My Grandmother has had a tin trunk for as long as I remember. It never attracted much thought or curiosity for it was not the only trunk in the house. My mother had one and it was part of her trousseau. That again was commonplace in her generation and culture; every household I had access to as a child had one. The large tin trunk or ‘peti’ held all bedding required for the house, the heavier quilts that were packed away once summer arrived, with naphthalene balls inserted in layers, so that everything else that was stored in the trunk was infused with this smell. Yet, this smell was deemed special and we usually buried our noses in the clothes to breathe it in.
There were other things in the peti, put away, for these were used infrequently. The peti was usually put in the storeroom of the house because of its large size. But here too it was used as an ironing board. A thick ‘khes‘- a kind of cotton blanket was used to provide cushioning and spread on top of the peti. Then, bedsheets were added to make it a clean and comfortable alternative to an ironing table. The peti was usually locked, with a huge iron padlock (I think, those were the only ones available then) which made a loud noise as we brushed past it. When opened, it was an occasion to savour for something mysterious would appear from the trunk. Children were usually asked to help an adult in holding the heavy lid while they dug about in the layers. Then a triumphant look and the item required was tugged out. The metal loop was closed and fit into place with a loud clang that I can identify even today in my sleep.
After my parents settled down in their retirement house, they decided to sell the peti. It was large and required too much space. The children of the house, grown up by now were sad but we could not even fathom what our mother felt. It was almost as if the family heirloom was given away. People do not buy those tin trunks now, at least not in the urban areas and I did not get one as a wedding gift.
Mother does have a number of smaller trunks in the house, and they are simply called trunks. They are also used for storage and they too have a metallic clang and their opening is also occasional. All those trunks are in the store still, except the one that my grandmother deems hers. It was not a wedding gift and it is not as old as it seems with bits of newspaper stuck to its base and sides from the moist cupboard it is kept in.
My grandmother is in her nineties. Back when she walked with a spring in her step, draped in green polka dotted white sarees, her ample bosom heaving as she crushed us children to her, her room was full of idols she worshipped twice a day, tinkling a little brass bell in front of the Gods, singing bhajans lustily. Some days, I still wake up to the sound of the bell but the ritual is now intermittent and half hearted. The photos of her Gods are neglected, old and fading. The cloth covers of the photos are frayed and as children we would sit by her when she sewed new ones for her Gods every August before Janamashtami-the birthday of Lord Krishna. There was a glint in her eyes and a song on her lips as she did her work. Now, her Gods sit in a corner of her cupboard.
My Grandmother lives with my parents. I am no longer young and spirited. I sometimes feel the middle aged heaviness upon me. I think I am turning into my parents. Does my father think he is getting to be more like his mother? At what point do we realise that we are bound together inextricably by heredity and familiarity of the years and decades spent together.
Last year, when I went to spend a few days with my parents, my grandmother seemed happy to see her grandchild and great grandchildren. I had never stopped to wonder whether she saw herself in the innocence of these little children. She asked me after a couple of days to help her open her tin trunk. I pulled the heavy trunk out of the cupboard; it made a sickening sound as it scraped against the marble floor. With trembling hands she handed me the heavy keys to the padlock. After fumbling around for a minute or so, I inserted the right key in the lock. A twist and it was open. The lid creaked when I lifted it and the sight of clothes greeted me. Silk clothes for special occasions, her petticoats that she no longer wore, her chiffon sarees that she asks us to take and wear but something we girls-women, politely decline each time, embroidered handkerchiefs, used to wrap a black and white faded photo of her brother, who crossed the seas to settle in far off Africa when she was a young bride and never met him again. Her rosaries were nearly tucked in a corner.
My grandmother patiently asked me to arrange her clothes. Take a few out and put a few others in. Here, I was, rearranging and looking at a lifetime. A life characterised by hopes, dreams, desires, disappointments. Of witnessing births and deaths. Of making sense of the life that was given to her. Of her spirituality and her ritualistic love for the Gods. Of the people she had lived and known, the bits of her memories of her own parents, grandparents, siblings, husband, children who were with her and the children she had lost a long time back. Of people whose lives she had touched. Of her understanding of the world and God’s will. Of her love for her favourite dishes and her inability to eat them now. Of the seclusion of old age which is not penetrated by the young. Of her infirmity, her failing limbs, her arthritic, twisted fingers. Her toothless grin that was once characterised by white pearlies. Her thinning white hair, that she still likes to get braided.
I was looking at the contents of the tin trunk and looking at her life, as it had been and as it was now. A lifetime of moments, memories and worldly possessions, all of which can fit into a tin trunk. At that moment, I saw myself in her, as I would be in a few decades. I resolved to treasure only that which I could carry in my mind and that I could give to others. Could I be understanding the measure of a life?