Mummy's Bureau by Anna G. Raman

It stood in a corner of my study in our Coimbatore flat. There was also an iron table, an iron chair, a wooden cupboard built into the wall, an old treadle sewing machine, with an iron pedal, and a very much out of place plastic pail and a pile of laundry outside the attached bathroom. The bureau, over six feet tall, looked more classic and majestic than all the other furniture in the room. It had a stainless steel handle with a lock that we never used. We never locked this bureau. My mother kept all her pure silk sarees, Chinese silk sarees and blouses on the top three shelves, and my salwar kameez with their dupattas and other clothes went on the bottom two shelves. My much-treasured kebaya and batik set went on one of the bottom shelves too. Someone from my father’s side of the family living in Malaysia had gifted it to me when we visited them in 1990. It had been a Visit Malaysia Year and we had spent some of our summer holidays there. The set had beautiful orange-coloured patterns. It was very special and I proudly wore it, to visit a friend or to walk to the milkman’s house to find out why he hadn’t delivered the day’s morning milk. This bureau also had the privilege of storing the first pair of jeans in the household, which was handed down to me from a younger cousin, who had grown taller than me. I wore the jeans, mostly in Chennai. In Coimbatore, it got a lot of disapproving eyes and brows those days.

The nearly rusty iron shelves were lined with pages from old editions of 'The Hindu' newspaper. Sometimes, one of the shelves would lean like an inclined plane and all the clothes on it would slide to one end. This would happen very quietly and we would not know about it until we opened the green double doors. These doors, however, were very loud, as if they were yelling and demanding oil. The doors of the blue bureau were also loud but they sounded a little more dignified and polite. It was like the bureaus had their own signature sounds and one could tell which one was being opened or closed from anywhere in the flat. My father’s and sister’s clothes were stored in the blue bureau, along with my sister’s only Barbie doll and her trinkets which we explored together from time to time. It had the pleasure of going on an adventurous treasure hunt and finding goodies.

The bureau was painted dark green, so dark, that no light reached the insides, even with the tube-light on. It had a safety locker but my mother never kept any of her jewellery in it. I was too scared to reach into the dark secretiveness of the locker. I think I was afraid of finding Mummy’s soul there, waiting to chide me for some big mistake. My mother kept all her valuables in the other, blue bureau, in my sister’s study-cum-bedroom. The coarse paint was peeling off in several places and made the bureau an ideal board for writing. I used
to fill up the sides with Mechanics equations, using white chalk pieces which travelled home occasionally in my mother’s handbag from the school where she taught Chemistry. As I wrote, the fine chalk powder fell on the floor making lines around the bureau and made a protective border for it.

The bureau had been brought from Mummy’s house in Palakkad. Mummy was my Great-Grandma. Everyone who knew her fondly called her Mummy. She must have bought the bureau sometime after she moved from the Middle East to Kerala, with Grandma Lilly and my Great-Aunts, towards the end of World War II. After Mummy’s departure, everyone inherited something from her house and the bureau ended up in Grandma Lilly’s house on Lawley Road in Coimbatore. My mother had requested for it from my Grandma when we had much more clothes than the blue bureau could hold. In 2003, sometime before my wedding, my mother sent it back to Grandma Lilly’s, to turn my study into a honeymooners’ room. Now the bureau sits on the ground floor of my Uncle’s house where he runs a small-scale plastic business. He says it’s a precisely cut, finely made bureau from the olden days and it should be kept.


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