1950. Le Val D’Or – Tout Perdu

 In the early 1980s at a point of disjuncture in my life, I attended some workshops entitled ‘Healing as Self-healing’.  In one of them, a guided meditation led us through a woodland into a clearing, a healing meadow and then to a house. And the house that appeared was ‘Val D’Or’, where I’d lived when I was seven.   I was astonished. Until then I had neither remembered nor thought of the place. And there it was, solid and square in the sunlight. I was puzzled. 

 ‘ I’m not surprised.’ Said my sister when I told her, ‘ It was our last family home. We never had one after that. Just that small flat where we could never fit together.’ 

I was surprised when images of that time, sharp and clear tumbled, abundant into my mind. And I wondered that I had forgotten. Why?

I am with my parents and their friends.  We are in Versailles watching  the  Son et Lumiere  heralding the new decade, 1950. I am little and can’t see much but I don’t care as I snuggle between my mummy and daddy.  My father takes my hand, my mother put her arm around me and then her cool fingers find my face and with the middle one she gently strokes below my right eye to check if the thickened skin is still softening, the scleroderma clearing. I push her hand away. After a pause she gently strokes my head.  I snuggle under her shawl, feel the soft silk of her sari on my skin. She smells lovely.  I like 1950.

Le Val D’Or: The Valley of Gold, in the suburb of St Cloud. My father had a two year contract and we had moved to a house on the outskirts of Paris with grounds and garden and I attended the local school. 

It was a handsome house. Stone steps led to the front door and into a hall, rooms on the right, kitchen straight ahead and staircase on the left. All wood: floor, staircase, panelling and doors. In the dining room was a mirror wall and I would squat on the floor in front of it with my plate of food and watch people in the mirror and watch myself watching.

‘Where’s Leena?’ 

‘ Sitting in front of the mirror where else’ 

‘Where’s Leena?’ 

‘Showing off as usual. What else’

We ate mostly in the kitchen and lounged in the lounge and the dining room was often free for me to dance and perform in front of the mirror.

‘Daddy what do you want me to become when I grow up?

‘An actress of course.”

‘Oh Papa! How can I become what I already am’

My mother told me the facts of life in Val D’Or, lying in the bathtub in the sunny bathroom, scooping and splashing the water over her stomach with her hands as she talked, quietly, clearly, matter of fact.  A golden moment in the valley of gold.

The house was large and we had many guests. Aunty Sara came from London and put my hair into ringlets. Older cousins came to stay in their holidays and my cousin Roma lived with us for a year.

 ‘I have such lovely memories of that time. I was on my way to a finishing school in Switzerland Mama had arranged and stopped over in Paris. Uncle Baldoon said ‘Forget Switzerland, stay with us and we’ll finish you off.’  I stayed a year and it was wonderful. They were so good to me, loving and wise.  Aunty Kamala would talk and talk and tell so many stories that we’d miss our stop on the Metro and have to go back. It was a magical time.. I had a room on the top floor, and beautiful Roerichs on my wall. His paintings were all over the house.  What happened to them all?’ And the question would hang.

And of course there was Stella Mead who taught me to read – in English. Stella Mead was a friend of my fathers and wrote children’s books, one of them, which I still have, was called. ’The Land where Stories Grow’.

‘ Miss Mead was starting you on all those baby books, you were seven years old and I thought’s what’s this, already you were being teased as ‘ darling dunce –y,  And I would  say to you , ‘ Take no notice. You are the clever one. I know -. One day they’ll see.’

Le Val D’Or, The Valley of Gold was full of golden moments. Lying on the big bed with my mother, my legs bent and crossed I wave my arms and declare : ‘I love you from here to the moon, then round all the stars, then back to earth and the up, up to the sun and then round and round and again and again.

 And my mother from her ‘dream world’ would tell me stories of India:  her family, myths and legends, of life, places, people left behind , our own good fortune and so our duty to those less fortunate. 

“ You know’ She’d tell me wistfully,  ‘I lost my mother when I was three.’ and I would unlock my legs, stroke her head and kiss her eyes and cheeks and chin and say:  ’Don’t  worry,  because I’m your mummy and I’ve come back to look after you.’   

