One of the image of my childhood memories looks like an 8×10 ” canvas with a collage of sepia pictures, a lone Barbie with two sets of dresses and my grandfather’s typewriter. There are my father’s books, all covered in thick brown covers and a relic of a trunk (under lock and key supervision of my mother) that stored our belongings. A scent of familiarity persists across all of them. Of mothballs – clean and pearly – fading into our quilts and shawls. When ever you’d reach out to pull a sweater or hold a quilt for the first time, you’d know the exact odor you were going to wear for days. A bit chemical and rustic, characteristic of every household and a mark of love – of mothers and grandmothers.
Those days, on lazy afternoons – I used to watch my mother bundle up winter clothing in suitcases. Every year, she’d open a fresh bag of naphthalene balls and place them between cardigans, ponchos and woolen dresses. The trivial process of circulating clothes in and out of boxes was a sacred detour for me from the world of homework and limited play time. I’d spend hours looking at my mother’s sarees – chiffon and silk – embroidered with sequins and threads – immaculately wrapped in white muslin. They gave me goosebumps thinking that someday I’d get out of odd clothes and slip into an hourglass attire. Hence, mothballs were my best friends – safeguarding my treasure.
Wearing the same scent, on a winter eve – I wrote my first poem in Hindi. A few days later, I read my first novel. Its antique font rolling like a mothball – preserving the thoughts of the author with every whiff. It was around the same time, I received letters from my grandfather. The cataract in his eyes messed the straight lines of each sentence to a diagonal with several typos. And in spite of the jumbled address smudged by the ink, the letters always arrived on our doorstep. Upon their arrival, I’d identify my name embossed on a cream, half glued envelope with zigzag row of stamps, holding his love and wisdom in the bellies of the fat alphabets punched late at night. Slowly but surely.
While I was in the thick of writing poems in my father’s barely used diaries and arranging household items in old trunks once a while, I would also pluck a book or two from his library. He bought sheets of brown paper and changed the covers of all his books during Diwali break. Every book was cataloged and for a twelve-year old like me, it was fascinating to see them arranged in numeric order – tall and short – old and new – side by side like loyal members of a big family. Finding keys to my father’s cabinets was easier than locating the key to my mother’s trunk – something very distinguishing of the way my parents viewed life and their possessions. The mothballs were here too guarding the intelligent paper. I’d stand there for sometime and go through any book. There were no underlines, no marked pages – just fresh text, liberated with diagrams, ready to be absorbed by the grey matter of a collective in a classroom.
It is a new and changed world now. The past was boisterously rich with noisy closets, big dial-padded telephones and shuffling of pages and the present is sophisticated with touch screens and e-books. There are digital locks, virtual learning and socializing. Somewhere along the way, we have built a beautiful barrier to block every touch, smell and sound.
As I inhale the last remains of a mothball on a sweater, it asks me – what will the memories of a future childhood look like?
“Something intelligent – maybe beyond the comprehension of our five senses,” I reply and sniff again.