It was one of those lazy squally mornings when I noticed that my closet required a serious overhaul. And by overhaul, I mean cleaning. My closet is Machu Picchu in an apartment — nobody really knows for what it was used. However, I doubt they’ll ever declare my wardrobe full of strewn socks and t-shirts as a world heritage site.
Inside the closet I found a thick mahogany scarf box with wood chipping off by the ends, surprisingly still intact, having housed something in it for at least 30-40 years. It was snug with a handmade carving across it, with dust filling the finer carvings. Feeling the texture of the box in my hands, I carefully opened it to encounter disappointment — nothing but old postcards and handwritten bills.
I was about to toss it aside, straight into the dump pile, but the box was pretty, a sight to behold — vintage and rustic, and I had one of those brief moments of hesitation that go a long way in one’s life. I’m thankful that mine prevailed at the right time. The box had no scarf, but secreted inside was a thick bunch of palm-sized photographs. They looked so delicate and preserved, free of fingerprints. I tried my best to not be my sloppy best, and moved the curtains to get a closer look.
They were loose photographs that had fallen off from where they’d been glued into a small, fragile black album of my grandparents’ wedding in the 1950s. As I poked around further, retrieving photographs like they were breadcrumbs strewn around, it was no random box — this one housed a lifetime of memories. The grainy, fading black and white photographs of people I’ve only seen in their older versions somehow grew on me, as my mind raced to match every familiar face in the photograph with my mental repository of images.
We used to call grandpa ‘James Bond’ for his crisp dressing — a commanding presence that would put even Sean Connery to shame. In one of the photos he was standing beside a beautiful and demure girl, no more than 20, shyly looking towards the floor, away from the camera. They seemed so perfect for each other, and over the course of their marriage of 60 years, they could not have emphasized that point more.
My grandfather was a tall and positive man who led a life so simple, yet sophisticated. He was carefully methodical, and measured. My grandmother is easily (hands down) the strongest woman I’ve ever seen. Her mental stability, willpower and back-breaking hard work made possible the comfortable lives that we as a family continue to lead. Grandma’s sister had passed on very young, leaving behind five beautiful children. Having also lost her mother, she learned the hardships of life at a very tender age.
When my grandparents got married, they knew that their work was cut out for them. They were two people who were brought together for a reason — to be there for everybody else. Grandfather was the sole breadwinner for a family of 15 (including their respective parents), and together they raised an IAS [Indian Administrative Services] officer, a chartered accountant, math geniuses, brilliant teachers, and several top bankers, among others. In their humble abode, they officiated at least seven weddings, seen through a minimum of 15 pregnancies (most of them being surgically complex involving months of bedrest) and a couple dozen graduations.
When I was a child, I would cuddle up with grandma for my afternoon siesta when she would tell me stories from her life till I dozed off. As a child, these were stories that shaped my very thinking, charging me with her infectious positivity.
Despite their hardships, they loved their family — they never gave any extra privileges to their own children (my mom and aunt) and raised grandma’s nieces and nephews as their own sons and daughters. Theirs has been a story of grit and determination, of happiness in unity, and of luxury in the simplest of things in life. They have been our Alma mater every step of the way, providing resources and learning that can never be found even in the best schools across the world.
Being hero figures must be a hard job to keep up for 60 long years, but they did it so effortlessly, while simplifying and enriching lives of everybody who was associated with them. My parents, and my aunt and uncle have been their strongest support points as age caught up to them, but even so, they would never agree to be mere spectators to their children’s lives, which is why I owe them gratitude beyond infinite multitudes.
The photo of my grandfather on the wall looked intently at me, almost smiling, as I reminisced about some of the best times of my life. Grandma walked into the room, catching a glimpse of me smiling at the photo on the wall, as I gripped the set of black and white photographs tightly to my chest.
“It’s okay. At least he had a peaceful, natural end” she said, in a way that startled, and soothed me at the same time. She stared at grandpa’s photo on the wall briefly, recollecting this day 62 years earlier, their wedding day in all its grandeur. She looked at me with what I thought was a sparkle in her eyes and said with a soft authority in her voice, “Come, lunch is ready. And you better clean this mess right after.”
I took the wedding photos in my palm again, smiling and imagining a place for myself in another era. Later that evening, I showed my parents the photographs, drawing from them awe, happiness, and glee in quick succession, after which a tight constriction suddenly gripped us by our throats, turning into a sense of longing and incompleteness for the man who’d been a favorite of every one of us — the man we still refer to as James Bond.
Several anecdotes and mugs of filter coffee later, I glued all but one of the photos back into the album and delicately placed the album beside grandpa’s glasses in the top left drawer. As I rearranged the contents of the rest of the drawer, I once again looked at the photo — the grainy photo of a lifetime that went into my wallet forever.
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Aprajitha Suryanarayanan is from Chennai where she works as a creative writer. Despite a background in commerce, writing remains her passion, and is like a cup of coffee to her — it tastes best when it is piping hot. The original version of this essay originally appeared on her blog potatopen.wordpress.