I was in my late teens when my love affair with all things antiquated and ancient began. My extended family found my penchant for collecting and restoring all those household items and articles that found a place in our grandmother’s time, a source of laughter, and put it down as one of my quirks. Quite often as not, I found my home turning into a regular ‘dump yard’ whenever my relatives cleared their attic or moved from their ancestral homes to the ‘more modern’ apartment blocks.
It was in the last decade or so that I discovered that there was a growing market to refurbish and decorate homes with things that were discarded by previous generations. In the ever-evolving human race, the very same obsolete objects made for attractive décor and a source of animated drawing-room discussion as it led one to reminisce about places, people, and things. All in all, I didn’t have much to complain about as my hobby turned into quite a lucrative career in the last decade or two. A wooden chest could fetch me handsome money once, I repaired it or polished it. A well-polished cauldron could hold the umbrellas in the corner. Similarly, brass items, boilers used for heating water had lots of potential in the growing market for attractive, ancient items. It gave the place a quaint look.
It’s a matter of irony that many of my generations in the twentieth century scoffed at the household objects that were used in our ancestral homes by our grandparents and parents. We discarded them but in the new millennium, companies like Amazon were laughing their way to the bank, with people being reminded by social media of the health benefits that could be gained by cooking in the very same clay pots or using the brass and copper utensils which we had replaced with all steel and shine. I always felt that our education system was faulty. It made us turn up our noses to anything or everything that our elders said or did. Right from literature to cooking, to home décor to Indian toilet, we exchanged them for their western counterpart. I too was one of those snobs till I realized that all old stuff could potentially be gold!
It was all in a day’s work for me as I was preparing to restore an old trunk. In years gone by, a new bride carried all her worldly possessions in a metal trunk when she re-located from her parental house to her marital one. I remember my mother regaling how she walked into her new house with just one suitcase holding about a dozen saris! The trunk had slowly lost its importance as it made way for a more viable, lighter option or the more recent suitcases with wheels. Most of these trunks were thrown in the attic for it turned quite unwieldy particularly after filling it up with clothes. Surprisingly, this sturdy and forgotten piece of luggage had a good market not for its original purpose but as a very beautiful corner piece or as décor for the foyer. I was on a constant lookout for these trunks for they did fetch me a good price for the work I did on them.
Humming to the music being played in the background, I set to work on my trunk. I used a ball of steel wool or a wire brush with the drill to remove the oxide layer, depending on the layer of rust or the surface. I had to use different wire brushes for I did not want to damage the trunk but at the same time use those that will have lesser or greater sanding force depending on the area. These wire brushes were a boon. It could enter all corners and cracks. I did not want to polish the trunk. I just wanted to remove the rust leaving the aged metal visible and for that, I preferred to use a mixture of vinegar and water spraying it but sparingly. I enjoyed working on brass which was far easier than iron trunks. I used a paste of equal parts salt, flour, and white vinegar and allowed the brass to sit for an hour after applying the paste. I wiped it off with warm water. Despite being my own master, I preferred to work non-stop between ten in the morning after chores were done till about two-thirty. I had an hour’s break before the children came home. I found that I work best at my own pace.
I prised open the all too tight latch after treating it with some good, old, coconut oil and looked at the ludicrously small storage crevice on the inner lid of the trunk. It always made me wonder at the purpose of having it at all for it was not made to hold anything much. Even if someone kept valuables, it was very difficult to access them. As I was cleaning it with a fine wire brush, I discovered a yellowed piece of paper. Nothing prepared me for its almost negligible content. In a clear tone of the unlettered, the message carried an entire novel within its five words. Written in Telugu, one of the regional languages of India, the words read:
Naa tho pattu kapuram chestava?
The poignancy of the statement which roughly translated to, Shall you and I create a home together made me abandon the restoration project and I sat back brushing away my tears. Somehow, the note called me to delve into the life of its owner.
As the trunk had come in from my in-laws’ side of my family and hence, I went to relatives’ homes or made unlimited phone calls and speaking to people particularly of the older generations. I am still not sure why I wanted to keep the note a secret. I turned protective of its owner. It took me days of research and follow-ups as it had changed hands multiple times. I poured over albums. The lovely lass from one of the dog-eared, yellowed, black and white, sepia printed photograph stared back and willed me to tell the tale. A nonagenarian aunt of my mother-in-law tapping into her memory said, ‘She was a distant relative and my memory of her was that she was always clad in a beige sari as she became widowed by the time she turned fifteen. I heard that they had not even lived as a man and wife even for a day. I am not sure as children are rarely told the happenings around the house and all the information, I have is what I heard from elders. We were not allowed to be nosy, even if we wanted to be. I got married and moved away but she was taken care of by my father till her death. She was with him in Bombay then she was with them when they re-located to our village near Guntur and was well-respected and taken care of by my parents. She used to cook like a dream! Though she was always there, I don’t remember speaking to her much for she was quiet and always in the background. She was so grateful to her brother that is my father for taking care of her needs. But, why do you want to know all this?’ And then I had to tell her for I wanted to know more…I felt I had to understand the woman behind that note. Brought abreast with the note, she said wonderingly, ‘Now, I remember vaguely that there was some scandal involving her and some tailor…or some such person in Bombay… I think, after that, my father brought her to our village.’
Piecing together sketchy information, I envisaged the beautiful relative spending most of her free time cooped up within the four walls of her brother’s home. I imagined her looking out the back window of the house that overlooked the alley, the only visible sign of life was the shop of a tailor.
Never having seen a man other than her brothers before, the hormones within her body zinging along; she weaved many a romantic tales with that man apparently and written the undelivered note.
Brought to the present, I brushed aside my tears. I wondered at our repressed society, forcing a fifteen-year-old who had an unconsummated marriage to live in a state of celibacy. Shorn of hair and all color, dressed in white; she had to live with relatives, yet not show any kind of envy or unhappiness. Relegated into the kitchen, she wouldn’t have been allowed to participate in weddings or anything auspicious. What kind of sick society did we perpetuate?
The tailor would have never envisaged being of any romantic interest to anyone. He might have felt himself being watched but there was no evidence that they had ever met or would have been allowed to considering that a widow was a social pariah then.
Unwittingly, he had brought some color to my great, grand aunt’s bleak life. She lived within the four walls taking care of the household and playing with her brother’s children and grandchildren until she died an octogenarian. Heartbreak and loneliness was not sufficient reason to snuff out a life, I suppose.
A shorter version of this story was published in :