Poetry and Memory: The Bridge Between My Grandfather’s Memoirs and Me

When I returned to my grandfather’s book of memoirs this year, it transformed the connection I have with my roots. My brothers and I, sitting at the foot of my grandfather’s bed, used to listen to his stories, advice, and pearls of wisdom which he had collected over his years, spanning back from ever since he was a child. It was his wish to then document these memories in a book. My family and I used to gather in our living room, somebody would narrate the new passages of the book he had written that day, and we would all sit in silence, his life’s film reel playing in our minds. 

Over time, the value of the book and what it means to me has changed, and now when I read the first lines on the first page, the often-said phrase of how a picture can be painted through words, becomes abundantly clear to me. It was on a quiet weekday night during lockdown that I had decided to return to it. And when reading those first lines after so long, I had suddenly experienced a newfound sense of immersion. 

‘Even now, when I close my eyes and reminisce on my childhood, I can see the wheat fields with their tall spikes wafting in the air and the vibrant greens of the growing crops; I can almost smell the aroma and the fresh, clean air… and feel the cool breeze waft from the mountains’. 

I was transported from the monotony of lockdown and being confined to my bedroom to a landscape rich with crops, blessed with fresh air, lined with snowy peaks, and a tight-knit community of families getting on with their daily lives. My grandfather’s memories helped me escape the restricting jaws of the pandemic and provided a separation from our current times, social media, and an age afflicted with anxiety. I found myself living an innocent and more detached life, free of distractions. 

Under the dim glow of my convenient desk side lamp, I had built this raw emotional connection with my grandfather’s childhood memories and felt a compulsion to act on what I had just felt. Only very recently, had I discovered writing poetry, as a means of catharsis during these trying times. With this new form of expression, I now felt a sense of duty and purpose to harness the power of the book and convey its meaning through poetry. And it was those first seven words, ‘Even now when I close my eyes…’ that inspired me to write a poem titled ‘When Echoes Were Retold’. A piece describing how, when I had returned to the book, I had experienced a vicarious dream of my grandfather’s childhood. An intention that heavily underpinned the poem was to allow others to peer through the same vivid spyglass I had the privilege of briefly looking through. It was only in closing my eyes and playing the dynamic scenes through in my head, that I could try best to convey the book’s rich imagery, and my own strange sense of yearning, to go to a place I’d never been. 

When Echoes Were Retold

When echoes were retold,

Could I feel the gusts flow from Jammu’s mountains,

Bathing me in calmness amongst the fields,

Where the air was pure and unchoked,

And where I swayed with tall spikes of wheat.

When echoes were retold,

Could I feel the swollen cold winters,

Warmed by the haveli fireplace,

Where crimson embers danced,

Inside a room of resting worshippers.

When echoes were retold,

Could I feel those first merciful drops,

When the heavens opened to greet me,

With the glorious summer monsoons,

And a sweet scent no other could match.

When echoes were retold,

Could I feel, if only for a fleeting moment,

How you may have felt, in your Sialkot village. 

‘When Echoes Were Retold’ is a snapshot of my grandfather’s vivid childhood days. The rest of his book is overflowing with experiences of his life’s roadmap spanning from his young self in that Sialkot village, to starting a family and moving to the UK. In looking at it as a whole now, I find that I could write a thousand poems on the many interesting events of his life.   

In thinking about his memoirs, I have developed a deeper appreciation for his efforts in writing the book. I have often been told that the roots and where a person comes from are the beginning places for many of the values they uphold in their lives. My grandfather’s book  acts not only as a collection of his own memories, but as the preservation of a past which, if forgotten, would sever the roots that link me to my heritage and inform my own moral compass and beliefs. It is a bridge of written history between his past and my present to pass on what he had learnt in his own life and the principles he remained strong to. My grandfather was a modest and humble man, who remembered in giving charity and being compassionate to others and I, too, hope to carry these same values with me throughout my own life’s journey. 

So many memories and stories are passed from one generation to the other by the tongue. However, if this is the only medium by which they are communicated, they may eventually diminish. Which is why I would encourage those of my generation, especially South Asians, to learn about the pasts of the elders in their families, write about them, and cherish them. Their recollections are the key to your origins, your family’s journey, and how you came to be where you are today.

Zain Shamsi is a Chemical Engineering student at The University of Birmingham. He uses poetry as a way to tell stories and offer advice

In writing a piece on his grandfather’s memories, Zain hopes to shine a spotlight on the unique experiences of those who lived in another time and place, different to the one his generation now lives in. You can follow his poetry on Instagram @shamsipoetics

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