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The shoe-box experiment

Dr. Ananthapriya
Thursday, April 2, 2020
The shoe-box experiment

The nip in the November air brought me back from my reverie. I looked around realising I had wandered a good kilometre away from the farmhouse. I could see the railway track from where I stood, the sun slowly journeying westward behind it. I was gripped by a sudden sense of loss that left me lightheaded. I sat down on a small rock. What was that? A piece of cloth - sticking out of the damp mud. It looked somewhat familiar… I slowly prised it out of the mud and found out it was attached to a small stick, much like a flag. Wait! I know this!

There was a small rock pinning down the flag. I began moving it. It was not easy, and I knew my muscles wouldn’t thank me, but I had to see what lay underneath. I managed to heave it. I could see that rest of the flag’s fabric, bright yellow, now holey and dust covered, I picked it up and cleared the mud underneath it. My fingers brushed against what felt like wood. My heart racing, I started clearing the earth using the flag stick. Finally, I lifted the shoebox out. I had found it!

Thirty years of memories raised a cacophony in my head. I rubbed my forehead as if physically quietening them. I opened the box wiping away the tears as I picked out its contents one by one- each object, a story.

I must have been sitting there for over an hour. When I finally became aware of the surroundings, the sun had already set. It was a moonless night, a lone streetlight blinking near the railway track. The rest of the landscape was dark, and I had no idea how I was going to get back. I could see the lights in the farmhouse and thought I would slowly walk towards it.

That was when I noticed the flashlight, moving up and down like a pendulum, purposefully making its way towards me. Now I was terrified! No one knew I was here! I took out my mobile to call for help but whom would I call? The one person I could call probably won’t answer it…

I decided to play possum. lie low- motionless, soundless I told myself. Good thing I was into detective shows- At least it taught me something. I was holding my breath when the phone in my pocket started vibrating, before I could shut down the noise it let out the generic iPhone tune. Panic set in!! The torch was now shining into my eyes blinding me. I shielded my face with my hands and curled myself into a ball waiting… for whatever was to follow.

“Hey! Why didn’t you answer the phone?” said a familiar voice, much to my relief! This was “The person I wouldn’t call” My sibling, a year younger to me, once my best friend, now the guy on the other side of the litigation.

“I was worried you moron!” he said.

“Why do you care? You are suing me!”

“Oh Sis!” He said and plopped down beside me. We held on to each other and started sobbing. Brother and sister, mourning the loss of their mother for the first time since her death.

Papa died when I was twelve, suddenly of an aneurysm. Maa was a college professor. Thankfully, both our parents had inherited property from their parents. We had a rambling three storey house in Karol Bagh, New Delhi big enough to house us and rent it out to three other families. We also owned the farmhouse in Gurgaon. The both of us were close. We always looked out for each other right till I got married and left to live in Muscat with my Dentist husband. Then we grew apart. My software engineer brother stayed back in Delhi, with his wife, daughter and our mother.

Maa passed away two weeks ago, finally giving up her fight with end stage ovarian cancer. While I was doing the cliched “multi-tasking” – working as a high school counsellor, taking care of two teenagers , gathering frequent flyer miles to be with my mother and failing badly at all of them, my brother and his wife were actually there for her. Staying with her as she went in and out of hospitals, supporting her through chemotherapy in all its undignified ugliness. Securing black market fentanyl patches to help ease her pain. Witnessing the DO NOT RESUSCITATE instructions as she scrawled her signature- watching her life shut down bit by bit…

“Hey!! He said. “Is it the shoe box?”

“Hm… it is.”

He took it from my hands and started laughing. “I can’t believe it. How did it survive thirty years?” It was a very happy memory, the shoe box. We had had a huge fight about something I don’t even remember now (just as papa had predicted). We were of an age when we swore at each other using animal names. I cried Donkey! and he countered with Monkey! Hippopotamus! Was the answer to Spider! each name being sillier than the first. I remember, on one occasion I had called him Bacteria! And papa had burst out laughing. “It is an actual name”, he said. “What? No pops. That is a despicable microscopic thing!” “Well”, he said “you should read the comic book Asterix.” That was the day I was introduced to the adventures of the tiny Gaul and his ridiculously named friends. I still possess a collector’s set of all the adventures of Asterix.

