Rekindling the Bonfires Of the Innocent Past

THE scene could well have been a subject for still-life study for the discerning artist. The late-afternoon sun pouring through the skylight fell in golden patches upon the wooden floorboards of the attic, illuminating Grandma's old mementos. A scattering of vintage British-India coins, embossed with King George profiles, gleamed silver. Inside a blue-velvet case lay a carved sandalwood elephant. An open tin box overflowed with pieces of unworked textile - silks in yellow and turquoise, chiffons, and rou gh cuts of cotton. Completing this curious assortment was an old leather-bound diary and a pocketwatch (the kind Mahatma Gandhi wore in the 1930s) with its glass cracked down the middle.

Grandma held the sculpted pachyderm to the mellow light. "A gift to your grandpa when he was in Ceylon," she announced, and went on to elaborate, telling me of the time my grandfather won a tough timber contract on the island and of her visit to the wooded, sea-fringed mountains where they were felling the teaks.

Grandpa's pocketwatch released a lighter, more intimate memory. The watch had stopped during a moonlit river cruise making the experience "timeless," as Grandma said with a laugh.

I remembered the coins. Years ago (when I was in my early teens), Grandma had presented me identical ones. Unaware of their worth, I had bartered them for some things of childhood fancy.

These seemingly inconsequential objects, stored away in the lonely attic among the big chests and disused furniture, are Grandma's most precious possessions. She comes to them in her chosen hours, in deep, intimate moments when things gone by are cherished, their tangible need felt. Then her innocuous collection begins to provide silent companionship, standing surrogate presence for the past.

It was a pleasant October afternoon. I had come home early from work, and we were sitting in the attic, sharing fleeting moments before the others returned and the house filled with domestic clatter. Though Grandma and I lived under the same roof, part of an extended family in the large rambling house my grandfather built, we didn't often have time together, exclusively to ourselves. So it was with a feeling of surprise that I saw changes time had etched upon her face. I hadn't noticed them before, the d eepened lines, the hair completely silver.... With painful abruptness I realized that I was aware of Grandma in a rather complacent manner, like passing landmarks I took for granted on the regular route to work. Somewhere I had missed out on her. I suspect it happened when I entered the portals of hard competitive adulthood, a time of futuristic preoccupations and career graphs. As I perceived my grandmother anew in the seclusion of the attic, the static unchanging image of her I had carried for so long beg an to flicker and move again.

Tentatively, we picked up the threads of our relationship. The mementos helped. They were bringing us together, making the conversation flow, the memories to return. The smell of jasmine wafted up from the lawn below; a mouse climbed up an old walking stick to the window and disappeared into the bright sunshine outside; and from an unseen cavity in the darkened rafters came the cooing of roosting pigeons.

"The bonfires," I heard Grandma say, "Do you remember the bonfires?"

I saw a starry night, orange flames, and children dancing about crackling firewood. It was Holi, the annual Indian spring festival. Grandma always paid for the wood and all of us, the children of the neighborhood, set it up for the bonfire. She would stand out on the road to see the rise of the full moon while we waited. When she gave the thumbs-up sign the fire was lit with yowls of joy.

"Let's make one this season," I said. Grandma's eyes gleamed. There was a quiet nod of assent. The years washed away like ice floes in a thawing river, and we were once again part of the old neighborhood club, planning out our annual feature. We remembered others of the group. I told Grandma of Sanjay, who was flying jets in the Indian Air Force, and Gautam, who was working his way toward a doctorate in physics. I told her of Sundeep, whose letter I had received a few days ago inviting me for a holiday o n the far Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal where he was posted. Of course there were those with whom I had long lost touch. I am sure I would meet some of them in some chance encounter, perhaps on a street in another city....

We made the bonfire a few weeks later. A feeling of d vu gripped me as I watched the flames spurt and lick their way to the top of the pile, sending crackling streams into the night sky. There was Grandma leaning on a walking stick and the family standing around. It was like seeing an old movie remade with a new cast. Long after everybody had gone, I remained in the backyard, staring into the embers from the bonfire.

Sitting there, I felt myself on some high vantage point, viewing with equanimity the innocent past I had briefly resuscitated and my approaching morrows of swift intensity, of targets, goals, and achievements. I didn't want to let this past slide back into the backwaters of my mind. I wanted to give it a place in my present, right there in the forefront of my senses so that I would not miss out on those small things that really matter. Like my grandma. Whenever I chance to see her in her serene shadows, my sensibility feeds on the experience as it would on something nice, like white fleecy clouds in a blue sky or dawn mists rolling across the meadows. I stand there awhile, determined not to fritter away the moment as I had those old coins Grandma had given me long ago.

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