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Rekindling the Bonfires Of the Innocent Past

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THE scene could well have been a subject for still-life study for the discerning artist. The late-afternoon sun pouring through the skylight fell in golden patches upon the wooden floorboards of the attic, illuminating Grandma's old mementos. A scattering of vintage British-India coins, embossed with King George profiles, gleamed silver. Inside a blue-velvet case lay a carved sandalwood elephant. An open tin box overflowed with pieces of unworked textile - silks in yellow and turquoise, chiffons, and rou gh cuts of cotton. Completing this curious assortment was an old leather-bound diary and a pocketwatch (the kind Mahatma Gandhi wore in the 1930s) with its glass cracked down the middle.

Grandma held the sculpted pachyderm to the mellow light. "A gift to your grandpa when he was in Ceylon," she announced, and went on to elaborate, telling me of the time my grandfather won a tough timber contract on the island and of her visit to the wooded, sea-fringed mountains where they were felling the teaks.

Grandpa's pocketwatch released a lighter, more intimate memory. The watch had stopped during a moonlit river cruise making the experience "timeless," as Grandma said with a laugh.

I remembered the coins. Years ago (when I was in my early teens), Grandma had presented me identical ones. Unaware of their worth, I had bartered them for some things of childhood fancy.

These seemingly inconsequential objects, stored away in the lonely attic among the big chests and disused furniture, are Grandma's most precious possessions. She comes to them in her chosen hours, in deep, intimate moments when things gone by are cherished, their tangible need felt. Then her innocuous collection begins to provide silent companionship, standing surrogate presence for the past.

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