‘No one feels more strongly than I do about India or how much I opposed our taking those countries and I think no more will be taken, for it is very wrong and no advantage to us. You know how I dislike wearing the Koh-i-Noor’, wrote the Queen to her daughter, in one of the earliest recorded examples of white colonial guilt.
Perhaps I cannot begin this beautiful story without noting that this guilt did not prevent or inhibit the ongoing suction of mineral, vegetal and structural resources at a scale reminiscent of gluttony but causing only intellectual discomfort, rather than physical duress, to the gluttons themselves.
And so it was that the day began, oily with rain, dripping cold down our necks as we waited for the bus to Harrow. ‘Do you want to skip school?’ asked my mother, once my father was out the door. Click. A lazy child, happy to eat toast by the fire and read my book, I said yes. My sister was a baby. I remember the red and white striped buggy from Mothercare, and that the rain hissed and boiled as it bounced off the pavement, leaving a pattern of indigo and yellow dots behind my eyelids when I looked away. A bus, then two trains. The smell of wet wool.
At the Tower of London, my mother bought our tickets. Into the pocket of the Tower we went. ‘Here,’ said my mother, giving me the buggy’s reins. Without preamble, she took her position next to the display case. There it was, the diamond itself, unshattered, in synthesis with the crown.
A single ray of light bounced off the diamond and another from my mother’s tooth. Is this why we still don’t have a home? Is it because we are mad, or that our own place in the chain of inherited wealth, derived from the labour of others, was broken? In the mythology of my paternal strain, for example, there were cotton fields. In Lahore, my grandmother changed her sari to match the colour of the sun as it moved across the morning sky: scarlet, then orange, then light pink silk with butterflies or paisley swirls embroidered with silver thread.
Let it rain. Let the memory of the homes of my ancestors wash away with the homes themselves.
The Tower of London is warm and dry. My sister is a quiet baby. My mother is focused. Thus, the protest begins. ‘Give it back,’ screams my mother. ‘You took it from us.’ What I recall is the darkness of the room in which the Crown Jewels were displayed, a decision based on preservation but also the drama, I suspect, of the diamonds, rubies and emeralds floating in the glass boxes, the navy-blue necks and throats constructed from velvet.
Jewels were displayed, a decision based on preservation but also the drama, I suspect, of the diamonds, rubies and emeralds floating in the glass boxes
My mother screams and screams, and soon the Beefeaters appear. On either side, their gloved hands grip her upper arms with a firmness familiar to me from education. ‘You bastards,’ screams my mother, as the tourists and schoolchildren on day trips from their various boroughs or parts of the country press back against the walls. Do they remember this day as vividly as I do? ‘It doesn’t belong to you.’
This morning, at the dentist, 45 years after the day I’m recalling from my childhood, the day of my mother’s protest, I flinched from the pain of a deep cleaning. Unbidden, from nowhere, from deep within my own body, came the image of an egg balanced on a railway platform. I was an egg, I thought, inside my mother’s body, in the weeks that followed the implementation of the Radcliffe Boundary Award.
‘We had no milk, no water, no food, no toilets. My grandfather gave me a mango the night before we left. He said, “You’re taking the mango to India and when you get there it will be ripe. You love mangoes, baby.” So, I kept it in my coat. All around us, spread out in every direction, were dead bodies, and we slept there for seven nights,’ said my mother, at bedtime, once. I realise now that she was a young woman when she was my mother, and not an old woman. Her experiences were fresh. Extraction displaces the biome, the muddy environment as much as the object itself.
Walking home from the bus-stop, my mother stopped in front of Keeley’s house. Keeley, a classmate, seven years old like me. Her parents opened the door. ‘Can we use your toilet?’ asked my mother. ‘We’re eating dinner,’ said Keeley’s parents. ‘But we need to use it,’ said my mother, ‘desperately.’ In we went. And then: ‘Can we eat our lunch here?’ Keeley’s parents, clearly uncomfortable, let us into the conservatory, where my mother unwrapped our packed lunch of parathas and achar. I remember only the cardinal feeling of shame, an emotion so excruciating it might as well be a colour or dye, turning the body red.
I don’t recall experiencing embarrassment when my mother, without warning, transgressed all social bonds to protest the Koh-i-noor’s proximity to the wrong Kings and Queens, and with the proviso that, in its native context, successive possessions were also contested by regional domains.
Migration has a cost.
That’s the wrong sentence, but the unfamiliar note is the one I want to end on, as the protest was unsuccessful, and only lives in the psyches of a) the two or three Beefeaters in the room that day, b) the other visitors, c) my family members.
What I also remember: the bright green grass and the ravens, gleaming, silky and black, on the Tower lawn. With a shove, my mother was expelled from the interior by the Yeoman Warders. The Ravenmaster was waiting on the ramp with his pitchfork to herd her along. I jutted and pricked my way through the crowd, to find her, my mother, sobbing inconsolably on a wall.
Below us, the Thames roared up and spat light green and golden foam into our eyes and onto our legs.
– Bhanu Kapil
– Claire Wahmanholm
IMAGE: Tome I by Basia Irland
Mountain Maple, Columbine Flower, Blue Spruce seeds
(from ‘ICE RECEDING/BOOKS RESEEDING’)
ICE RECEDING/BOOKS RESEEDING are artworks, created alongside communities and scientists around the world: river water is frozen, carved into the form of an open or closed book, embedded with a global cross-cultural ecological language consisting of local native seeds, and placed back into the stream. These sculptures depict problems, including receding glaciers and dangerous outflow from mines, and a suggestion for action – reseeding riparian zones to reduce some of the effects of climate disruption through plants and to bring attention to the overwhelming number of streams that are adversely affected by toxic mine drainage.
Fulbright Scholar, Basia Irland founded the Arts and Ecology Program, University of New Mexico; authored Water Library and Reading the River; had a major retrospective in the Netherlands and will represent the United States in the Cuenca Biennial, Ecuador. Her water projects are featured in over 70 international publications. basiairland.com
Dark Mountain: Issue 24 – Eight Fires
Our Autumn 2023 full colour edition is an ensemble exploration of the eight ceremonial fires of the year, celebrated in practices, stories, poetry and artwork.