This essay first appeared in The Soliloquies Anthology 22.1:
No one was allowed to peek inside Father’s beat-up blue trunk, which remained secured with an old, but shiny, brass Godrej lock. The trunk had been a part of my mother’s dowry accouterments which her father had put together for her wedding, almost fifty-one years ago.
Father always kept the key to that brass lock in his pocket; other keys lay on the fridge. When his memory started to fail, he misplaced the key multiple times a day, and then turned the house upside down in its pursuit. Mother, ingenious as she is, eventually hung the key like a pendant on a thick string, and made father wear it around his neck, tucked under his shirt.
When Father was admitted for surgery following his hip fracture, my sister took the string off father’s neck and handed it to my mother.
When Father passed, the key lay in Mother’s purse, but she never opened the trunk. We all respected the sanctity of the trunk. Sometime last year, though, in India, old bills of 500 rupees and 1000 rupees denominations were being decommissioned; they had to be deposited in a bank immediately. For this, mother opened the trunk, but found no money.
Curious, I went to see what was inside the box which Father had guarded more than his own life.
There was a hardbound Panj Surah – a collection of five chapters of the Quran, which Father read and tried to memorize every day. There was a diary listing our real dates of birth; they had been changed to fit the age restrictions of the schools, so that we could skip a year or two in primary classes, thus saving on school fees.
There were pens in all shades of ink possible. There was a clipboard of papers on which he practiced his signature in variegated colors; the letters started smooth, but became squiggly, and later morphed into paths of ink-dyed ants with unruly antennae. There were bank withdrawal slips, which he used to fill out and carry to the bank on pension day to save time and energy.
There were wool hats and handkerchiefs that I brought him from the USA. There were wrappers of the chocolate candy I got him. There was the Titan watch with the golden chain that I gifted him from my first paycheck; its box was dusty, but intact, and the watch was still running. He seldom wore it, only on occasions like marriages, but he always replaced the worn batteries.
What do I have of him? Did I keep his memories safe?
I am awash with guilt and shame at losing the letters Father wrote to me when I was away at graduate college. I remember my gravid pigeonhole of a letterbox at the college hostel had been an eyesore to my friends who never got any mail. Though those letters had made me feel worthy and loved, I didn’t cherish them the way I should have, the way Father had cherished what I had given him.
After college, I moved to New Delhi for work. I changed jobs, workplaces, apartments and roommates, many times over the course of six years. Then, I migrated to the USA. Each new phase of life inevitably involved cleaning up before restarting again.
Between those movements, purges, and my frivolous carelessness, I had lost Father’s letters. Those envelopes licked by him, those words that touched his fingers — they were all gone.