Sentimental? Mushy? Soppy? Maybe. But as true today as it was when I wrote it some thirty years ago. Whenever I read this I try to rewrite it. In vain. Emotion wins every single time, just like the trunk does.
As Diwali draws near, my cleaning-up operations get more and more desperate. Every moment I can spare from my chores, I sift through clothes, greeting cards, letters, books; choosing the few usable articles from the flood of unusable ones.
Soon I reach the stage where I recklessly discard most items in a bid to keep the house from splitting at the seams. But amidst all this hurry and ruthlessness, I keep aside a whole day for The Trunk.
I have very ambivalent feelings about The Trunk. Every year I wrestle with exasperation as well as joy as I look at the contents. This time, I told myself sternly, I am going to go through it very carefully and discard all the stuff that is not really usable. So, fully prepared, I settled down in front of it and caught my husband looking at me quizzically. “Well?” I challenged. He just grinned and went back to his paper and it strengthened my resolve to cut down on the number of things packed into the big ancient trunk.
Mentally cursing this acquisitive habit of mine, I opened the trunk, my attitude wavering between reverence at the contents and irritation at myself. My biggest fantasy has always been to have a house with the barest minimum of items in it. That probably makes it evident that I cannot easily throw away even a mundane dhobi bill. But I forget everything as I remove the soft silk cover from the trunk – my mother’s saree from the sixties. Below it, neatly arranged, lie a number of items. I remove them gently, pondering over each.
There lie the tray cloths, crocheted by my grandmother’s aunt, used by my grandmother when she first set up house. At least 70 years old, they are slightly yellowed with age. As I finger the delicate peacocks and intertwining, intricate leaves, I think of the frail old lady whom I met but once. The tray cloths were given to me by my mother when, as a teenager, I first evinced an interest in my ‘roots’. Then come the table mats that my grand aunt had made for me. I have put them aside as they are too beautiful for daily use but as I look at the cool green and white circles, I remember the day she handed them to me. A very astute and confident lady, she is no longer with us, but her efficiency and speed are forever woven into these bits of cloth and lace.
I lay them aside softly and pick up an old old album. Faded sepia photographs with ladies in nine yard sarees and huge noserings, men looking so strange in smart coats, topis and dhotis! I look at a young and shy grandmother, ringed by various other unknown ladies. I think of discarding the thick album and keeping only the few photographs of relatives I know. I lay it aside, quelling every pang. I peer into the trunk and steadily remove all the items – letters, wedding invitations (some older than me!), my grandfather’s flat old wooden pen holder, Sanskrit verses (absolutely unintelligible to me) in his handwriting, a strange manuscript on the bark of a tree, the dresses my paternal aunt used to make for me, the scarves my French pen friend sent me twenty five years ago, picture postcards, sandalwood souvenirs from trips to Mysore and Bangalore……
Very practical, very ruthless, and almost numb am I as I lay aside most of the beautiful things from this trunk. As I come to the last item, a bundle of Russian lace – a present to my mother from her uncle half a century ago – I stop and look at the small pile of things I have chosen to keep. Do I keep this lace – unused all these years – or do I discard it? None of the things I have retained can be used. They are too delicate, too yellowed or too old fashioned. But the memories they have for me! With a sudden movement I put the lace with these things and as I look at the big pile of discarded items, I feel a wrench.
I see my grandmother, my parents, my brother, and so many generations of relatives in these “useless” letters and papers; there are so many ties, so many conversations, laughter, even tears, bound with the sandalwood key chains, the letters, the photographs that I have discarded. As I ponder agonizingly over the two defenseless heaps, my husband asks, “Shall I help you put them back in the trunk?”
My choice has been made. As we smoothen out the wrinkles from the pieces of cloth and lace, I tell him about the wonderful people who made these things, the people I come from. He hands me letters and photographs and comments on the resemblance between an unknown relative and me. It takes us a long time to put back every precious item and at the end I realise it has been a time spent in the company of loved ones, a celebration of life and of love.