Curio cabinets or “showcases” as they are called, were a popular fixture in Indian homes when I was growing up. They housed items that the family considered to be noteworthy and worthy of display. These items were not necessarily of monetary value but of sentimental value. Sporting mementoes, handicrafts, family pictures, religious icons and pictures of saints and gods.
During my recent trip home, I noticed that the last two had taken over the show case in my parents’ house. Pictures and figurines of gods formed a solid wall and hid everything in sight. My dad is religious but not one to purchase pictures or idols. These were no doubt gifts received over the years. There is a certain amount of fear when it comes to getting rid of such items and the best way to handle them is to place them in the show case!
One afternoon, I embarked on an archaeological expedition exploring the contents of the show case. I slid one of the heavy sliding glass doors and started removing the pictures. Dust and grime had found their way in and what I found inside was a time capsule of memories. I spent an hour or so, delighting in rediscovering artifacts and memories of my childhood.
The oldest items in the show case were two trophies won by my dad during his college days in the early 1950s. My dad was a bonafide sportsman, an allrounder who captained his college cricket team. He played volleyball and was a shot put champion and one was a trophy that he had won in college for shot putt. My brother and I never represented our school in sports and so these trophies were the only sporting trophies at home. As a young boy, I would polish the trophies periodically and dream of sporting glory myself!
The houseboat and shikara were souvenirs from my grandmother’s trip to Kashmir in 1973. Those were the days when Kashmir was open for tourism and Bollywood filmed some of its iconic songs in the idyllic environs of Kashmir. My grandmother came back with replica of a houseboat, some precious saffron, and dry fruits: figs, apricots and walnuts. With stories of a land whose beauty defied imagination. Traveling abroad was almost impossible for most Indians, visiting Kashmir was as good as visiting Europe. “It’s like Switzerland” people remarked. Not that people had visited Switzerland but they were talking of the Switzerland of calendars that adorned many a wall. This was my introduction to dry fruits and the start of a love affair with walnuts, figs and apricots that continues to this day.
The model of the Fairey Swordfish biplane had seen better days. It lay forlornly at the back of the show case. It was our most treasured possession at one point in time. My uncle had brought the model kit as a gift when he returned from his studies in London in 1974. My cousin Bakin, who had a fantastic collection of model airplanes, helped us assemble and paint the model. With its two wings, torpedoes and propeller, it was an impressive sight! It featured in many adventures of my childhood. Always handled with care and reverence, it was placed carefully in a cardboard box and placed in our closet. At some point in time, it found its way to the show case.
The zebra napkin ring holder was a gift from my father’s uncle. A distinguished doctor, he had served in the medical corps of the British Indian Army during WW2. He retired as a Brigadier from the Indian army and turned to academics upon his retirement. He had taken up a temporary teaching assignment in Zambia in 1973 and on his return, brought back wood carvings back as souvenirs. His show case was very impressive, the show case of a well traveled man who had won many accolades over his lifetime. We had temporarily stayed at his house in Bangalore during his sojourn to Africa. The zebra’s stripes had faded but it was in good condition. I was always in awe of my grand uncle when I met him. I was too young to talk to him about his war experiences. Bakin had tried but he said that he did not have much luck drawing him into a conversation regarding this.
Tucked away at the corner in the bottom shelf was a bottle with a peacock painted on it. This was a gift from a family friend to my mother probably in 1975. The 1970s witnessed a flurry of art and crafts amongst all the families we knew. Rubber balls covered with sequins held in place by a pin that had sleeve of colorful tubing. Coin craft “mantaps” – temple like structures constructed by gluing five paise coins. Palanquins made with beads. Bottles covered with crochet or painted with vines. My mother at one time held informal classes at home (gratis of course) to teach her friends these crafts. During my school holidays, weekday afternoons would be filled with laughter and conversation as my mother and her friends sat on the floor of our living room with their supplies. I would be given odds and ends that I would try to fashion into my own crafts. My mother made several of these and gifted them all away. The only memory of those crafts is ironically a gift given to my mother.
