It must be really difficult to write about someone you have never met but who is remembered with great affection in the family. This was the challenge for the daughter of a close friend of mine. Her grandfather was Edward Mendonça, a celebrated Indian poet, and his centenary was last year. A book of a collection of his poems was planned to mark this. Would Neisha, a gifted poet in her own right, contribute a poem?
Many families have pet names for grandparents, and ‘Gappy’ was that for Edward Mendonça. So Neisha wrote:
And so it was
That you should live and I should live
At separate times, in separate worlds.
So that I’ll never know your touch; the small expressions of your face;
The paper-soft feel of your grandfather skin, or the comfort of your laugh from afar.
I have no memory of you that’s only for me.
But I have endless tales: of love, of joy, of kindness …
And I know that you are wonderful,
And still here – in words, in memories and in enduring love.
As with so many of Neisha’s poems, I loved this as soon as I heard it. It had elements of reaching back through half-remembered, or half-told memories to try to form the feeling of a person long since gone. I played around with the words until I was happy with them, wanting a free and unstructured piece. Then to the paper – what to write it on? I found a single sheet of hand-made Indian tissue-like paper, slightly crumpled. This was exactly the feeling that I wanted. I tested the paper for writing, and although it was a bit of a challenge, it seemed to work with a bit of care.
The effect I was aiming for was that of reaching back into the past for memories, some clearer than others, some about to disappear. I had the idea of tearing the paper into strips and writing each line at the base of a single strip, one overlapping the other. BUT I had just that single sheet of paper and there was little room for wastage, so it was very tense! I placed the written lines of my rough on the torn strips of tissue paper to see how it would work and made a few adjustments.
Then I started, using a very narrow nib and Indian red, which I thought appropriate in the circumstances, I placed each line of ‘rough’ above where I was to write. I worked my way along each line, taking into account the position of the words on the line above, and also the shape of the torn paper. As I worked down the piece, I laid each line on top of the other as I did so to check that it was working as a whole.
When I had finished writing I pasted the upper part of the torn paper strips on to the back of the one above, and left the bottom part loose – not attached. Sticking everything down securely and perfectly wasn’t the effect I was aiming for! The piece needed to be free and slightly ethereal, and yes, a bit torn round the edges! Of course, there are always things that I would have changed, and had I a second piece of paper, I could have planned it much better, but the overall effect was the one that I had in mind at the start – going back in time through layers of memory, some better remembered than others.