09 Apr

Lost and Found

Lost and Found

By Parvati Nair

When John handed the suitcase to me, the thought I had was not that I was taking it from him, but that it was taking me somewhere. Walking towards the station, I noticed how so many people looked at it as I walked by. The suitcase seemed to have a life force of its own, an ability to attract attention. In the sunlight, its colours ranged from the lightest gold to a burnished copper. I stood for a moment on the corner of Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street and looked at it. More than anything else, more even than our memories, material objects speak to us of the irrevocability of time. You cannot find a suitcase like this any more, I thought. Where these days would one find a suitcase made of wood and leather? With initials engraved? Now they make them flimsy, disposable, entirely anonymous, even hard to distinguish, ready to be thrown into the hold of a plane and then out onto the baggage rack. And so, too, has the nature of journeys changed. We seldom say farewell anymore to loved ones. Or embark on voyages. We expect to arrive anywhere in the world in less than a day and to text home to say we’ve landed, to stay in touch via the mobile phone and internet. I watched a strange incongruence unfold before my eyes as I sat in the tube — the stillness of the case against the jarring sounds coming from my neighbour’s iPod. The suitcase revealed the newness and the raucousness of the contemporary. The three Japanese ladies sitting across me looked at the case, then at me and smiled. I knew the reason why they smiled was not because I had a suitcase with me, but because I had this suitcase. This suitcase, that spoke of another time — indeed, another sense of time and another sense of place.

The suitcase is here in my study now, where it will remain for the duration of its stay. Mark took a photo of me as I came home with it. My plan is to find objects to put into it. Objects that will somehow be meaningful and symbolic. However, as I begin to think of what these might be, I ask myself also what I shall find inside this case. Pandora’s box, maybe or, perhaps, a treasure chest?

In the morning light, the marks on the suitcase looked at first like scars. Some were deeper than others; there was one like a bruise that had scratched the surface, others no more than faint lines that petered off. Then it occurred to me that indeed perhaps they were not scars, but traces. The casual imprints of collisions, happy encounters, rough resting places, the rubbing of shoulders between strangers. . . Like the traveller who comes home, the suitcase has many stories to tell. And like the traveller from afar, the suitcase is mysterious, impossible to know. All I could read at first were the letters J.D.P. My thoughts went to John’s grandfather, Captain John Perivolaris. My sole reference points for him were the words and photograph on John’s blog and of course, this suitcase. I tried to imagine the suitcase in a cabin on a ship. Might there have been a porthole in the cabin? An endless, shifting seascape outside? Had I ever known any sea captains? Ports? Or ships and anchors? I remember my mother once telling me that when she was young, she had spoken to a man who had travelled widely on ships. She was still in India then. He spoke of faraway places, of having been in Las Palmas, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Singapore, Aden. At the time, my mother had yet to travel much, though she wanted to. The names seemed glamorous. Exotic and faraway. So she had looked at the globe to find these names, but it was hard to tell what the places were like or how far away they really were from home. Later, she found herself visiting nearly all those places and each time, she would retell the story of that man and of how he had ignited in her the desire to see the world.

I remember too the port of Ceuta back in the 1970s, a small Spanish town on the northern coast of Africa that I used to visit as a child. The main street would fill for a day or two with sailors whenever a ship came in to port. This happened often, at least twice or thrice a week. They would fill the bars, speak foreign languages, laugh, drink and buy things and then, of course, disappear forever. They came from all over: Turkey, Italy, Greece and further afield… India, Japan. Strangers who came and went with the sea breeze.

That old, forgotten memory made me realize the suitcase itself was a sort of port, a solid rectangular object that stayed the same whatever the tide. Perhaps it was so for Captain Perivolaris, as it accompanied him throughout the voyages of his life. Now it was here moving from hand to hand and we were the sailors, the travellers who visited it and stayed for just a little while. The suitcase is resolute. It remains unchanging regardless of what we put in it or take out from it. My thoughts turn from John’s grandfather to others I do not know but have become linked to, Margareta Kern, Caroline Watson, Dinu Li, and John by whose desk this suitcase had remained for some months. Somewhere, in some ineluctable form, their traces were also on this case. On its surface. Like me, they had held the handle. They too had opened the lid, looked inside, wondered where it had been, what thoughts it had triggered. They too had sought to inhabit it for a while, filled it with their memories and the haunting of what once was. By bringing the suitcase home, I have entered an invisible weave of strangers, all of us bound by the ephemeral, the fluxes of displacement that are uniquely ours, and ours alone. In so doing, I am encountering the odd familiarity of the stranger. I know nothing or very little about you, and yet when looking inside this case, I feel your presence here in my midst… As I pour my memories into this case, I watch them swirl and mix with yours. I had not expected this… This unexpected connection with those I do not know.

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