It had stood around for years in our ancestral house in Trichy. It was in many ways a triumph of engineering and a marvel of nature. It was 6ft by 3ft and rested on four legs of around 2 ft. It was a smooth bench of teak wood and as my grandmother never tired of saying, the top surface was one piece of teak, of around six inches thickness. “No joints anywhere, unlike what you see these days,”she used to say looking on in disgust at what we had bought later by way of furniture. It was only much later that I realised that a single piece of wood of that size must have come from a mammoth tree.
Legend had it that grandfather, always a connoisseur of wood, had seen it at a timber mart in Tirunelveli and bought it to make a swing for his dream house – the one he built in Trichy. When it was hauled to the site, the contractor advised against the use of such a heavy piece of wood for a swing. Like Charles Mant and the Lakshmi Vilas Palace in Baroda, our man on the spot was clearly nervous that the wooden rafters would crack and bring the roof down. (They haven’t, 60 years later). So grandfather fashioned it into a bench and so it remained. It weighed 200 kilos.
For some reason, it became the bench on which all babies were delivered. Two out of three of my aunts delivered several of their children on this, aided and abetted by the Drs David (Periya and Chinna David, who contrary to their names were female. Chinna David apparently slept through all deliveries no matter how tough and noisy the process). And for some reason, ALL, but all the babies were female. I have a huge number of cousin sisters. It was only after the ninth granddaughter had been delivered that even my scientific and progressive-minded grandfather began to believe that the bench may have to do something with it. And so the aunts were sent off to hospital for subsequent babies and the bench was used only for siestas. Over a period of fifty years, it acquired a smooth patina.
Cut to 1996. We were building the first floor of our house in RA Puram. The idea was to build a compact and manageable flat as opposed to the ground floor which had too many doors and windows and enormous rooms. (The first floor ended up with more windows if not doors and even larger rooms). And it struck my wife and me that the top of the bench would make an ideal front door. And so much against my father’s wishes (my wife was expecting our second child and he evidently feared a ‘home delivery’ with predictable results),the bench was lowered with great difficulty from the first floor of our Trichy house, transported by TVS (their profit for the year zoomed) and finally hauled up to the first floor of our house in Chennai. In both houses the staircases were narrow (the only difference being that in the former it is an elegant and dainty Burma teak creation while here it is cement and tile, clunky and functional) and required lowering and raising from the portico.I had to lend a helping hand in the bringing up.
The bench was finally ensconced in the guest bedroom. A makeshift front door was in place as the carpenter said that working on the bench would need time. All was set however for its makeover. It was then that my second aunt (my favourite though we always argued) arrived. She was large and stately and though she lived next door, every one of her visits was an event. She had delivered all her children on the bench. “But why do you want to cut it up?” she asked. “It is fine as a bench.” It was in vain that we tried to get her to see our point of view. “Anyway it will all happen as the bench wants,” she said. “These things have a mind of their own.” I put that last bit to senility.
The next morning I found I could not move out of bed. The helping hand in shifting the bench had strained the back. The doctor arrived, said that I had to be in bed for a week and if possible on a hard, flat surface. And what better than the bench. I was laid up on it for a week. Aunt came frequently and we discussed music, history and the arts. Not once did we talk about the bench though with my lying on it, it should have been the most obvious topic.
At the end of the week, I was completely all right. The bench had worked wonders and so it could not be cut up. A new door was made and the bench remained a bench. Six months ago, my mother decided (or was it the bench itself?) that it was better off in Trichy. So much to my father’s irritation and TVS’ delight, it made the journey back to Trichy. I saw it off, this time supervising the lowering from the verandah with verbal commands alone. I was later told that the hauling up at Trichy had worked like a dream and the bench was back where it belonged. Truly it has a mind of its own. I can imagine aunt (she had sadly passed away by then) smiling to herself.