The Sepia-Tinted, Childhood-Shaped Room : Personal Essay

I was never a magician’s assistant, but sometimes in my fantasies I like to pretend I’m one.

We did not have a stage or fancy spotlights but we did have a dusty attic and the sunlight streaming through the mullioned windows and causing the dust motes to shimmer goldenly like pixies was magical enough.

And besides, we did have most of the props. My imaginary magician was always immaculately attired in his traditional black suit and top hat; and I in a gorgeous Victorian-inspired purple dress that was originally my mother’s and salvaged from a thrift store that she never found again.

But we never put up much of a show. For one, we did not have an audience, except ourselves. And two, I preferred the attic as the magician’s backstage room, with all the rosewood cabinets filled with strange and wonderful things.

​In fact our favourite prop was an ancient view master which we discovered inside a tattered cowboy hat and wrapped in a frayed cloth. At first we thought it must be a strange set of binoculars but then we found three circular cardboard reels, marked “Cinderella”, “Thumbelina” and “The Pied Piper Of Hamelin “respectively. After some more tinkering, we figured out how to work it, aligning the lens in the direction of sunlight and immersing ourselves in a sepia-tinted pleasure.

Each of those film reels narrated their fairytale via seven stills-seven pivotal moments recreated with crude hand-made, but at the same time, so beautifully done and intricately-detailed sets and clay tabletop models. I guess the closest thing to that, now, would be stop-motion animation.

At that point of time, back when Pluto was still a planet, I didn’t know how they were made or the science behind that magic, but I remember my younger self being enchanted by the sheer perfection of it all-the glimmering designs on Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage or the faery godmother’s silver wings, so akin to a dragon-fly’s.

There were certain images to which I’d return, over and over, like the favourite scenes from comic books. I could gaze for hours at Cinderella’s terror-struck face as the clock struck midnight, watch the mice slowly transform into white horses, or follow the Pied Piper as he led the mice, and later the children, through the city streets and the mountain roads, against a summer sky.

To me, each of those seven frames were miniature stories in themselves, self-contained and alive. I would imagine the conversations between the clay figurines, listen to Thumbelina sing to the wounded swallow, hear the river gurgle past and the silver fish dart and swim beneath the ripples.

There were also certain images I could never view properly-those that were damaged and tinged with a fluorescent green. But my imagination could always fill the gaps, provide a soundtrack of its own.
But we didn’t really need the music. The summer breeze was its own lullaby and the trees in our garden made sweet music. But sometimes, in an old cassette player, we would put on some Carpenter’s and drown in Karen’s ethereal voice and in the summer stillness.

Top Of The World was a personal favourite. Looking down at the world from a broken window pane was always an exhilarating experience. There was something infinitely dream-like and beautiful about retro love songs- a sense of sincerity, playfulness and earnestness. If there was one thing I could bring back from yesteryear it would be the love songs. They don’t make love songs like that anymore.

It was much later that I realized that the attic was indeed a magical place- sepia-tinted other world, removed from everything else. Voices from downstairs couldn’t reach us, unless they were particularly loud, and sometimes to ensure complete privacy we would just shut the mahogany doors with the eagle-shaped brass doorknobs. The cracks in the walls often offered space for sparrows and doves to make their nests and we occasionally saw pigeons and contemplated tying a letter to their legs.

In one of the cabinets we actually found a box containing parchment, tied with a blur ribbon and with words written in elegant calligraphy. We giggled and likened them to love letters and though we couldn’t properly read them, we liked the sound of the words on our tongues-ephemeral, frankincense, longing, stranger.

No guests were ever allowed inside, except my grandfather, that too after charging a modest entry fee(three stories or more).I remember, one afternoon, when three of us, tried in vain to fix the gramophone. We had discovered some vintage vinyl records-The Beatles, Elvis Priestley, Cliff Richards and the like; and were dying to play them. But after three hours of love and labour, all that the gramophone accomplished was to stutter a few syllables from Summer Holiday, mutter incoherently, groan like a constipated person, then die like a soldier with a gunshot wound.

The grandfather clock was slightly more cooperative, functioning for precisely seven days and then relapsing to an uneasy, eternal silence. The transistors refused to wake up and the rusty typewriter never showed any inclination to type an alphabet, let alone a love letter.

But back then, I really did not have any words to write. What are words but tiny, black wires that ensnare the heart to believe again, tiny black arrows that pierce and lacerate the heart apart? What are words but a pretext to fill empty space?

I was always an awfully retro person. Maybe because the secret attic playroom, filled with curious knickknacks became my favourite childhood haunt. Maybe because my mother’s favourite song was Yesterday Once More.

Maybe because I come from a family of bookworms and antique dealers-my favourite storybook as a child was a moth-eaten book of faerytales, complete with richly sketched French illustrations like an alchemical text and imbued with a realism that the digitally enhanced counterparts could never replicate.

But I don’t visit the attic room anymore, and the lone cabinet (the one we didn’t sell off)is empty except for the orphaned view master. It’s hard, so hard, to pinpoint the exact day when my imaginary friend and magician died.

Was it the day my dad injured his spine, proving he wasn’t the invincible superman I’d always imagined him to be? Was it when my mother had a major operation and I died because I could finally see the cracks and holes in a beautiful tapestry? Or was it the day I first made real friends at school and came back to find my grandfather hospitalized and suffering from an incurable heart disease? Was it the night I first slit my wrists and was entranced by the grotesque and pitiful way blood trailed down my fingers and formed little islands of their own on the glazed white floor?

In those moments, I really didn’t want my imagination to fill the gaps.
Maybe my imaginary friend didn’t exactly die, but just faded away, like the ghost of a summer breeze to that magical otherworld from which I was exiled. Maybe that’s why I don’t visit the attic room. Maybe I fear that if I go there, I’ll find, instead of my childhood self, a skeleton hanging from the ceiling and dead ragdolls lying like rotting corpses at her feet.


This previously appeared in Quail Bell Magazine.

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