Is there a ‘rasa’ for nostalgia? Sometimes I wonder.
This weekend, between reading for work, a writing deadline and a vaccine appointment that was part wild-goose-chase, I found myself savouring the sunlit pages of a recently published book. The House Next to the Factory by Sonal Kohli: a charming collection of loosely (and deliciously) inter-linked stories, set mostly in the eighties and nineties, venturing into the hectic-2000s only now and then, with a mention of a Blackberry here, a foreign university education there, or the single reference to a `30 crore payment, little details telling us gently (everything in this book is told gently) of the massive increase in wealth liberalisation had brought to a certain class of business-families. But for these, the world of the book is filtered through the sepia of India’s socialist years, where even owners of a factory led modest-enough lives. It cast a haunting chiaroscuro of light and shadow upon me.
I read. Outside, the Delhi sunlight ripened, leaves littered the courtyard, evening fell sooner. On the phone, my mother was full of plans for Durga Puja, barely a fortnight away. Even I, mood ever-darkened by the events of this year, by my post-Covid cold that has refused to go away, by the hundred other things that hang like a shadow over my readerly-writerly anxieties, even I felt a rare, expansive burst of optimism.
It felt unaccountably like the late-September days of my eighties-and-nineties childhood in Calcutta, when the weeks would be marked by the rising height of pandals, and bliss was the afternoon when I returned home from school to find that the Puja-special Anandamela had arrived, the fat annual anthology published by the eponymous children’s magazine, full of stories and detective novellas and fun quizzes and information-packed travel-essays and comics.(These days I know I can order it online. Somehow, I never do.)
Kohli’s stories begin in 1984, in the house next to the factory, where a new tuition teacher is engaged for the cousins, Anuj and Raghu, sons of the factory-owning “Steel Brothers”. He is one Mr Lamba, modest, self-effacing, who is sometimes served tea by the erratic servant, sometimes not. When it is Raghu’s birthday, Mr Lamba brings an illustrated copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer from the neighbourhood stationery shop run by a Sikh gentleman.
While the connection between 1984 and Mr Satnam Singh is clear at the outset, what transports me to my childhood instantly is the memory of my own neighbourhood stationery store, where an old gentleman with leukoderma and his adored adopted son held fort. They had a shelf of these same illustrated classics, and every once in a while, if I had money left over from buying chart-papers and blank maps and glittery stars and colourful cellophane sheets, I would buy one. The books were squarish, and black and white, and you could colour the sketches. The proper bookstores were in College Street or Park Street or New Market and needed parental conveyance —but this, half-way between my house and my cousin’s, was where I could go walking with my grandfather, and return with my arms full.
As I hunted for the right ‘rasa’, ‘The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows’ (a fascinating compendium online) offered me something else: a beautiful word that evoked this mood exactly. ‘Austice’, noun, defined as ‘a wistful omen of the first sign of autumn—a subtle coolness in the shadows, a rustling of dead leaves abandoned on the sidewalk, or a long skein of geese sweeping over your head like the second hand of a clock.’
Did Kohli’s stories come to me as a harbinger of austice this year?
But somehow this is not quite enough, and the original question continues to peck at me: what is the ‘rasa’ of nostalgia?
If we go back to Bharata’s Natyashastra, of the eight ‘rasas’ listed in it (‘Shanta rasa’ was later added by Abhinavagupta, the manual’s most famous commentator), there could be only two contenders. Prof Kapil Kapoor, who’d taught us the text, would always say: to consider ‘Shringara rasa’ only in terms of romantic love is a grave misreading. ‘Shringara’ refers to a feeling of effulgence within—a radiance that lights up the soul. And so, ‘Vipralambhashringara’, evoking a luminous, shining longing, in separation, is probably the answer?
Dissatisfied, I return to the book again. I leaf through the pages; the words and images climb out of the spine. And then, as night falls and I close my eyes and see the mango tree that reached into the balcony of my childhood-home where my lost grandmother still stands in her white sari, I have my answer. Nostalgia is, after all, the past seen through the compassion of autumn. Its ‘rasa’ can only be ‘karuna’.