The supermarket is a place of many sensory sensations especially for a toddler but this youngster was totally focused on his mother’s I-Phone. The checker and store customers were oohing and ahing over his skills on the tiny screen. I, too, was in awe of his talents but couldn’t help thinking he was missing out on making some awesome memories. That little boy will no doubt grow up to write Apps and design programs and games but what will his memories be? Are we losing something intangible and precious in our pursuit of technology? Because I’m discovering (late in life) that these childhood experiences make us who we are.
One summer my parents decided my sister and I would spend a few weeks at my mother’s ancestral village. For a couple of teenagers this was not our idea of fun but my parents didn’t believe in a democracy. So we left our mountainside home in the temperate Blue Mountains and headed down the hill to the hot plains. The village was located in the heart of Kerala, one of the southernmost states in India. My sister and I were used to hillsides of verdant tea plantations, orange orchards and neatly manicured gardens filled with roses, dahlias and bright bougainvillea vines. The rows upon rows of stately coconut palms, banana plantations, mango orchards and shady tamarind trees were an alien landscape for us. We missed the cool breezes, our friends and the local library.
While visiting our various cousins, aunts and uncles we stayed in our ancestral home. This huge mansion had thick teak doors and windows with intricately carved designs. The interior was cool and dark and featured a large open courtyard which let in pale moonlight as well as the harsh tropical sun. Each bedroom had dim yellow light bulbs that flickered so much that we could never read in bed. Another thing to grumble about!
Much to our consternation, we learned the hard way, that our aunt Devi was an early riser and had no patience for sleepy teens. So that first morning we were rudely awakened and asked to bring a change of clothes, a clean towel and bar of sandalwood soap and follow her and various other female members of our household to the temple pool. The water was an emerald green and refreshing enough to wake us up. Soon we forgot to be sleepy and sulky. We splashed and played with our cousins. Before we knew it, it was time to put on clean clothes and walk along the narrow dirt trail to the local temple. Here we watched, a bit shyly, while the young priest rang the temple bell and chanted in Sanskrit. The sweet taste of jaggery (brown sugar), the fruity scent of baby bananas and the heady aroma of oil lamps and incense are the memories of that first morning.
We came back to find the smoky kitchen filled with the scent of strong coffee and steaming buffalo milk. We enjoyed the creamy drink with tender rice dumplings in a spicy sauce. As guests my sister and I were given the only two low wooden stools. Everyone else sat cross-legged on long straw mats. Before the week was over we were seated next to my cousins, enjoying the camaraderie.
That summer we spent our days gorging on green mangoes (and getting spectacular stomach aches), going to the thatched- roof cinema theater to watch old black and white movies and playing endless card games with our cousins. Each day as the tropical sun dipped behind the tall palms and the clouds burst into lavender and orange hues, we headed back to the temple pool to cool off and pay another visit to the temple. This time we were given spoonfuls of sweet rice pudding with bits of tasty fresh coconut and chewy raisins.
One wonderful evening my aunt Panchajam had us over for a meal at her house and later we sat outside on the open veranda. The tropical night was like black velvet and the sky above us was filled with millions of twinkling stars. The buzzing mosquitoes were kept at bay with smoking neem sticks and the only sound was the lone call of the nightingale. Aunt Panchajam and her sister Subhadra entertained us with us stories from the Indian epics. They told us about brave heroes, beautiful maidens and treacherous villains and held us spellbound late into the night. My sister and I wanted that magical night to last forever.
Now decades later I look back and marvel at those memorable experiences and friends we made that tropical summer. We need such memories to sustain and nourish us. Years later our children should look back on shopping trips with mom or dad or a family camping vacation or even a simple visit to the local library as a treasured time. There is no App for that!