Biscuit Tin

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Growing up in a small railway town in the 1970s, I had very few things, if by “thing” we mean “object of industrial manufacture.” Barely a generation separated us from village life, and we still lived close to the earth. Its pliant shapes and musky smells were all around me: water cooling in round-bottomed clay pots (fridges were still off in the future), toys whose veneer of bright peasant paint wore off to reveal dark mud underneath.

In this preindustrial fastness, anything that carried a whiff of the busy civilization elsewhere — the cities to which trains rattling through our town every day carried our fantasies — was cherished. I remember particularly a biscuit tin from before World War II, in which my mother stored brown jaggery. The paint on it had faded, and rust scarred the metal surface, but not enough to conceal its place of origin, Fortnum and Mason of London, or its emblem, an extravagantly costumed Indian dancer, her arms and legs arrested in the traditional posture of Shiva.

I’m not sure how it came to be in our possession; it was probably something inherited from the railway bungalows where gloomy Anglo-Indians — the mixed race that, patronized by the British, was disproportionately represented in the railways — had, postindependence, plotted immigration to their imagined homelands in the West.

It stayed with us through our many moves, and while not strictly mine, I exercised proprietorial privilege over it, not just for its sweet contents, which were especially good with roasted peanuts on mild winter afternoons, but also because of its affiliation with the larger world, an unknown place I desperately wanted to make my own. My sisters, fierce competitors in other respects, indulged me — I could have my little toy.

Over the years, other things — people, places — forced their way into my vision, all stoking that desire to escape. I can’t remember when and where I lost possession of the biscuit tin. But it was no longer on my mind by the time I first went to London, let alone when I moved there for a few months in the autumn of my thirtieth year.

The city bewildered me. I’d had no clear idea of what to expect beyond red double-decker buses and Big Ben, but London, which in the late 90s was beginning a sustained period of economic growth, was most definitely not the city I had dreamed of in India. Occasionally a street name or an inscription on a statue’s plinth hinted at the network that once bound London to Asian and African hinterlands. But visitors from the former colonies could no longer exercise a special claim on the capital of what was then being hailed as “Cool Britannia.”

In this London, I felt lost. I stayed in a large ground-floor flat in Notting Hill that belonged to a famous actress who’d been born in a tea garden in India’s remote northeast during the war. That knowledge was oddly reassuring in the midst of a gentrifying neighborhood, where to be poor and dark-skinned was to be increasingly isolated.

But no trace of her colonial childhood seemed to have survived her subsequent decades in the modern, self-absorbed West. At least I could see none in the Notting Hill flat, until one chilly evening when, rummaging in the overhead kitchen shelf, my hand grasped something cold and metallic, a squarish box of familiar proportions.

Slowly I brought it out. The paint had preserved better in the temperate zone, and the ecstasy on the dancer’s face and the Oriental floridness of her costume were more pronounced. For a moment I stood there, giddy, as the years collapsed and my senses, roused, took flight.

A decade has passed since that moment of discovery. Probably surprised by the ardor of my request, the actress gave me the biscuit tin. Now it stands in my own London kitchen, and on melancholy days the tin box reminds me not only of the vanished world of my childhood but also of my childish dreams of escape to the West, and the strange emptiness that has followed their fulfillment.