Everything that remains
Text and Pictures : Nani Kannan
Life began in a small village outside of Chennai, a few kilometres from the heart of the city. My grandparents and I lived in a small house opposite a temple. When I was born, my parents each found work in different parts of the state. It was my thaatha and paati, who'd looked after me as their own, for the first five years. They were my world.
Everything I had ever known was within walking distance of that house. School was a five minute auto ride crammed in with five other kids. Every Friday I’d go to the temple with my paati and we’d sing songs. In the afternoons, thaatha would sneak me small sips of his tea when paati wasn’t looking. I played cricket with the local boys when I was supposed to do my homework. I climbed on top of the water tank to watch the temple festivals, when elephants would walk through our village.
In a way my story, my universe was contained in this space. Everyone knew who I was, and even if I got lost in town, I’d be safely brought home by someone who knew my family. So maybe that’s why the first goodbye hurt so much— my entire world disappeared one night, and I found myself within the lurching belly of an airplane headed towards an unfamiliar destination. I didn’t realise at the time but it’d be so many years until I would return to that place again.
All my life I’ve had to pack my things into boxes. My story has cascaded into itself so many times. I have become the ghost in so many school photographs, the girl who was there one day and gone the next. It’s difficult to feel like you’re a part of something when you have to pull yourself away to the next country in a few weeks time anyway. I don’t feel like I’m quite complete, but yet I feel this strong connection to my first ever home.
It’s years ahead now. I’m inhabiting the same mind but my story is so far removed from where it began. We get a phone call. It’s short, and the colour drains from my mother’s face as she holds the receiver to her head. It’s bad news. My thaatha’s old heart had started to flutter unexpectedly. He was walking home one day and suddenly found himself struggling to breathe.
We weren’t ready for what would happen. I suppose when is anyone ever ready. In the space of a few hours, this man who occupied a space in this world would suddenly disappear. His chai glass was still warm. His watch continued to tick steadily on. His shirts had just been pressed, barely creased. In the space of a day his heart did its final dance. We were hours away, stranded on a faraway island.
The quietness and the emptiness that followed, broke my paati’s heart. You never realise just how much you collect, how many innocuous things gather up. We emptied his pockets and we found old bus tickets, a few rupees, a ring. We found his glasses still tucked into the corner of his favourite spot on the sofa. There was a small dent where he last sat. His voice floats across the empty hall. A half empty chai glass sits in the sink. These are the things that he left behind.
The goodbye that you don’t expect, that’s the one that hurts the most. The sadness took root inside of us, sat inside of our ribs and became a living thing. A shadow that swallowed all of the colour inside of us.
These are the things that I have left, they live inside an old biscuit tin: an old library card, a pregnant stone elephant, some bus tickets, his notebook and his watch. The contents of his pockets. They don’t even come close to patching together his story. But like a faithful archaeologist I have preserved this small physical evidence. He was here. He loved riding on buses, reading books. There was so much meaning hidden inside his soul. His story hasn’t quite ended, not yet.
Because I am keeping these pieces. This evidence of life, little things that are preserved and accounted for. The things that I would reach for if my home burned down. These are the things I’d pack when I move on.
They are the ordinary memories of a full and extraordinary life, each holding its own meaning. Its own story.
Nani Kannan is a hoarder of small objects and a collector of stories. She keeps these happy things in a little space on the internet.