Feb 07, 2019

The carrier of my tales, the keeper of my destiny

Sarabjeet Natesan

In the course of my wandering, nomadic, drifting life, I have had to make very many changes, adapt to many things, manage many situations and be ready for many more unanticipated ones. I have faced changed circumstances before, but I had specific physical and emotional support. “I grew up in school, protected by parents, shielded by my sisters from college rebellion. My cross-cultural marriage presented expected social changes, with opportunities to test its strength by testing mine and my husband’s. Then there were anticipated emotional changes after the birth of my children and the beautiful bonds forged with my mother yet again, the spiritual strains after passing of my parents from which my children rescued me and siblings provided the rock steady support to each other; all led to me to change directions every time I was presented with them. I think I acquiesced as it was a rational requirement and made it easier to deal with the obligatory change. And eventually, we are all creatures of a herd, a part of the murmuration, and flying together, coalescing with each other adds to our beauty and provides a certain buoyancy to our steps.
But then, we are also waiting to break free, held back by unseen tug boats of our life.
Yet, in all passages of my life, there was something inanimate that kept me company, partially carried the weights of my life and helped define me in certain ways. And I stayed very oblivious to its presence, its absence and its importance. I speak of my bags, the carriers of my things and the keepers of my secrets. They have carried from the mundane, like money and needs, an occasional lipstick and an eye liner, to the profound like my books, my life, my thoughts, and my relationships. They carried my existence in them and with them.
My first school bag was a small khaki satchel, made of a thin coarse fabric, wide enough to just fit in the copybooks of English and Hindi writings. It had shiny brass buckles and they had to be kept clean and shining under direct orders from my mother. The third book, the numbers book was large and I had to struggle to get it into the bag and out. And, as my mother thought that tracing of copybook was not enough to improve my handwriting, I was also sent to a Hakim, an apothecarist, a really old and wise man with a small shop selling medicines in glass bottles. He also sold dried herbs and roots powdered in a pewter mortar and pestle and wrapped them in old Urdu newspapers, adding a certain depth of mysticism to them. Not many used his lotions and potions anymore and he used to eke out a living teaching small children calligraphy. With me went my bag and also a takthi, a wooden slate to write on. It would not fit in my bag and I used to carry it in my hand, as it had to be washed with multani mitti  (fuller’s earth) and dried every day and was invariable still wet. On this takthi, I was taught to write with the kalam (a pen fashioned out from hollow bamboo, which had to be chiseled with a knife to get a pointed nib, much like a stylus. The capillary action helped the siyahi (locally bought ink) to flow from the bottle to the handmade pen. One had to dip the pen often enough to make it write. Besides a kalam and a small bottle of siyahi, I also needed another small piece of damp multani mitti to be used as an eraser. A blob of multani mitti was put in a small piece of cloth and wrapped and tied up in a potli (bundle) and tied to the kalam, which was very cleverly kept together with the small glass bottle of siyahi in a harness my father had made for me. I always ended up holding the potli of multani mitti in my hand, with the result that by the time I reached the Hakim Sahib’s class, I had the mud all over my face, hands and arms and I looked like a takthi myself. I enjoyed these classes not so much for the handwriting but for the shop, as it was right on the main road and the buses, cars, cycles and people walking would entertain me for an hour.
Hakim ji would painstakingly draw a template of four parallel lines for me to write on, when I started. Bit by bit, it came down to two lines within which I had to write, and eventually I had to write between imaginary lines and get the height and width of the alphabets uniform. I started by learning Hindi alphabets and sometimes he would also slip in some Urdu alphabets too, to jump start my cursive writing skills. By the time I returned home, the ink would have transferred from the bottle, pen, and the board to my hands, arms, face and clothes and I looked like a clown, so much so, that my mother made a poncho for me to wear for my handwriting classes. The poncho, like everything else in those days, was made out of old discarded dupattas, for which my mother had no more use.

These afternoon classes did help my handwriting and also made me independent enough to cross a big road by myself at a very young age. It kept me out of trouble at home and gave my mother a break, to nap in the afternoon. Hakim ji died a couple of years later, bringing to end my handwriting classes. My mother’s Urdu penmanship was beautiful, even ornate, and though she tried very painstakingly to teach me after that, it never felt the same and eventually, the venture was given up. All along my khaki bag kept me company.

