  In my writing, and my life, I am still trying.