My everyday treat would come zipped in my mother’s red pouch.
Each day, it would be different. Peppermint, licorice, toffees, eclairs, wafers coated generously, or not so generously, with chocolate, orange, vanilla… big, small, negligible sized, bitter, flavoured, sweet. Just a moment of grandeur. A snippet of someone’s celebration. A tiny dessert. A small token of appreciation for the good girl I had been all day.
For me, it was the biggest incentive to be a school-teacher.
In the many holidays I spent alone, because the neighbourhood children went to non-Catholic schools and never got holidays as liberally as I did, these were long awaited lights at the end of lonely tunnels that I dug, all by myself, in mud-piles at construction sites nearby.
I’d toil at these tunnels for hours together, content only when I felt the cold mud against my upperarm. These, would be hiding places in hollow fortresses, inhabited by perfect-looking, insipid dolls that were too big for the entrances. I concluded that they were dead, since they’d never respond, unless I physically made them to.
When the fortresses bored me, or if I found a dead something while playing architect, I’d switch to playing undertaker to these dead dolls I possessed. One of these dolls came with a white veil, so, she’d be the only one in mourning, while the others took turns in going six feet under.
I’d always be on the lookout for big shells. And I had a nifty little collection in my bottom drawer. The biggest, I’d decided, would go to my mother.
Before we moved houses, I had to throw away these shells. My first exercise in letting go. Their numbers had risen exponentially, and they simply had to go. I kept the most beautiful of the lot. It wasn’t the biggest. Infact, it was chipped. But it was sheeny, and gave off every colour in the spectrum. That evening, when my mother’s red pouch was being raided, as per routine, the shell found its new home.
After we moved, I found myself raiding my mother’s red pouch lesser and lesser. The pouch wore out, and its contents moved. She changed schools. She changed doctors. She changed pens, refills. We shared erasers, rulers. The pouch’s colour changed too. I even remember how it once turned green, and since her fountain pen leaked, one corner turned black. Her pouch now also had medicines, and a number to call her doctor in emergency.
Then, she stopped teaching.
The pouch virtually lost its meaning. Even the stationery in it went redundant. My demands had graduated from rulers to set squares, from sharpeners to 0.7mm lead. The pouch then went into her bag, which felt snug in the corner of the cupboard with gift-wrapping paper, paintings that couldn’t be hung, my mother’s wedding photoalbum, textbooks I grew out of, my first anklet, extra pillow cases and blankets.
Yesterday, seven years after she gave up chalk, a little girl who lives nearby came to her for Kannada lessons.
On her bed, among the pens long laid to rest, was my chipped shell, encased in polythene.