June 21, 2020 by The Citron Review

by Sayantika Mandal


Naphthalene. That’s what my mother says. Moon-white balls holding magic in them, lying on the shelves of our beige steel almirah, standing in the alcove of the bedroom I share with my parents in our rented apartment. The outer surface of this tall, steel cupboard is pockmarked with stickers and magnets. One sticker shows two dogs looking at each other and the other sticker is a monkey. My handiwork. The inside is inaccessible as my parents carry the keys. A cabinet of my parents’ treasures and secrets; two keys, one with each of them. I wait for Sunday mornings when Maa pushes in the keys and opens its doors, and I get a chance to look in and explore. Inside, there is cash, my mother’s saris and some of her jewelry, our woolens which come out in late November and go inside again in February, old letters and coins, my father’s stack of unused diaries, and on the corners of the shelves draped with yellowed newspaper, mothballs, their scent mingles with the scent of everything old. Old money, old clothes, old paper.

In late September, when the skies blue after the monsoon clouds disperse, leaving behind only a few strips of cotton, my mother empties the shelves, and lays out her saris in the sun to dispel the old smells. I help her carry the saris up the flights of stairs we share with the flat next to ours. Under the equinox sun of the late humid summer that Indians call autumn, the saris absorb the heat, laid out on a madur, a handwoven reed mat, on the dusty, unpolished cement floor of our terrace, blackened with the soot of chimneys that poke their heads out punctuating the green sal trees of Durgapur, the industrial town in eastern India where I grow up. I smell the saris, the blended perfume of naphthalene, old silk, and my mother’s skin. She dry cleans them after wearing them for special occasions, and the little cloth tags from the cleaners hang at the ends, but the smell clings to them. The smell exudes from the almirah, I believe. The rose-pink benarasi with emerald green border she wore in her wedding, the turquoise silk with little silver flowers, the green-and-mustard one with golden paisleys, spread out like a lazy artist’s palette, neat, unused.

The naphthalene balls are crystalline stories, stories that tumble out from my mother as she brings out her saris. The one that my dad first gifted her, the one she wore at my uncle’s wedding, the one her mother passed down to her after she began wearing the lighter shades Bengali women past fifty believe they must stick to, and the last gift from her father before he died. These colorful six yards of cloth are the landmarks of her life, stretched out like a clothes-line, the saris fluttering like flags marking the significant events. Each of them calls for a story, a memory to recount even if I have heard it a year before. She talks about the future too, which saris she plans to give me, when I would finally wear them, and I excitedly begin to choose.

When the ripe afternoon sun leans westwards, and it is time for the usual 4 o’clock Bengali movie in state television, my mother and I carry the saris down the stairs, the silk and cotton soaked with the sun. Inside the almirah, she removes the old, yellow newspapers on the shelves and lines them with fresh, whiter ones, and places the saris gently, stacked neatly in piles over old news reports. The ritual ends when she tears transparent plastic packets of mothballs, and I ask her to let me sprinkle those in the corners of the shelves.

I watch them on my palm, the smooth white beads of carbon and hydrogen honeycombed together. Volatile, diffusing into the dark trapped air of the almirah little by little, keeping silverfish and mold away, preserving the old sun soaked in the mesh of cotton, silk and wool threads, along with memories that perch like silent moths on the folds of the fabric. Perhaps that’s why they are called mothballs, crystal balls that conjure up the past instead of the future. The invisible vapors I now know to be carcinogenic enter my nostrils. I place them on the shelves, strewing them like pearls.

Sublimation: A physical process by which a solid changes directly into a gaseous state, without going into the liquid state, my textbook read, five or six years later. Process by which objects vaporize into thin air. Weak molecular forces fail to hold them down. Things rising up in smoke, dispersing and spreading in ether, and we are but bodies swimming in the chaos—of gases, of memories, of wispy, fragile things that escape our fists.

Wash your hands with soap, my mother says, as she locks the doors of the steel cabinet. I rub my hands with soap, the smell of antiseptic overpowers naphthalene. It’s time for the movie, then the news, and then homework, packing bags for school, and a Monday. The stacks of silk and cotton rest on the dark shelves like memories to be relived, waiting for the next festival, or wedding, or the autumn sun of another year.


Sayantika Mandal is an Indian writer. She completed her MFA in Writing (Fiction) from University of San Francisco where she was awarded the Jan Zivic Fellowship, and is about to begin her PhD in English with Creative dissertation from University of Georgia, Athens. Her writing has appeared in Dukool Magazine, Cerebration, Feminism in India, Times of India (Spellbound edition) and others. She is currently working on her first novel, Driftwood.


One thought on “Mothballs

  1. […] Mandal has an essay up at The Citron Review titled ‘Mothballs’ and it’s about her mother, growing up in eastern India, and […]

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