What ensued almost feels prescient now… He died three months later.

Papa said, “children, you shouldn’t fight.” I rolled my eyes waiting for the usual lecture. Instead he said- “When your mom and I are no longer around, you will only have each other.” Jerking a thumb towards me, my smarty pants brother facetiously replied, “I don’t know about tarantula here, but I will certainly have at least one wife and lots of kids.” It’s funny how clearly, I remembered it all, thirty years on.

“Let’s conduct an experiment”, said my father. “Let all four of us pick an object that means a lot to us, keep it in a box and bury it.” So, all of us placed some items in a thick polythene bag (“to keep unwanted things out”), put it in a shoebox and buried it at the edge of the farmhouse. We marked the place with a flag, a yellow silk handkerchief tied to a wooden ladle. We then moved a mid-sized rock to cover it so it would be safe from the elements. Our property was nearly a hundred acres then. Later, we had to sell a substantial part of it to the railways for track maintenance. “What’s the experiment?”

“To see if the watch still works when we open it.” Said Papa. “And what has that got to do with our fighting”? asked smarty-pants. “You’ll know when you open it” was Papa’s enigmatic answer.

That was the box in our hands now. We automatically started unpacking it. The first to come out- My father’s HMT watch. It was a gift from his grandfather for topping at college. He went on to become a Chartered Accountant. Papa took it off his wrist and placed it in a box. “The most precious gift I can give you both is the time I spend with you. When you open this box many years from now, believe me this watch will still be ticking. Let’s get Maa.” She was busy preparing a lecture for her class and was only half attentive when we told her the story so far. But when she learnt what Papa’s contribution was, she realised this was serious. She said she needed time to think. It was nearly another week before she gave it up.

The next item was a copy of the National Geographic -the one I had placed “to gloat on the day I become a scientist and you a bus driver”

Both of us remembered how the project had almost derailed. I had seen a wicked twinkle in my brother’s eyes and said, “if you put in something cheesy like a ‘Rakhi’ I will duly murder you!”

“Ha Ha. You can’t. Tarantulas can only murder their mates.” This mortified my mother, leading to the inevitable- “children nowadays are growing up too soon and talking about this nonsense at ten. Say sorry to your sister or no dinner for you.” “Good, it’s healthy to skip dinner” and so on it went a couple of rounds which also gave me the chance to point out that black widows not tarantulas murder their mates, till dad stepped in firmly reminding us of the task at hand.

My brother picked up the next item from the box, a dog-eared notebook. It was my mother’s recipe collection with entries by several people, the penmanship ranging from the childish to the calligraphic. It had traditional recipes and was started by her mother. Several aunts and cousins from both sides of the family had added to the collection. Some of it was in Hindi which I couldn’t read as well as English. She said “I have all the recipes locked up here in my head. When you or your Bhabhi (future sister-in-law) need it, you can find it.” Thinking about it now, I bristled at the patriarchy. But back then in the Eighties, the woman’s job was to nourish even if she was like my mother, an environmental scientist with thirty-five published papers. So, my mother said ‘I Love you’ by ensuring we continued to be well nourished long after she passed. And I could read Hindi very well now.

“Ouch”, I got jabbed by the sharp end of a compass from a geometry set. I held it up and my brother said, “Hey Tarantula, remember this?” He had put it in there. It was almost like the Rakhi I had warned him against. A Rakhi is tied by a sister to her brother to ensure that he protects her for life. The compass was a reminder that the sister can do the protecting just as well. We remembered the incident. In the school bus. I was in the fourth standard and he a year behind. There was a bully who made my brother miserable. The bully would show up beside him anywhere he sat and push him out of the seat. One day I picked up the compass, sat down beside the bully and whispered, “if you ever sit beside my brother again, I will stab myself with this and say you did it!” I knew he would take me seriously because I had got a kid suspended once for pulling my braid. I was the Principal’s pet you see- I always won a prize for the school in inter-school debates. Aah, the days when being a nerd was good.