The dinky cars were covered with grime. A red Mercedes Benz that was still as smooth and swift as I remembered it. In my many adventures, it was the cop car that featured in many an exciting chase. The orange Volkswagen camper fascinated me and my friends. The flap at the top opened up to reveal a miniature kitchenette, bed and couch. My introduction to an RV. I don’t recall who gifted these to us. They were received a few years apart and were not from the same person. I brought these back and they now sit atop our fireplace mantel.
The battle tank still survives. A gift from my cousin Bakin in 1978, it won me several famous victories in all the wars that were fought on my balcony during my childhood. These war games in fact deserve a separate writeup. The all metallic concorde, also a gift from Bakin, lay buried under some trinkets. The jeep and toy plane were gifted by the Raos when they returned from their trip to the US. Dr Rao, a veterinary surgeon and professor, taught at Tufts University for a short period of time in the 1970s. At that time, Tufts was so far away, it could very well have been on the moon. I live twenty miles from Tufts now.
The pine cone was a surprising find. My cousin Usha had given it to me in 1978. I asked her about it recently and she said it was most likely a souvenir from her cousins trip to Kashmir. I had only read about pine cones in story books and comics, an actual one was considered worthy of being housed in our show case! My backyard is a cemetery for pine cones now, they fall like rain from the conifers in the woods.
The wooden boat with a mast was a prize that I won for an essay writing competition when I was in seventh grade. It was judged by Mr Hartwell “Papa” Yates, our math teacher who was also known for his command over the English language. Papa was a legend and an institution in his own right and it was especially gratifying to receive an award judged by him. I’ve misplaced the certificate that was awarded with the boat. This boat is the only literary prize I’ve won over the years!
The souvenirs from my parents’ two trips to the US were all placed together. Plastic wind up Mickey and Donald. A wax cast of Lincoln and a model of the Ford Model T from the Ford Museum in Detroit. My dad is an excellent storyteller and I’m sure he brought them out along with photographs when talking to friends about their trip to the US.
Perhaps the two most poignant pieces in the showcase are a Ganesha idol and a picture frame. The Ganesha idol was a gift from my brother and I to our parents on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. I still remember that day in March 1986 when my brother and I went to MG Road in Bangalore looking for an appropriate gift. We visited the famous handicraft stores: Cauvery, Poom Puhar and Natesans. All had exquisite works of art but alas they were way out of our budget. We finally found a “panchloha” (five metal) idol of Ganesha at a handicrafts store in the Shringar Shopping Complex on MG Road. It fit within our budget and we thought it was a perfect gift since Lord Ganesha, in Hindu mythology, is the remover of obstacles and brings good luck. As an added bonus, my brother, who had just started earning a salary as a Dental house surgeon, treated me to dinner at the erstwhile Blue Heaven restaurant on Church Street!
The photo frame was gifted by us to our parents on their fiftieth wedding anniversary. It contains two pictures, one shot in 1961 on the day they got married and another shot in 2011. We held a small function to celebrate the occasion and my parents were thrilled to have the extended family over. That was perhaps the last time we all met, my mother passed away in 2013. I’m sure a million memories flood through my dad’s mind each time he sees the picture. They enjoyed a long fruitful relationship and would have celebrated their sixtieth this year.
Indeed, my dad did not remember any of the aforementioned toys or the Ganesha idol. I doubt he sees past the picture frame and the photo of my mother that is also prominently placed in the showcase. They shared some wonderful memories together and created some wonderful memories for me and my brother that we cherish to this day. The contents of the show case are just the physical artifacts of our life, they have no meaning or value for anyone else, but they are the catalyst for some wonderful memories that are showcased in our minds. For that reason alone, they are to be cherished.
The featured image is that of some hallowed denizens of our Showcase. At center is the Panchaloha Ganesha that my brother and I gifted my parents on their 25th Wedding Anniversary