A small village in South India. A 10-year old bride. And me, a humble wooden cupboard by her side. Ready to carry her belongings wherever life takes her. Her name is Alamelu. And her mother is readying everything she will need in a few years. She is married to her 30-year old groom. But she will not be his wife until she attains puberty. Her mother and the father are happy. In a time when grooms are hard to come by, they have found a well-educated and decent groom for their daughter. Alamelu will lack for nothing!
Alamelu is 15 years old now. And over the years, my bare shelves have been filled to the brim. While jewels and clothes adorn a few shelves, her favorite Pallanghuzi game rests in another shelf with all the small shells to play with. Books of prayers and conduct to guide her path, her childhood toys and clothes for when she will have children. I feel and rejoice in her eagerness to begin her new life with her husband, through the shapely hands that touch all the items as if to be sure they’re really there.
Bhagavati, Alamelu’s little sister is also married to a teacher who is a widower with a son and two daughters. Bhagavati dreams of taking those tiny tots under her wing and lavishing maternal attention on them. She too will grow up and join her husband soon enough. My twin accompanies Bhagavati to her household, yet another trousseau, yet another trove of memories.
Alamelu is 20 now. She has turned her house into a welcoming home. Her husband is a wonderful person, but very reserved and she is still careful of what she says and how she conducts herself around him. While her friends all have an infant in their arms and a toddler holding their hand, Alamelu is still childless. At times she leans on me for strength, and through my wooden shelves she gains strength to face a world where there is no place for a barren woman. People are talking, even avoiding her as an ill omen. She has to turn into steel to bear it all with a smile, while keeping her dignity and self-respect intact. Her childhood toys and clothes lie on my shelf as a sore reminder of what hasn’t yet come to be.
Bhagavati has given birth to a son. Alamelu is already in love with the tiny little boy. Bhagavati and her husband name him Sthanumurthy after the temple deity. While Alamelu hopes and waits for a child, she plays mother to all the orphans in the village. Children fill the household, and my shelves creak with the weight of toys, clothes, tiny trinkets of silver that Alamelu collects hoping to see one of her own enjoying all these carefully selected items which I faithfully store for her.
Bhagavati has a second son, Raman. Sthanumurthy or Thaanu as Alamelu lovingly calls him is now three years old, and is the apple of his mother and aunt’s eyes. In a cruel twist of fate, Thaanu and Raman lose their mother. And Alamelu finally understands what the Almighty has planned for her. She vows to raise her sister’s children and be a mother to them, and forever turns her back on her dreams of having her own children. All the items that fill my shelves now find a home in the tiny hands of the five children who make their home with their new Amma. While the girls get the beautiful wooden cooking sets, the boys play with wooden animals and carts. All of them wear the lovely trinkets filling the house with the patter of little feet. My shelves may be bare, but Alamelu’s heart is brimming with joy.
Thaanu migrated to Bombay 20 years back. And now Alamelu is needed there too. Thaanu’s wife has just given birth to their fifth daughter, who is hanging to life by a thread. And Thaanu needs his Amma by his side. Once again Alamelu, now grandmother to many rushes to gather her newest grandchild in her arms. And I am right by her side, holding all her memories.
I have not seen Alamelu for a few days now. On one hand, I can hear the joy and anticipation in Thanu and his wife Comu’s voices as their youngest daughter is to be married next month. On the other, I hear news of Alamelu which is far from joyful. She is in the hospital, dreaming of making wedding sweets and savouries for her last granddaughter’s wedding. But the family fears she may not live long enough to witness the wedding. All too soon, I hear the lament and keening that only loss can bring. Alamelu has left for her heavenly abode.
I still stand here loyally, holding every possible memory of nearly a century within my shelves. Each crack and each creak tell a story.
Soon, I too will pass into oblivion.