Treasure chest in search of home!

My 13th Birthday!

The theme was my favourite – Harry Potter. Mom’s friend Shuddha Aunty, the organizer of the party, had just brought in 4 cartons – 3, of things to decorate the place up with and 1, of return gifts – all Harry Potter branded stationery for the ten odd friends I had invited.

Just then the phone rang. It was a shrill, rude ring that interrupted our joyous chatter – almost as if it was sounding the premonition of some bad news. Mom answered the phone and looking at her expression, I feared the worst. After she had put down the receiver, she started sobbing. She immediately called Pa and I came to hear of Biji’s death.

Biji was my paternal grand aunt – the most adorable, warm grandmother figure one could ever find. I had spent at least five summers in all with her, very memorable ones though and couldn’t believe she was no more.

By the time Pa arrived, Mom had packed our suitcase. She had also handed over the guest list to Shuddha Aunty who promised to take charge of canceling all orders and personally calling my friends and other invitees to inform them of the cancellation of the party.

We got off the train the next day at our ancestral village and caught a tanga. On our way, my parents suddenly remembered it was my birthday and hugged and kissed me – an unusual practice nowadays reserved only for special occasions because of my embarrassment and discomfort. But they could not bring themselves to wish me “Happy Birthday”, because happy – it certainly wasn’t. We reached just in time to see Biji’s flower bedecked body being taken away.

The house was definitely not the same without Biji. I missed her hot paratthas, her frothy lassi, her affectionate hugs, sparkling eyes that shone through a wrinkled, smiling face and the innumerable stories she shared with me and some kids I had befriended in the village. It looked very strange and alien with so many strangers all over the place. These strangers, I gathered, were her immediate family members. After four days of rituals and ceremonies, there was a meeting of elders in the courtyard. And as I was not yet familiar with the other children who went out to play, I stuck around for want of a better alternative. Taauji announced that since Biji had died without leaving any documented will, they would have to divide the property amongst themselves as amicably as possible. They told Pa not to expect anything as he was only a nephew brought up by Biji and not her biological son. I don’t remember details of the conversation that followed as it was very boring and punctuated with many arguments. After the matters were settled, Biji’s trunk from under her bed was pulled out.

It was a large, ornately carved one with a big padlock hanging from its exquisite latch. When the search for its key proved futile, Baldev Kaaka went off to get a locksmith who could break the lock for them. Meanwhile all the Kaakis started discussing the contents of the trunk. Taaiji said, “I better make it clear from right now – I’m going to take the gold jadaau set of ornaments. I have a right to it as the eldest daughter-in-law”. Manjhli Kaaki chipped in, “Then I shall take the silver utensils. You Sumitra, can take the brass vessels – they are a rarity nowadays and have good re-sale value too”. When Chhoti Kaaki looked glumly at her, she added, “And of course any cash that is found too.”
When the lock was broken, the creaking sound that the door of the trunk made, was not louder than the grunts of disappointment that were heard from everyone.

There was a soiled tri-colour flag, a pair of old glasses, some books, Biji’s bright red wedding attire with the zari gone black (it was hard to imagine it as hers since I had never seen her in any other colour but white) and a small bundle of salt. At the bottom of all these things lay a sepia tinted, black and white photograph of a handsome young man in a turban. It was of Dadaji – Biji’s husband and my Dad’s uncle. It dawned on me that the flag was the same one he had throughout his freedom struggle and the salt was what he had made along with Gandhiji and thousands of other, during their famous march to Dandi. The trunk was shut with as much eagerness as it was opened.  I gathered enough courage to go up to Pa and said loudly (for the benefit of others), “Pa, may I please have the contents of this trunk? Please – as a belated birthday gift? Please, please…..” I kept pleading. My Dad had tears in his eyes but did not answer. We both looked at the others expectantly. Taauji’s slight nod and the look of relief on the others’ faces at having disposed of something unwanted, gave me my answer. I was thrilled to possess Biji’s invaluable treasure and felt proud of being connected in some way, to the history of our country!

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