As I went to higher classes, my bags changed. My mother used to love to buy us school bags, I think. I remember a suitcase bag, which I had to carry like a briefcase to school, much to the fun and mirth of my friends. From there, I graduated to a coarse, thick services issued bag, since I went to an Air Force school; that bag was sold with the books and notebooks. As my father travelled a lot on work, he brought back many Japanese bags and water bottles for us. It was a time of amazement for me, to receive a bag with so many pockets and compartments! It distracted me no end, and eventually, my class teacher wrote a note saying that I should be given a simpler bag to bring to school. The Japanese water bottle that came with the bag was shaped like a disc and looked like a spacecraft, and it distracted even the other students of my class. Soon enough, I was asked not to bring that to school too!
Fashion eroded my love for bags. They began to feel big, heavy, and very non-functional, and I gave up using bags for a while, preferring to keep my life and its contents in my car. Very meticulously and very neatly arranged; a place for everything and everything in its place. The next bag that I bought was after my daughter was born, a red baby bag. And so bags were restored to functionality in my life, helping me to organize the chaos that defines life after the birth of a child. After she grew out of needing a bag to be carried for her, it was used for the next two as well.
But after that, I again discovered that carrying no bags was very liberating, and somehow managed without one. My parents’ ill health and our trips to the doctors, hospitals, and specialists were all handled without one. I got a big accordion file with each individual sleeve holding medical reports, consulting charts, prescriptions and the like. Eventually, one last accordion pleat also held their death certificates as mandated by law, without which a person is not counted to be gone. The futility of medicine and valiant struggle against the nemesis recorded in each fold, much like life, the last heralding its closure.
My husband thought that I was being stingy and not buying a good bag because it would be expensive. It was very true, I was eminently put off by the huge price tags, yet I was not going to admit it. Irritated with me using his pockets to keep my things, he finally gifted me a bag, a beautiful leather bag, with three compartments, all separate yet held together with a beautiful clasp; it was easy to organize and looked very comfortable to carry, with two thick leather straps. Yet, when I tried to carry this bag, it felt like a dead animal on my shoulder, it gave me make-believe headaches, backaches, heartburns, wrist-aches. It was smart and beautiful, but I hated to carry it. I put all my things in it and it became heavier than a rhinoceros. I just couldn’t lug it around with me. I wanted to get rid of it, hide it, burn it, give it away before it became a bigger problem.
Still, I was unable to do anything because I agreed to the social prescription that a gift is precious and has to be appreciated and respected. Instead, I put in the new bag the many scattered things of my life that finally had a house: both personal and professional items, photographs of my family, my wallet, prescription reading glasses, sunglasses, a bag of medicines, sunscreen, makeup, house keys, car keys, cell phone, an extra charger, an external hard drive, a power bank, a small bottle of water, a dry snack, a small can of coke, a box of tissues, a few packets of infusion tea, pens, pencils, a couple of highlighter pens, a few markers, my powerpoint slide shifter, a small pouch with my pen-drives, a small pouch of small change, a t-shirt, a packet of sugar, a bar of chocolate, a box of lozenges, a small box of lemon sour sweets, an apple and my lunch box. I figured I need to put all this in a bag that could accommodate it all; things I would need to keep pace with my life.

Full of the physical clutter of my life, the bag overwhelmed me; it became too heavy to carry. I dreaded to open it. Like an albatross around my neck, it kept me down, dragging me emotionally and piercing me mentally. It carried my life and made me acutely aware of all that was not necessary for me to live. I needed my memories, my smile, my comfort, my pictures, and they were always in some corner of some compartment and I could never find them. And I was afraid, one day, in the clutter, I would not even remember to look for them.
Fortunately, the bag was replaced. A new one gifted by the previous giver, who realized its weight on my shoulders and my soul. The new bag is much lighter. It keeps only the bare essentials and my assorted memories and not the entire testimonials of my life. I have learned to not miss things that are missing from it.

For now, I am weaving new tales to be carried by it later.

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