By: Natalia Suri
“Kanta bai, don’t let your broom touch my chair,” ranted Lata, her voice trembling. The old woman sat on the chair as she spoke, her feeble toes barely touching the floor. “You don’t know, this is no ordinary chair. It was the throne of the Queen of Darjeeling. You know, even your bade sahib and I came from Darjeeling, here to Calcutta.”
Kanta bai did not pay any heed to the old woman’s words. In the five years she had been working in the haveli, every day she was greeted with this recital. Her eyes caught a glimpse of the old woman’s face, the wrinkles digging deep into her octogenarian skin. Kanta bai had often seen tears flowing down from behind those pebbled glasses.
Sitting back, remembering her youth, the sound of her own giggling echoed in Lata’s ears. When colony ladies came and sat around her on ordinary chairs while she was seated in the centre on this rich, elegant chair, she remembered how that gave her an exhilarated edge of superiority.
In the afternoons after lunch, she sat on the chair, giving company to Alok her son, who sprawled on the carpet near the chair, doing his homework. Getting restless, she would change the colors of her nails again and again choosing from the endless bottles she kept in the drawers of the chair.
Hearing approaching footsteps she was awakened from her reverie. Alok stood in front of her, a nut cracker in his hand. “You left it in the garden,” he said. “You just have gums. I don’t understand what you do with it?” Before she could retort he left, as though her reactions weren’t important for him.
She held the nut cracker in her hand, and caressed it. It was a thread linking her to her past. Every evening after Alok had gone to bed, her husband would lie on the carpet next to the chair and gaze at her face, the suppleness of her skin, her fine features, while she sat on the chair and broke nuts for him. Sitting quietly for hours in each other’s company.
Her hands tried to search for the initials of their names on the nut cracker. He had got them engraved before he gifted it to her.
Pushing herself back on the chair, Lata opened a long drawer by pulling the brass loop around the carved lion’s mouth at the end of the arm rest. Peeping inside the drawer, divided into small sections by wooden partitions, she rummaged through her things, the nail polishes were replaced by small bag of walnuts, needles and spools, and pouches of pan and supari. She kept the nut cracker there with her things, smiling at it as though it had found its correct place.
When the clock near the chair struck twelve times in the afternoon, it was signal to all the servants to leave the courtyard, closing all the doors and the windows, sealing it for five minutes.
It was a tradition, ever since the chair-throne of the old lady came into the haveli, so that she could squat and open the two chest-of-drawers beneath the chair. She marveled at what lay inside one of them for just a few minutes, before closing them. Once Alok, as a young boy, had seen his mother put her jewelry there.
“Why do you lock your jewelry here?” he asked her.
“It is the safest place in the house, always under my presence,” she had laughed.
The servants had always been dubious over the years of such an abrupt order, of sealing the courtyard for those five minutes, but now they were sure that the old lady had something very precious in the drawers of that chair.
One morning while passing through the corridors, Alok had overheard Kantabai’s conversation with the cook in the kitchen. “The old lady says the chair was the throne of a queen. I am sure there are precious jewels hidden there. Kings were so rich they had jewels as big as stones.”
The next day Alok went to his mother who was busy threading the pink roses she collected in the morning from the garden. It was her daily routine. The garland was for her husband’s photo hanging behind her chair.
“Ma,” looking at her shaking hands trying to thread the needle through the flowers, he asked, “do you have any money with you, or in fact, any piece of jewelry. You have always said that you are a queen. I have had losses in my business.”
The old lady nodded her head, as if trying to ensure that she had understood every word, and then in a confused voice she said, “No. I have nothing.”
Alok left, thinking his mother didn’t want to give him the jewelry, perhaps she wanted to give it to his only sister who was married in Bhuvneshwar.
The following month, news came that the old lady’s sister had passed away. This time the servants were asked to leave the court yard at 7:00 am for five minutes. The old lady packed her few belongings in a plastic bag and was about to leave when she rushed back to the chair and pulled at every drawer under the seat twice to check if it was locked.
After a week when she returned, life in the haveli was as usual except for the chair. There was a pile of clothes on it and an umbrella hanging from one of the two spiral curves that rose from the back. The old lady hobbled towards the chair, she was about to lose her balance near it, but she held the chair’s arm.
Mustering all her energy she threw the clothes and the umbrella on the floor. Her breathing became deep, blood rushed through her veins, tears flowed down her craggy cheeks burning something within her. “How can they keep anything on my throne?” she said in a shrill voice that echoed in the haveli.
That afternoon the old lady didn’t eat, brooding. “How could they put their clothes on this chair?” she said, caressing the arms of the chair.
In the evening when Alok returned from office he came up to her and said, “Ma, have something.The servants tell me that you haven’t eaten anything since morning.”
“How could you allow anyone to put those clothes, that dirty umbrella on this chair?” she asked, her flushed face burnt from tears, the crescent moon under her eyes swollen.
“What is there in this chair? It is a piece of junk,” Alok pointed at the chair and said. “The polish is scraped, it has scratches all over. Look at the seat…the red velvet cloth is in tatters.”
Lata sat down on the chair, trying to hide its flaws.
“Ma, what are you hiding? The jewels inside are for your only daughter. You say you are the queen, then she is your princess, and I am your bloody pauper son, whom you don’t want to give a penny.”
The old lady was quiet. Lifeless she sat on the chair that evening, as though nursing an open wound.
The next morning there was silence in the haveli. The old lady had passed away on the chair.
After mourning period was over, Alok wanted to open the drawers. But they were locked and he couldn’t find the keys. In his endeavor of finding the keys, his feelings that his mother never wanted to give him those precious jewels, which she had hidden inside the chair, were reinforced.
He called the carpenter to break open the drawer. Alok notice there was sparkle of admiration in the carpenter’s eyes for the chair. “ Sahbji, this wood, this chair and this minute work, from the mane of the lion till the paws can only be done by someone who has made this chair by putting his heart in it.”
“Will you shut up?” said Alok. “Open the drawer.”
As the drawers were opened, Alok saw they were empty except for a photograph.
It was of his father, very young, making this chair.Scrawled on the photo’s bottom were the words, ‘For the queen of my life- my wife.’
That night, a restless Alok went to the kitchen to get himself a drink of water. On his way back he noticed the chair. And on the wall next to chair he saw something dark.
It was the shadow of his mother sitting on the chair.
Natalia Suri has lived most of her life in New Delhi. She teaches Spanish at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi. Her passion to travel has taken her to numerous countries.
Her work has been published in Earthen Lamp Journal, Samvada, Boloji, E-fiction, Literary Yard, Indus women.
Her favorite authors are Khaled Hosseini and Jeffery Archer.
She sees the talent of writing as a gift. Every life, she says, is a story. It just depends on how it is narrated. Though she agrees that life cannot be mapped, she looks forward to her journey as a writer.