No matter what is happening in the world outside, there is a room in almost every old house away from the tumult; a room where Time is frozen, where everything is compressed around one single point-the narcotic of nostalgia. When generations live in a huge colonial bungalow from time immemorial, entering and exiting the mortal world at various intervals, there has to be an attic, loft, store or corner which stores objects redundant to the younger occupants but precious for those who savour the past.
This storage space lacks grandeur, for it is a dumping area sans order but for many of us the clutter adds to the value; akin to a treasure trove, serving as a sentimental connect with the past. Tucked in a forlorn corner of the store room is a copious album, with black and white pictures, ensconced in dog-eared flaps; a compendium of the bygone era, where the present day ageing uncles and aunts radiated youth, vitality and charm, a sad reminder that Time spares no one. In short, that forgotten relic in an airless room is a storehouse of not only priceless memories but also retains a tangy slice of visual family history-the errant cousin who married a lady twice his age with few kids as dowry, the grandfather who went abroad for higher education and married a ‘memsahib’ never to return or an eccentric aunt who loved to eat lime, scraping it off the white washed walls; not to forget the young scholar who was madly in love with his vivacious classmate. Together the love- birds plotted to fail in the exam so that they could remain intimate for another year. Sadly, the girl passed with honours, married someone else, leaving behind a jilted Romeo who scored zilch in that academic year.
When the door with rusty hinges open one can see an odd assortment of gigantic brass vessels and iron drums, huge ladles, large metal glasses, brass trays, hurricane lamps, betel –nut cutter, tiffin-carrier , thermos flasks, ice cream machine, wooden crates, empty pickle jars, phonograph records of varying RPM’s, a huge Grundig tape-recorder with missing spools, Remington typewriter in a big black box, box camera ,a broken view master, our window to the world, with picture reels intact, men’s hats, dusty framed pictures, broken pieces of armchairs, D.C. fans, old issues of Woman and Home, faded certificates, packets of postcards and inland letters, diaries , files of knitting and crotchet patterns, numerous folded mattresses, dhurries and of course the mystery waiting to be unraveled in those large raven black padlocked trunks, piled high. The silent room offers irresistible adventure, where one can easily beguile away the hours.
A rush of adrenaline surges inside me when I explore the contents of a trunk unlocked with some effort. The real zari lehengas, the intricately designed odhnis and yards of shimmering Banarsi sarees, satin gararas and shararas , the high necked velvet blouses of rich maroon, peach and royal purple are all before me, carrying resonances of the past. One can visualize a beautiful demure bride, dressed up in these sartorial treasures, lavishing great care on her looks and having a great cavalcade of servants at her beck and call. Was the groom as young as her or much older? Was she happy in this house full of people? I am reminded of a child bride who came in a palanquin in this house, almost hundred years ago, at the tender age of eight. The person she was married to was studying for his law degree. The groom and his widowed mother occupied the front portion of the house while the flanks and the back portion housed the extended family of cousins and country cousins. As soon as her tall and lanky husband left for college, she would begin flying kites, playing gilli-danda and marbles dexterously with boys of her age. She would climb all the tall trees in the vicinity effortlessly. She had earned respect of her younger brother-in laws, who eagerly sought her company to do daring feats. Clearly a tomboy, helping in the kitchen was not her forte. The helpless old matriarch would lament throughout the long summer afternoon when the bundle of mischief had disappeared with her accomplices,” Let him come back, I will report everything. You have to be punished. He will send you back to your mother who has taught you no manners. ” . When the tired, academically saturated husband came home late in the evening, the equally exhausted bride deposited her day’s jackpot on his palms, a few raw mangoes, a huge cache of marbles won from all the boys of the gang. Instead of scolding her, he had to apply poultice on her aching ankle, twisted while scaling the boundary wall. She was there to stay. The tiny bride held his heart strings firmly in her hands for seventy odd years, witnessing great grand children together.
We cannot disentangle ourselves easily from our past. When ever I have embarked on an exercise of discovering something new in the old objects, I was always able to find some new way of looking at things. This sanctuary taught me that though change is constant, I share biological, cultural and emotional space with my ancestors in this quiet but vocal corner, that we are like of tiny links to that jigsaw puzzle called the DNA and that we fit in together, every piece crucial to complete the puzzle. We carry forth traces of our long lost loved ones in us, in our children and their posterity will continue to do so. This indestructibility of life gives us courage to prepare for the inevitable.
As modern life roars over, the age old quaint room is soon going to be passé. Large houses have become vulnerable and face threat to their existence. Shrinking families and growing maintenance demands of the huge place make it an uneconomical proposition. Rapid urbanization prompts greedy colonizers to make tempting offers to which the owners may eventually succumb; the death knell for this haven in the house will then be struck and the match box apartments will mushroom; the ‘use and throw’ generation having nothing to store.
I consider myself fortunate to have been on that cusp where the worlds of past and present collide. The gain that I received in that musty and dusty room was not material but simply spiritual, almost akin to Nirvana in the attic!!