Interrogations of Memory

“Memory says : Want to do right? Don’t count on me.” (Adrienne Rich, “Eastern Wartime")

I.

Jewelry is the insurance that my mother’s generation of women had in India. Jewelry was inherited, given to women as their property alone and passed on to daughters and daughters-in-law. Jewelry was hard currency as it could be sold, pawned, and bartered without having to explain to husbands, sons, or in-laws.

My mother had a special drawer within her polished wooden cabinet with wooden claw feet—an almirah, from the Bangla and Hindi almaree, from the Portuguese almorio and the Latin armarium. All the envoys of those languages had passed through our house, every Indian house, from centuries past. Such wardrobes are no longer in fashion, replaced with sleek Scandinavian imitations or hideous metallic ones.  But as I started to say, Ma had a special drawer in hers where she stored all her jewelry ---wedding necklaces, elaborate pendants, earrings, bangles, rings, and sometimes even cosmetic jewelry such as a watch with a light-blue dial that matched one of her going-out sarees.  All were locked with a built-in lock and a long, skinny key.

I wasn’t aware of what else she kept in that drawer. Probably the few rupees each month that she squirreled away from the household expense budget that she got from Baba. And then she’d give Didi and me a few rupees when we ran off on a weekend to play with friends or go to the movies next door at Ajanta, a movie theater that is astoundingly still there and a multiplex.

When I was graduating from college and about to take my final set of exams, the college informed me that all university fees had to be paid in full before an exam admission card could be issued to me. I had trifled away my funds in a there’s-no-tomorrow spending mainly at the college café and the university coffee house. I had no money to pay the fees.

I couldn’t dare ask Baba, who had entrusted me with managing my own funds. I asked Ma, who pawned two of her gold bangles to pay for my exam ticket.

II.

Feeding Kobi, my cat, in the morning is an exercise in evasion. Evading her nose, her paws, her head as she butts into my hand that is spooning out her food from a can onto her feeding bowl. The rhythmic purring, the engine of her satisfaction, is in full throttle.

I glance out the window, as the coffee starts venting in the pot, at the morning sun sending lance-like shadows across the fence dividing the neighbor’s yard and mine.

I shuffle toward the bathroom, to brush my teeth and put in my eyedrops.

I have a declining memory, wilting and fading of the frantic urgency of the decades of working mornings of my past.

Photo credit: Author

III.

The Queen Anne dining room table, oval and glowing, polished below the heavy white tablecloth was neatly displaying the lunch-time tureens and platters of food. We each had our own plates. We usually ate with our fingers, so cutlery was not arranged on the table except for serving spoons and forks. This was a Sunday, when the four of us, the whole family, had the only meal together.

The tureen, English dinnerware, bought at some estate sale was filled with dal, the common lentil-based soup that accompanies most Indian meals. When I had told one of Western friends that there are over twenty separate varieties of lentils and peas in India, she assumed I was lying.

The tablecloth was yanked first, it seemed to be happening in slow-motion, gaining velocity as Baba put his weight behind the pull. The tureen tilted forward, heading nose first onto the tablecloth, spilling its guts on all sides, as it slid off, took flight, and smashed on the ground near my left leg.