In his brilliant essay titled "Imaginary Homelands", Salman Rushdie quotes from the opening lines of one of L P Hartley's most memorable books, The Go-Between. "The past is a foreign country" goes the line, "they do things differently there."
As you grow older these words ring true, every so often, especially in moments of nostalgia.
I had one such moment a few days after this year began, when I received a "Season's Greetings" card from an old friend. You know the kind I am talking about (if you are 35 and above that is): a classic New Year card with a dove, an olive twig and snowflakes; the kind your mother would buy in packets from exhibitions, with all good intentions of helping the charity in question, coupled with a deep resolve of mailing them out within a respectable time frame. Yes, that New Year card is what I am talking about, one which will soon find its place in a museum as a relic of past times.
Such was the joy these [cards] spread that, as a child, I secretly dreamed of having a house with a mantelpiece and arranging my own cards...
This card, quite unexpectedly, conjured up images of my childhood. It led to memories of my parents receiving them with great alacrity from the postman, and then proceeding to arrange them proudly on our sideboard (the cards were ideally meant for mantelpieces, but who'd seen mantelpieces in those days? They were only to be read about in books, much like plum jam). These cards would sit around in numerous rows long after the new year had lost its sheen, as my mother would clear other surfaces (fridge, television, side tables) in an effort to accommodate all of them. Such was the joy these spread that, as a child, I secretly dreamed of having a house with a mantelpiece and arranging my own cards on it one day. I quite disliked the idea of perching them on several surfaces around the house.
The blithe greetings would start arriving around Christmas, and you could tell a lot about the people who had sent them just by looking at the card. The well-heeled ones would have them custom-made -- not exactly the prettiest, but with the entire family's names printed inside, instead of having been written by hand. There were no notes in them, and they were almost always devoid of warmth. Yet, despite their impersonal tone, these always impressed me, because to me they signalled success in life -- a feeling reiterated by the fact that these cards always seemed to stay, somewhat self-importantly, in the front row, while the others would be cycled back and forth depending on their time of arrival and appearance. Also, while some languished on top of refrigerators, behind the fruit basket, these occupied prime real estate - i.e., the sideboard next to the dining table.
Apart from these there were the arty ones that were fairly laconic, though still appropriately polite, in their messaging. These were usually sent to us by our married-to-diplomat aunt. They typically had photographs of famous paintings on them (Monet and Picasso seemed to be popular choices), which was wasted on me then, but not on my parents, because they liked to arrange these right next to the bespoke ones. Years later, when I saw some of these paintings on museum walls, they brought back memories of these cards, and the penny finally dropped on why they were the chosen ones for the covers.
Lastly, there were the generic ones that did not fall into any category really, and seemed to have made it to the mail by the skin of their teeth. These were usually nice to look at but had been hurriedly written in, though the message was probably more heartfelt and far more cherished.
Today, New Year means sending out generic, mass text messages, with ostensibly moving quotes searched out from Goodreads...
All that, however, was then -- in the past, where they did things in ways that seem unrecognisable now. I don't send or receive New Year cards anymore. In my defence, I don't send cheery text messages either. So when my 10-year-old daughter saw the card that landed at our doorstep, her first reaction was to ask me whether the people who had sent it owned a computer. Why else, she thought aloud, would someone mail a card? I could not explain to her the reason why someone would do that. You just had to grow up at the time I did to know.
But for me that little card (the proceeds of the sale of which had gone to some worthy cause) was such a refreshing reminder of the little things we've lost along the way, things we probably don't even remember existed. Today, New Year means sending out generic, mass text messages, with ostensibly moving quotes searched out from Goodreads, which evoke the gods to bestow love upon the world (much to the delight of telecom companies). They, however, don't mean much to me. I would rather have a few heartfelt cards brought to me by the mailman -- tactile reminders of the friends I have around the world -- that I can arrange on my shelf. But I got only one such card this year.
As it turns out, I don't need a mantelpiece after all.
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