When my grandfather came to India after the Partition, he brought along my grandma, my five aunts, a sewing machine, and the all documents of the insurance company he worked for. Helped by their Muslim friends, they traveled to India from a village beyond Lahore. My grandma and aunts were wearing burqas and grandpa was reciting lines from Ghalib on the bus.
The family settled in a one-room house in Mehrauli, where my dad was born some years later. My grandma and eldest aunt sewed clothes all night for neighbors. Grandpa helped the insurance company establish itself in Delhi.
They bought bits of furniture left behind by Muslim families. One such piece was a wooden cupboard in black wood. It was about four feet wide, and would reach my elbow if I stood beside it today. It was called the Mehrauli-ki-almaari.
I remember the peculiar sound the cupboard used to make when opened. The wood was excellent: strong and durable. When its doors were pulled apart, they did not docilely part like wooden doors do, but they went their separate ways with a confident ringing sound that belongs to the world of metal. It had to be this way: it lived in times where people survived by turning the wood within to steel.
It was many years before I grew tall enough to see that the top was formica-covered. My earliest memories of the cupboard are from when it stocked cloth nappies and sheets for my baby sister, and I ran to fetch a new set each time she made it apparent she wanted a new one. The cupboard sat in my grandpa’s room, under the portrait of Tagore.
When we moved again, the cupboard came along. From a duplex three-bedroom house to a barsaati atop a taxi-driver’s flat. It sat quite comfortably in the only accommodation the family of a Punjabi self-employed professional could find in Delhi. It stocked a lot of stuff and made itself indispensable in the tiny house.
It soon moved along with us to the new three-bedroom flat, where it found no space. In a move that seemed natural, it was given to a neighbor who needed a cupboard. She paid a small sum for it, as she did not want to take it for free. The durable cupboard now sits in her dirty house and works as hard as it always did.
Why did we part with it so easily? Not getting attached to things is an unwritten rule in my family. There are supposed to be no emotions involved with anything perishable, and people are often put into this category. Be ready to get up and move without anything is the mantra: it seems to flow naturally from the journey across the border.
I had forgotten about the cupboard completely, till last night. I was reading Manto’s Black Margins, and all the snippets from his tale of the Partition suddenly coalesced into a black wooden cupboard for me. An impulse tells me to go home and buy it back from my neighbor today. Another impulse, coming from the same source, tells me to never think about it again. I stayed up most all of last night, hearing the opening and shutting of wooden doors with souls of steel.