“Well, you don’t need me to tell bullies off now.”

Wait! There is one more thing- A stuffed toy! When my brother and I were two and three respectively, a ‘foreign return’ cousin gifted us gender specific stuffed toys. Mickey mouse for him and Minnie mouse for me. May I present now to you the self-same Mickey with his misshapen nose, blue pants, red shirt faded, frazzled and fraying by years of cuddling? We both grew attached to the toys as kids of that age usually do. The Minnie mouse toy had a cute purple dress with polka dots as evidence by a photograph of me holding it and I lost her a couple of months later. Now, I had grown used to sleeping with Minnie by my side and had a hard time falling asleep. My sweet little brother still untouched by his customary smarty-pantness promptly offered to share it with me. We slept in the same bed till I turned six and Mickey lay between us, then on a nightstand between our twin beds. We could both access him when needed. We kept Mickey in the attic after overgrowing him.

When I saw the compass, I knew I couldn’t leave just the National Geographic for posterity. That’s how Mickey ended up in the shoe box.

The nip was slowly turning into a chill. I shuddered- “You are decently off. You run a tech company. What do you need the farmhouse for?” I asked.

“I don’t need it”, he answered. “I just find it unfair. Everyday of the four years I looked after Maa, she would sit by the phone waiting for it to ring. If you called ten minutes late, she would start fretting. She had long conversations with you and shared all her concerns. I would be there, right next to her but It didn’t matter. She would only talk to you”. I gulped. Wait! I didn’t know…

“After you visited last year”, he went on, “she had her will changed”. “I hadn’t thought much of it then. But when I saw that she had left the farmhouse to you I just lost it.”

“Why?” I asked. “The farmhouse is a dead asset. It only has sentimental value. Maa inherited it from her mother and thought of passing it on to me… We can’t do much with it other than sell. Besides, the Karol Bagh Bungalow is in both our names.” “Another thing,” I said. “I really need the security of the property just in case I need to be on my own.”

“What are you saying sis?” Are you and Jiju(brother-in-law) having problems?

“I don’t know.” I replied. “I feel trapped. It is a cushy, humdrum existence and I feel intellectually- I don’t know, empty? I ask myself whether I can live on my own if I have to”
“You Know Deeds (a short form for Didi which means sister), it is a dumb idea to go to court”

“Yea” I said. “Only the lawyers will get rich. But I know why Maa left the farmhouse to me.”

“You do?”

“My visit before she changed the will- we spoke about a lot of things. There was this news report about a politician who battered his wife to death. She was a simple small-town girl with just a high school education. Her parents were interviewed on TV. They spoke with sad, vacant eyes, about their inability to support her when she wanted out of the marriage, because of their financial status and society’s unreasonable expectations of daughters. “What choice did she have?” wailed her mother. “A married daughter sitting at her parents place is not acceptable to society.”

I said “Maa it is not just the lower-income groups who face this you know. Today if I wanted to get out of my marriage, I would find it equally difficult.”
“Why Guddu? (her name for me which means doll in Hindi) Do you want to get out of your marriage?”

“No Maa but it would be nice to have the freedom to walk out.”

“Hey! It works!” Said my brother. He had wound up the mechanical HMT watch and it was now ticking away efficiently! We picked up the shoebox and briskly walked back home trying to beat the cold.

We talked. Without lawyers. And came up with a solution. I don’t know if it will hold in the long run but for now, I’m not fighting anymore with the one person I know who will always be there for me.

He will go on living at the Karol Bagh bungalow. The rent from the tenants will get credited to me. The farmhouse will be sold, and the money invested jointly in both our names. We won’t own the farmhouse anymore, but the shoebox will always be ours.

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