Pankhuri Zaheer on her mother, Noor’s, secret sandooq and collection of letters

“There is a very old wooden sandooq kept in the uppermost shelf of my mother's cupboard. It has her collection of all letters that she has considered important her entire life.

The chest has postcards, birthday cards, inland letters, and letters on very thin onionskin paper which people sent her through international mail.”

The sandooq is a very ornate mid-sized wooden chest that signifies parts of my mother that I am not privy to. I and my mother are very close but there is a big chunk of her life that she chooses to not tell me about. Maybe motherhood made her make certain choices that entailed sacrificing certain aspects of herself. Perhaps she shields me. Maybe it's too painful. Maybe it's too private. Nevertheless, the box has traveled with her across cities, homes, families, and husbands.

On a whim, once when I was about 16, instead of watching TV or calling friends when I was alone at home, I decided to take a peek into that box. I don’t know how I feel about this now knowing how private that sandooq is for her. But I found loving letters from her parents that they wrote to her on their travels to Moscow, London, Kashmir, and other places. I learned naani used to call my mother ‘baap’ lovingly. I found letters from an ex-boyfriend who had asked my mother to never stop writing poetry. My mother only writes prose. I never knew she wrote poetry! I found courtship letters from her ex-husband who she now absolutely despises and never talks about.

Strangest were letters from her elder sister and brother-in-law, whom she has not spoken to in decades. In a small corner, I also found birthday cards that I and my siblings had drawn her as children. I remember a fight that my parents had where my mother told my father, “... and you never wrote to me, when I was alone in Calcutta!” At the time, I had thought it was a very strange allegation to make. But now looking at her chest of letters, I realized how important the written word was and is to her.

She keeps them as reminders of love, as proof of relationships that existed and then didn’t, and of the ones that will endure. I also wonder, now in the time of short text messages, what does she continue to save?