Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!

I have been sitting here thinking about my inability to express anything in words lately. It isn’t as if I’ve run out of things to think about. I still wonder, still contemplate. Sometimes astonish myself at a particular insight. But I can’t pin down the thought. It is gone before I can explore it.

Some themes remain the same. Nostalgia is always on the top shelf. If my brain was the cereal aisle of a supermarket then nostalgia would be the sugary, gut-busting stuff that is always within easy reach.

Some recollections delight, some leave me astonished. Some are just remembered with fondness. I often question my seven year old about whether or not she remembers things that happened three or four years ago when she was three or four and she usually doesn’t remember most things. The things that stand out for her are moments which required an emotional investment of sorts, for instance a loud disagreement between her parents where a phonebook or a cordless phone might have gone sailing across the room. I can’t say I have fond memories of a very pleasant Himalayan city in north eastern India – Shillong – because I recollect my parent’s minor cold war more clearly than any other scenic delights. Happier moments are similarly recalled and bring such joy when they are revisited, either in person or even vicariously.

When a friend in India told me she was headed for Mussoorie, India, I casually asked her to find a massive lion from my memories, carved onto a wall somewhere in Mussoorie. I told her that I remembered being cranky about something, all those years ago, at the age of 4 or 5, and my Dad hoisting me on to the lion and taking a picture. I don’t know if this is a famous lion or if every person who has visited Mussoorie has seen it. I didn’t expect my friend to “hunt” this lion down. But she returned from her trip and told me she had found my lion! I am inexplicably delighted at her find. Decades have gone by and this lion is still around and my friend found it and is about to write a short vignette entitled, “Pragya’s Lion”! It’s strange but I live for such moments. Good old nostalgia at work again.

It struck again when I looked at my red, toy binoculars. It used to be quite a favorite and I remember getting it when I was six years old. My Mom had saved it all these years and she gave it to my daughter who loves playing with it now.

This is how it looks:


And this is how the back of the box it came in appears:

Binocular cover

Note my best cursive attempt from that time, a spelling I guessed at and my grade, 2nd grade, in Roman numerals. It’s like being an archeologist of my own life! And just to think that something I used to own is now yellowed with age. I used to think that yellowing and fading colors and sepia tones were reserved for folks a generation or two before me!

And so it goes! Nostalgic fondness for things half forgotten, half remembered. They keep making futile comebacks, messing with our minds, fostering a dependence of sorts. We cling to our memories as if they were the Raggedy Ann dolls or tattered “blankies” we preferred as kids.

In my case a few things happen when the idle mind is aswirl in nostalgia and the illusion of time. I think about how centrally true to my character I really am. A part of me is unchanged, has remained unchanged through the years, an ageless part of me, inquisitive, reaching, grasping for newness. All the other manifestations of change seem frivolous, like the wainscoting on walls or the curlicues on Queen Anne furniture. Sometimes one hears of a sculpting metaphor being used in describing our development as self actualized individuals, just like a beautiful figure is carved out of an undefined block of marble, a process of subtraction, of losing things we once cherished. Perhaps that is the course our lives appear to take. But what if addition is more the norm? Our essence preserved and indestructible, ensconced within a steadily growing and hardening carapace?

And just like I have a favorite Beatles tune for every occasion, the one that plays back automatically in these times is: There are places I remember/all my life/but some have changed…

The other question that haunts me often is the question my Dad asked me a few months ago, “Do you ever wonder what old people think about?”

I wonder why it is so difficult for me to answer this question.

I do wonder about the passage of time, about aging, constantly. I give to charities that serve the elderly. I worry about my own old age. I think of the uncles and aunts who passed away before I even understood death, I think of those whose lives began and ended during my lifetime and I ache for the depth of grief their parents have had to live with. But none of these thoughts or concerns are appropriate responses to the question about my wondering about the thoughts of older people.

The question makes me uncomfortable for many reasons. My parents are only twenty-six years older than me and twenty-six years are not that many years. I was in high school twenty six years ago, the memories are still fresh. I still own some clothes from that time, clothes that still fit!

Could it be then that I do wonder what old people think about, since I am gravely infected by the disease that has been called a certain “nostalgia for the future” (first came across the phrase in Paul Auster’s book – The Invention of Solitude); seeing one’s own skeleton facing one at every turn? Like looking at a distant mirror when one looks at one’s parents…

Do we think different thoughts at different ages? Or is there one line of inquiry that remains constant through all our ages? Do we look at the future with a mix of awe and trepidation, sometimes with a generous dollop of euphoric optimism or do we increasingly dwell on the glory days as we pass our twenties, thirties, forties…and beyond?

Why does the past fascinate us so? And why does this fascination always remind me of the stories of the pointed interest that elephants show in the bones of other dead elephants in an elephant graveyard?

What are elephants thinking about?


Vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas



  1. Loved being in the swirl of your nostalgic thoughts! There must be a magical contagion in the air – the Proustian themes I base my daily status updates on, and now the way you're revisiting some familiar, old places…it's almost freakish to the point that I want to dig up more old yellowed memories and see if they match with the tints in yours! 🙂 Keep the writing flowing…

  2. Another absolutely splendid piece. I particularly liked the phrase 'archaeologists of our lives', but then the piece is replete with lovely metaphors!Your prose is like some fine claret, or maybe a choice port!

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