The Iron Box

 We grew up in the fading years of the charcoal iron, the ugly and heavy utility that had shelf space in all middle class homes of that time. It was a household item that focused only on function during its entire existence and never strayed from its destined purpose. It neither devolved nor evolved and at a point graciously moved to the attic to make way for steam and light-weight electric models.

 Old and haggard charcoal irons were relegated to the dark corners of the house or found their way to the nearest metal scrap heap. A few privileged ones landed in antique shops where they sat alongside a giant metal spatula, or a burnished spittoon. With the advent of the new gadgets all that remained of these war horses were the stories linked with the days of the old charcoal press.

 In my grandmother’s house, my aunt had inalienable rights over the coal-fed iron box by virtue of having to nurture a husband and seven children. The monstrous box sat on its own metal ring on the large ironing table that stood in the verandah outside the dining room. Above the table and for practically the entire length of the verandah there was a clothes line. Clothes that were ready to be ironed hung on the line and were tackled one by one. She had nine heaps of clothes on the line to tackle every morning, including her own.

 The open side of the verandah had a smooth broad parapet that ran the entire length of the verandah with gaps for the steps leading down into the compound and the outhouses. This verandah and the parapet were a favourite part of the house. We children played there when it rained and spent afternoons there to stay out of the way of those who were sleeping. Adults sat on the parapet and gossiped about all that was happening in the neighbourhood. Often they combined the exercise with a household chore like peeling shallots, or chopping vegetables. You could sit with your legs dangling over either side or with your legs stretched out. As children we sat there talking of little or nothing.

 The house had electricity but an electric iron was yet to make its debut into the family. And so every morning a fixed number of coconut shells were burnt and the burning shells piled into the cavity of the ironing box. When the heat had transferred to the base of the iron, my aunt started ironing. The iron was first tested on one of the children’s clothes just in case it might leave a stain and then the most important item of the lot was ironed – my uncle’s office shirt. As she pressed the collar and cuffs and moved between the buttons she kept up a conversation with anyone who was sitting on the parapet or passing through the verandah on the way to the kitchen. Between pressing one garment and another, she also shouted instructions to the children who had to get ready for school.

 By the time she had ironed the last of her children’s clothes the iron was tepid and not of much use for anyone else. There was some unwritten rule against the iron being refilled with fresh coconut shells and those of us who had clothes to iron just made good with what little heat remained or at the appropriate time begged our Aunt to give us the use of the iron for a minute, just one minute.

 Why was the iron filled with burning coconut shells? Did they provide more heat than coals? Perhaps not – the most important point in favour of the coconut was that it was freely available in the house. They could be easily picked up from the coconut shell mountain that most homes in Malabar had in a dry corner of the outhouse.

 My aunt’s eldest daughter brought back an electric iron from Kuwait where she had gone after her marriage and used it in the privacy of her room. The rest of the family continued with the coconut-shell-fired-iron till the day the house was sold. My uncle had retired, the children had left the house and all of us had gone in different directions. In my Aunt’s new house, there was no verandah, no parapet and the length of the clothes line was really short. There were fewer clothes to iron, not many coconuts either and it was time to consider a future for the iron.

 

 

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