I’m remembering so much of the past these days. Perhaps because there’s time enough for recollection. Or perhaps because I feel far removed from it, as though I’m only recollecting a story that is someone else’s.
I’m remembering my younger days in a cardboard box. And the years I lived in the city studying literature. I’m sometimes also remembering a lover from yesteryear and inevitably remembering a part of myself I had begun to forget.
And today, I’m remembering an old Uncle Graham.
I did not consciously choose to remember him, as though it’s in our power to choose who or what we remember.
Uncle Graham was a silver-haired Englishman I met on a vacation. The year was 2008 and the location was a seaside resort.
I was 10-years-old then, but I still remember most of it. We first met in the dining area.
“Good morning!” He wished my sister and myself as we passed him by.
We returned his greetings.
He leaned across his table and asked, “Do you speak English?”
“Yes.” We introduced ourselves.
“Okay, K&K! You can call me Graham,” he said.
My younger self explained to him how in our culture, we’re taught to not call our elders by their names.
“I’ll call you Uncle Graham.”
It was Uncle Graham who gave my sister and myself our first swimming lessons. We taught him how to play the carrom in return.
On most mornings, I found him at the restaurant. He had come for something business-related.
After breakfast, mumma and papa would take us to the beach. We would return briefly for lunch, head to the beach again, and come back only after sundown.
One afternoon, Uncle Graham saw us in the pool, keeping ourselves to the shallower edge. Thus began our swimming lessons.
“Your elder daughter is a fast learner,” he told mumma. “The little one is more determined.”
I remember this once, while Uncle Graham was still teaching us, a woman waved at him from afar.
He climbed out of the pool, kissed her, and exchanged a few words before coming back for our lessons.
“Is that your wife?” I asked.
“No. A colleague.”
Until then, I had never seen a man and a woman who were not married or in some way related kiss each other. I never knew it was appropriate in other cultures.
Papa once asked how we liked our dear Uncle Graham.
“He’s very pleasant.”
He then asked what we made of the fact that the British once ruled our nation. I was reminded of my history textbooks. Of the cruelty of the British, their sense of superiority, of their exploitation of the Indians. I had never before felt so conflicted.
“But Uncle Graham is good,” I finally answered. “The bad things were done by his ancestors, not him.”
Papa perhaps had the answer he was waiting for.
And then as time rolls on in the movies, so did it roll on for us. And after all the swimming and carrom lessons, all the talks and laughter, it was suddenly our last day at the resort.
“We’re leaving tomorrow,” my sister told Uncle Graham.
“Sometime in the morning.”
“In that case, you can leave me your email address and number.”
“I don’t have an email. I’ll give you papa’s number.”
“Give me your address, too.”
“For how long will you be here?” I asked.
“A couple of days more. I have to go to the UAE before I can return home. I will send you both postcards from there.”
He rushed to his room and returned with a pack of postcards for us to choose from. The Dune Du Pilat looked so lovely, a reminder as though of our own seaside holiday, that I couldn’t help picking it. My sister unwittingly chose the naughtier “Keep mum she’s not so dumb!” card.
Early next day, a minibus was waiting to take us to the airport and back home. My parents counted the suitcases and then moved us to our seats by the window. The bus was starting.
And then, old Uncle Graham came running in his night clothes. He wanted to say goodbye.
He shook my hand and that was the first time I noticed his thumb was missing. I would have liked to know how he lost it, but the engine had started and the bus was moving. Were not his eyes teary then? Were not mine, too?
I was 10 and perhaps for the first time experiencing the sadness of separation. I had said goodbye to my grandparents before. But I knew I would be seeing them again next holiday. With Uncle Graham, I knew I wouldn’t.
Then one day, the postcards came. I had almost forgotten about my sadness at leaving Uncle Graham behind, so the postcards left me for the most part glad but in an indifferent fashion.
A few years later, I stumbled upon a card he had left me. It had his phone number and email on it. I wrote to him, but the email was never delivered: the address had changed.
I called him shortly afterward. The connection was bad. He told me he was in the hospital for a hip surgery. We barely talked for half a minute before the phones got disconnected.
Ever since, he has become in my mind a remembrance from the past, contained only in a photograph.
I have thought of looking him up online, introducing myself again. But I have paused for the fear of discovering something that I hope to not discover.
All I hope for is that he is well and remembers the two little girls he taught how to swim at a seaside resort long, long ago.