In the evening my father would come home from his office and the two of us would snuggle up together and he’d tell me his story:  The Grey Rabbit Stories, made up as he went along, especially for me- a story of a great forest where all the animals lived in harmony: little grey rabbit, white rabbit, the naughty monkey, the wise snake, and the reclusive Russian philosopher/scientist and his two granddaughters who lived amongst them. 

There was a lot of Russian around us at the time, our landlady was Russian, so was Nicholas Roerich the mystic/philosopher artist whose many paintings filled all the walls of our house in Val D’Or.  And then there was Monsieur Nicholas, a Russian ex- count who sort of came with the house.  Sometimes he would babysit me and tell me his story: ’Tout perdu’, he would say shaking his head, ‘Tout perdu’. 

I am perched on the kitchen stool, shaking my head, in sympathy and turning up my nose at the milk, bright orange from the turmeric

 “Good girl to drink your milk. Drink, and I’ll tell you the story:- It was a dark night, I ran and ran over walls, up trees. I lived with the pigs, with birds, with wolves – but I was safe. The Bolsheviks never caught me.. .  But –‘ tout perdu.’

 “Daddy, we’ll look after Monsieur Nicholas wont we?  Because Monsiour Nicholas,  il a tout perdu

Tout perdu!  I don’t remember my mother leaving or saying goodbye. But she left.

She had been summoned to Holland by her elder sister, whom she called ‘Painji’ because her husband, whom my mother called ‘Jijaji’ was in hospital.    

I became a bit of a waif. Unsupervised.  I played hopscotch in the street with my friend Mireille around same age as me. I loved her pastel and gold collection of holy pictures.  Her fourteen year old brother Yves tried to grope and groom me, and got me steal him cigarettes.  I remember standing in the concrete playground in school, some teachers inspect behind my ears in turns and tutt-tutt around me.

 My mother returned with my aunt and uncle and we all had to ‘help him’.  I had to be quiet. And no Grey Rabbit stories as the sofa was perdu.  The gold had gone from Val D’Or’.  It got clouded over.  

Why did I forget about the place? Something I wanted to forget?

This was the first ‘Family Summons’.  It would become a regular demand 

impinge into our lives creating for me strings of resentment getting  increasingly tangled so that by the time my mother died I was locked in the tight toxic knot. 

In 2012 I visited my cousin Roma in Kolkata.  Imagining that through her recollections of that ‘first’ time, I might catch that first thread and unravel the rest?

‘ I remember it very well ‘ she said, ‘I was in the room when the call came. I could hear Aunty Padma crying at the other end. Aunty Kamala, very calm simply said, “don’t cry Painji, I’m coming. Just now.’  Saris don’t take up much space so she left with just a small bag. When Uncle Baldoon came back from office, I had to tell him. He just accepted, looked after us took us to parks, and picnics in the bois de Boulogne’

Rather than anything unravelling, I felt a tightening around my throat so that when I spoke it was a croak.

‘ She would do anything for them and in return they robbed, mocked and maligned her.’ I was weeping.

‘They were sisters, and we don’t know that relationship. It was bigger than her. Uncle Baldoon knew. But it wasn’t easy for him.’

I was weeping. Roma ordered coffee. 

‘It wasn’t right .’ said Roma.  ‘But it became a habit in the family to poke fun at Aunty Kamla. Calling her Kamli which means crazy, whereas in fact she was  pure soul and very wise. She could rise above it and not get affected …’

‘Well, it affected me! ’ I retorted, ‘It poisoned my life!’ I felt angry. I felt stupid. The coffee tasted bitter. I added more sugar but the bitterness lingered. I tried to  focus my mind on the sounds of the traffic. 

‘ Look’ said Roma firmly, ‘ Why are you bothering about them. Uncle Baldoon and Aunty Kamala were your parents and never robbed or maligned anyone. They were wonderful and generous. And they were your parents.’  I nodded, Roma continued, ‘ I went to see Mother Teresa when was dying and asked her final advice and she told me, ‘Forgive, forgive, forgive.’

I started to laugh. Roma looked at me quizzically. ‘Glad you’re laughing. But what’s the joke?’

‘A friend said to me a few months ago “ Forgiveness means giving up any hope of a better past.’

‘That’s a good one ‘ said Roma. ‘But talking about the past, what ever happened to all those Roerich paintings?’

‘They’re all in the Roerich Museum in New York.  I’ll visit one day and untangle that story.’

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