This story is by uma eachempati and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
I had left India for the USA with two boxes and two children. We left our motherland, our families and stable jobs to seek our fortune in the west. To see the world, explore ideas and live a different culture for the traditional “broadening of horizons.” But many things got left behind, such as furniture, books, clothes and a piece of my heart. Household goods were sold or appropriately distributed.
I had left in Mother’s safekeeping a cardboard box full of my mementos. This consisted of my diaries written during my teen years, half a life ago. They could not have been very interesting as page after page would have been, “Who does she think she is?” My mother would not allow my sister or me to visit friends or go to movies with them. She laid down the rules and smelled trouble a mile away. We could only accompany our parents or grandmother for outings. She did not mind our friends visiting us, but we could not to go to their houses – they had BROTHERS. She kept us away from boys as much as possible so that we would not get into “trouble.” Hanging out with the boys is not conducive to a good reputation in the conventional arranged marriage system.
In spite of this, I received letters during summer holidays from the boys in my class who obtained my address from the boy next door. They loitered on the street in front of our house knowing I was at my desk near the window on the floor upstairs, reminiscent of the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet. Romance and thrill survived. Mother noticed and closed the lower shutters.
On one of my annual visits home, I asked Mother where she had stored my box of papers since she had relocated in my absence. She opened a room stacked to the ceiling with boxes, cardboard and leather, and said “It is there.” The task overwhelmed me.
On my next visit when I inquired about the box she showed me a corner with a few boxes and said “It is there.” I looked through them but could not find my box. The following year I was home again.
“Ma! You remember my cardboard box full of my papers, do you know where it could
Mother grew silent.
“You know that Subbamma who worked for us for a few years, she was pilfering and selling stuff from the house. Few of my little bronze sculptures are missing. Some tablecloths and napkins too. I don’t know dear, maybe she sold your papers too.”
“But what could she do with my letters and diaries? Who would want them?”
I did not want to tell her of all the contents of my box. It was my secret from my mother even after all these years.
“She must have sold it as scrap paper. Any petty money is good enough.”
“Why did she need anything? She had her own room here and you fed her and paid her. She had no relatives in town ….”
“She probably wanted to buy beedis. She had a craving for sweets. She needed the money to bribe the young boy down the street to buy her these..” Mother sounded reconciled. Mother had also lost trinkets of sentimental value. The little bronze Nataraja, the God of Dance was given to her on her sixtieth birthday by her musical friends. They met once a month and she was their mentor.
I pondered into space dejected while mother did not seem to realize she was breaking my heart. I regressed for a moment into a petulant teenager. Time had moved on. I had become a parent and saw Mother’s point of view. Over the years losses, big and small were borne and true values learnt.
“You know the time when I was away for a month to take care of Grandma,” Mother interrupted my thoughts; “Subbamma had the run of the house. She died soon after in a diabetic coma. I could not question her. Gradually I realized many small items were missing. She would not take anything obvious like the TV. ”
“Ma, My autograph book might have been there. You know the little book with a red cover.”
“Oh, NO. The one with Gandhi’s autograph?”
Mahatma Gandhi had come to town for a political rally in the forties, and mother had sought special permission to have a five minute interview. Grandma, mother, my sister and me pushed through crowds at the entrance and at last entered a room where Gandhi was seated. My sister and I extended our autograph books timidly and he signed in Hindi and English. Mother paid ten rupees for each signature to his secretary, the money going to the Harijan fund, for the uplift of the downtrodden.
“It also had Alexander Fleming,” I said. Dr Fleming visited Madras and delivered a lecture on his discovery of penicillin. This was in the fifties. I was thrilled. Autograph collecting was a good way to see a great scientist up close.
“Those were special and precious,” Mother said.
My precious cardboard box also contained a silver bracelet given to me by one of the boys in college. It had two silver hearts hanging from it and had our names inscribed on the inside, along with letters written over three summers proclaiming his love. These souvenirs of my childhood, my teen years, I did not bring with me to the USA.
Next morning sounds of activity woke me, cow bells jingling, dogs barking, children running and men clanging their bicycle bells asking pedestrians to move out of their path. Morning progressed and people filled the streets.
The vegetable vendor knocked on our door to enquire if we needed any fresh vegetables for the day. We were one of his regular customers. Another vendor came down the street once a week shouting “Vessels for old clothes!” We collected our old clothes for him to appraise their worth in exchange for steel utensils. Shirts, pants and silk sarees were in demand. An old man came by and bought old bottles and tins which were resold to a dealer. All these transactions taking place on our front veranda.
Two young boys bought paper. Newspapers fetched a higher value than school notebooks, but every piece of paper was valuable. Street urchins rummaged the streets for any paper, big or small, collecting them in large bags to make a living. The smaller pieces were used by vendors at small stalls along the sidewalk. They would twirl a sheet into a cone and fill it up with fried peanuts or other snacks. Larger pieces of paper wrapped children’s text books or parcels at the grocery store. Paper was a precious commodity and sacred, representing Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning. It was to be respected and not stepped on. If one trampled on paper by accident we promptly apologized to her by touching the paper and touching our eyes. Or else we would become stupid and would not succeed in life.
I lay in bed absorbed in my surroundings. All this was my past – it was mine for a few years. Where would these moments be in order of importance on my deathbed? Memories of parents, children, husband, friends – would I be reminded of this bracelet and the boy who gave it to me? He wore glasses and a thick moustache. Every time his piercing eyes were on me I had to look away. He knew I would be at the beach accompanied by adults, and hung around longing from a distance. Glances and smiles traveled across the sea breeze and sand. Now it was childish, but then, a strong, deep feeling from the bottom of my soul.
Maybe a young couple walking along the marina decided to buy fried peanuts. The boy saw the wrapping paper with well formed, round shaped letters written in blue ink. Terms of endearment and proclamations of love. Did the boy give it to the girl as if written by him? “My dearest love, I have been dreaming of you in my arms all night, touching your soft cheeks and absorbed in your brown eyes. The little dimple that lights up your face when you smile….”
Or did the two read it together and have a laugh and wonder if the writer of the letter and the recipient got married and lived forever in bliss? They had heard of a message in a bottle but not a message in a packet of peanuts.
I was disappointed not to have reread my letters, relive my youth and count my conquests. Here I was in the middle of my life, looking backwards, but I probably had to look forwards and share my blessings with others. Like sharing love letters.
I burst out laughing. “Ma,” I said giving her a hug. “Love letters can be recycled too!”