Vaneisa: Portals to the Past—the power of meals and dreams

Ask people what it is that makes certain meals so special for them, and I bet that when they reflect they will say it is because it invokes some warm memory from childhood.

Hardly is it connected to a lavish spread—it has more to do with its homely nature. The evocation of aromas; the congregation of hands peeling, chopping, stirring and tasting; scoldings and praises; chores done in anticipation of the repast to come; all of these combine to form a diaphanous glow in the caverns of our mind.

It’s lunchtime!

Not everyone has experienced that domestic hubbub, but for those who have known these routinely casual demonstrations of love, it is a bond forever lasting.

Eating is much more than an act of filling the pangs of hunger. Humans differ from the rest of creatures because they are driven by tastes and a desire for diversity.

How often do you hear people complain that they cannot eat the same dish over a few days? But the difference is most marked by the act of dining as a social exchange.

The words breaking bread signify an act of friendship, something communal and wholesome.

Memorable meals are founded upon all the elements surrounding them, not just the food itself. When I think about the dishes that stand out for me, I know they are all connected to some special memory, usually from my early childhood.

A family prepares lunch.

When I cook them now, it is because they are surrounded by the aura of warmth and the sense of safety and security that comes before innocence is pushed aside by life’s realities.

I suppose this is why they are called comfort foods as a distinction between them and the gastronomic indulgences (so often pretentiously portrayed), which seem to be all the rage.

I’ve been thinking about the way food can transport us back into our warmest places, particularly from our early years, and it occurred to me that there are two portals to our past—one being the meals that were made for us as one of our earliest cultural introductions, and the other being our dreams.

I don’t know about you, but I dream like a chatterbox who can’t stop talking, even with my eyes wide shut. All my life, my sleep has been tripping the light fantastic. Absurd, bizarre, dark, scary, funny, and often so realistic that I wake up wondering.

I realised that many of my dreams are physically located in the places where I grew up, which is why I have concluded that dreams provide another opening to our childhoods.

Columnist Vaneisa Baksh strikes a pose in 1971 in front of the puteegal tree in her aunt’s back yard.
(via Vaneisa Baksh)

I have roughly demarcated my early life into discrete stages. When I refer to my childhood, I mean the period until I was about nine or ten, when we lived in the house where I was born and ran wild with our cousins.

There are a couple of years that remain hanging in limbo, when my childhood ended, and then half of my family moved to my maternal grandmother’s house for another two years. And then, when I was 14, my siblings were reunited and we moved to the address where I now live—except that it was a completely different house then, made of tapia, wood and concrete.

We lived in this house for many years, until I was in my early 20s. It was on the same street where I was born.

All of this background is to share another discovery I have made about my dreams about those early homes. I write fondly about my days before childhood was cut short, but I never dream about them.

Whenever I have dreams about that space, they are usually nightmares, apocalyptic ones.

Destination Dreamland…

The most common one is where I stand on the landing of the stairs leading up to my paternal grandparents’ house (we lived in one of two apartments on the bottom floor), and I lean over the banister and see massive pillars of water streaming towards us, flattening coconut trees and breaking apart buildings. And I know it is a tsunami and we are all going to perish.

There is another nightmare, where I am in that space and I suddenly remember that I no longer live there and that my home is lower down the street, and I start running towards it, only to find that when I get there, the place has been either abandoned and is overgrown with bushes—or that it is partly demolished, or that it is being rebuilt.

Most times, when there is construction going on, it is my elder brother (who died more than 25 years ago) who is doing the work. I feel homeless.

I had one of those dreams a few nights ago, and it set me thinking about these things. I have already overshared these details of my nightlife, but there was something else that I have been wondering about.

A derelict house, surrounded by overgrown grass.

I always look back at the first decade with warmth and nostalgia. Yet, I never have dreams about it.

When did I start associating that space with so many versions of the end of the world? It must have been after we left in such despair.

Okay, too much already. My intention was to reflect on the deep resonance of our early experiences and how they stay with us—one way or the other.

Good or bad, they shape us till the end. Look back and you’ll see.

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