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Of family treasures and heirlooms

In this use-and-throw era, will there be any object that we will be able to pass on to the next generation to be cherished?

My parents recently moved into their new home as my new neighbours. For almost half a year leading up to the date, we had debated, discussed and despaired over the shifting process. And suddenly one day it was all done and dusted. My parents were happily nestled in their new abode. While the movers and packers unpacked as hurriedly as they had packed, many suitcases still waited impatiently for my parents’ inspection. So each morning, after a hurried breakfast, my parents would gear themselves with steely determination to tackle each suitcase.

It was during one such morning that I dropped in on my regular five-minute visit. I made several such five-minute visits through the day. But this particular visit not only sent me on a trip down memory lane, but lent a deep insight into the lives and times of the people of my generation. The reason for this nostalgia was a mirror that father was in the process of hanging up on the wall of their bedroom.

It looked familiar.

“Did you recognise it?” came mother’s voice from behind me.

“Hmmm,” I replied, trying to think hard.

And then like a flash of lightning, I remembered. A smile broke on my face as I fondly recollected that this was the mirror which every year on the eve of the auspicious Vishu (marking the Malayalam New Year) would be adorned with the family jewellery. The following morning at the crack of dawn, and obeying father’s strict instructions to keep our eyes closed, we were led to the altar where the symbolism of prosperity overflowed. We were asked to slowly open our eyes and view the spectacle reflected in the mirror. I remember seeing brightly coloured seasonal fruit and vegetables, silver bowls laden with pulses and grains, and much more. But the part that my siblings and I waited for greedily was the blessing from father and mother in the form of rupee coins. Our meagre wealth that we stored safely forever.

Coming back to the mirror, it is truly no grand ornamental mirror that I am referring to. It is plain and simple with a dull black wooden frame. A closer inspection would reveal stains on the glass that prevent sharp reflections.

“Why are you still keeping this? It’s so old,” I said matter-of-factly.

“Of course it’s old,” she said. “More than a hundred years old. That’s why it’s precious.”

“Hundred?” I asked with an expression common in people who believe parents have become children to be taken care of.

“More than a hundred,” she said. “It was given to my mother by her mother, who in turn had inherited it from her mother.”

“Goodness!” I exclaimed incredulously. This is what they call a heirloom, I thought.

“After me, it will be yours,” mother’s voice broke into my thoughts.

That afternoon, with the sun filtering in through the gaps in the curtains, I sat entranced as mother recounted the fascinating story of the mirror. A story that now had become part of family lore.

My grandmother was a woman with striking features, and known to be bold for her times. Although in those days women were reprimanded for preening in front of the mirror (such self-indulgences were taboo), grandmother threw caution to the winds and stole many a glance at the mirror. She was young, yet to be married. She would smile into the mirror as she drew a circle on her forehead with red vermilion paste. She would even tilt her head slightly to catch the string of freshly-strung jasmine fencing her delicate bun as it sat snugly at the nape of her neck.

This mirror had witnessed the happenings in my grandmother’s household… the joys, the sorrows, lover’s tiffs, the coy brides who kept getting added to the family fold. The mirror holds in its reflections layers and layers of stories — of births, of deaths, of bitter battles and of grudging patch-ups.

When grandmother was married, the mirror was a part of her trousseau. It hung in silence in the koodam, the central hall of the sprawling Pollachi house, a keen observer of the goings-on. My mother and her six siblings grew up watching the phases of life reflected in the mirror. Despite it not being a full-length mirror, mother and my three aunts were ever so happy with it. They would push each other in mock anger to make space for themselves in front of the mirror. When her sisters were given away in matrimony, and the house fell into an eerie quiet — as it always happens in households when giggly daughters leave to make a families of their own — mother turned to the mirror for companionship. She spoke wordlessly to it. She revealed her hopes and fears of an unknown future. She shared her happiness with it when her own wedding was fixed.

A couple of months before my mother’s wedding, grandmother was bed-ridden and knew her days were numbered. One afternoon she called my mother over to her bedside. She asked her to sit next to her on the mat on which she lay. She held mother’s hand and for a long time did not speak. Minutes ticked by. She closed her eyes and fell asleep. Mother continued to sit there, not wanting to wake her up. After a long time, grandmother opened her eyes and said: “Jayam, you take the mirror with you and keep it with you always.”

That is how this nondescript wood-framed mirror, wrapped safely in the layers of an old white-turned-cream veshti (dhoti), travelled with my newly wed parents to Dehra Dun, where they began their new life together. Thereon, the mirror moved to Delhi, where it saw the now four-member family struggle to remain afloat in a flashy, keeping-up-with-the-Sharmas society. A few years later, the mirror, wrapped in the same attire, flew to Kenya and on to Zambia where it made its home for a long time before it returned home to Mumbai. This was also the time when the size of the family grew to five.

Currently, the mirror occupies itself watching my parents go about the task of creating a new home for themselves. An ordinary mirror with an illustrious legacy – a heirloom that has bequeathed memories too poignant for any album to ever hold.

That’s when a new thought, framed in guilt, takes shape in my cluttered mind. I belong to a generation that is in ceaseless pursuit of novelty. We tire of things as quickly as we buy them. Ridden by impatience and a sense of hurry that flows in our bloodstream, we hardly give time and loving care to stuff we buy, in the absence of which no value ever gets associated with our possessions. Here today, gone tomorrow, in a blink.

My eyes look around my designer-home with the furtive hope of finding something worthy of passing down as a legacy item. Alas, what can one cherish as a heirloom when every two years the old is traded in for the new? Keep up with the trend, is the mantra for existence today. Today’s nuclear families in their small homes have so many more things than the joint families of yore had in their sprawling households. But have we spent time giving them a personality they need? Giving them stories with which to enthral the next generation? We are entangled in the problem of plenty.

As I continue to look around, I remember the tall glass pitcher, pushed in a corner of the topmost cabinet in my kitchen. My mother-in-law’s proud possession; it had come down from her grandmother. Made of thick glass with floral etchings all around, it is simple and looks ordinary. But a discerning eye would recognise it as a treasure from Sind, now in Pakistan.

I pledge to bring it out of the darkness and put it up in the showcase where I hope it will get its due respect.

On the heels of this thought comes another…what do I have that I can pass down as a legacy? Gadgets? But their expiry dates are predicted at the time of their launch. Nothing is more short-lived than new technology.

My closet is spilling over with clothes, shoes and handbags. Do they tell stories of the times gone by? Honestly, I don’t know.

Not too long ago there lived a generation that believed in preserving things. Things were bought to be cherished and preserved for posterity, be it a pan or a pen. Talking of pens, my father grandly displays even today the fountain pen that got him through his college years. It doesn’t work very well now, but try telling him to discard it. You will invite his wrath!

A thought teases me and I willingly play along. Will the mirror or the pitcher win the approval of my kids? Or should I brace myself for their disdain?

lata@thehumanimpact.in

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2020 3:26:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/of-family-treasures-and-heirlooms/article18400853.ece

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