The summer after my mother died, I went through her closet. I was 16 years old, and alongside my father and brother, I had to help clear out her things and decide what to keep. Mourning and being a teenager is an odd combination; so isolating, but also, strangely freeing. I felt as though all the rules had been broken.
In the swirling newness of my grief, I still found myself fascinated by my mum’s version of womanhood. I tried on her red lipstick and her brightly colored court shoes from the 1980s, reveling in their adult-like feeling. I loved her saris, but I feared them too; I hadn’t grown up wearing the yards of delicate material, as she had.
But most of all, I loved the long-forgotten items from before my birth, when my mother was still new to our city. In a cream leather shoulder bag, I found a soft, worn pamphlet containing a London Tube map from 1977. It was familiar to me, but also strangely different, like a house with a person missing. Compared to a modern map, the layout was pleasingly uncluttered; the saturated colors jump out, and the capital letters naming all the subway stations feel like shouting in a digital age. It had a rough-hewn, artisanal quality that almost made it look handmade.In truth, the map was as mass-produced as any other. But it was immediately precious to me, for it was a remnant of a defining moment in my mother’s life. In 1975, she had just left behind her native city of Kolkata, India, and was getting to know the contours of London.