Years ago, when I walked into this home that I now call mine, I felt an instant connection. As I entered and stood in the foyer, past a wide bank of windows, I saw a green bank of foliage that seemed to welcome me. House hunting is always exhausting, time-consuming and fraught with worry. And yet, a frightfully expensive decision is usually made in an instant charged with quiet emotion.
A Sense Of Belonging
Sometimes, when we enter a home, we cannot imagine ourselves living there even if we add all the positives touted by the realtor. But, every now and then, a sense of belonging exerts a magnetic pull that sends one off to deal with all the paperwork before “my home” can be emblazoned along with the new address. And, that’s exactly how I felt as I stood in the foyer years ago. Even before entering the rooms, I felt a quiet sense of belonging.
As my eyes scanned the living room further, I saw dark blue wall-to-wall carpeting with pristine cream furniture, and a bright colored white and blue roll of wallpaper stretched across the walls. As my eyes took in the room that was deliberately dimly lit to create a cozy feel, my to-do list became clear.
Carpet had to go, ditto the wallpaper, bright lights needed to be installed. White paint on the walls was too plain for the bright artwork that I had in mind. And, the to-do list ended with the thought of “Yes, I can live here as long as I get to the bottom of this instantly created to-do list.”
Reworking The Space Of Another
The house had been beautifully decorated to create a sense of old-worldly European charm. There was a graciousness in the tall wingback cream-colored chairs. The couches were cream, with lamps that matched. The dark blue wall-to-wall carpeting enhanced the light-colored furniture that sat.
And, here I was rearranging colors, textures and the space even before I owned the house. What I was trying to disrupt and rearrange was the “Europeanness” that the previous owners had painstakingly created.
“Reworking” a space is something that all immigrants do—trying to create a home we can own in a psychic sense. This molding of a space and a country into something that felt like “home” started when I lived in a tiny studio apartment in Long Island, my first rented accommodation in America.
Familiarity Fosters Security
I had used pushpins to place a bright red Gujarati tapestry on the wall. A small copper treasure chest was placed under the television set, and two prints of Krishna and Radha in the detail-laden style of mural painting were placed on the wall next to each other. My cream-colored couch had bright green cushions with mirror work, and, on a side-table sat an icon of Nataraja made with black metal that surveyed the coziness of home I had created as a new immigrant and young bride.
When we scan our eyes across a lived space to look at objects, curios, colors, and books, what we are actually searching for is the familiar. What looks familiar fosters security.
And, this desire to mold a space into what felt familiar and secure was the same preoccupation of British women who lived in India during the years when the East India Company ruled there.
British Women In Colonial India
I had always been interested in colonial history, but what I read till date almost always dealt with British men in positions of power leading lives in the public arena. I had wondered on and off about the lives they led in private, the women who had accompanied their husbands to live in a land far from their own, and all that they built away from the public eye.
Margaret MacMillan’s book, Women of the Raj, follows British women in India through the ups and downs of sedate family lives punctuated with dinners to organize and Sunday church visits.
MacMillan says, “It was up to the women to try to create something that looked cosy and British. They discovered that it was not an easy task… the furniture that could be rented or bought in the local bazaars somehow always looked Indian. They could hide the beams, and lower the ceilings by stretching white cloth across—as long as they did not mind the scratchings and scurrying of the insects and small animals with which India abounded. Just as British women in India wore British clothes, so they dressed their surroundings with as much as they could of Britain.”
And, even as they worked with spaces to make it their own, they confronted spaces that they never had to decorate in England. The broad veranda for example. “Women often screened them with bamboo trellises up which they grew creepers—begonia, passionflower with its white and purple blossoms, or ivies of various sorts.” And here they also grew geraniums, begonias, ferns and violets.
As the Raj’s dominance grew all over India, the women who traveled and lived in cities and towns all over India had to deal with its stifling heat. This led to the pankah or large fan being part of the decor of homes till well into the 20th century when electric fans replaced them.
“When pankahs first came into use in the late 18th century, the pankah coolie who kept them in motion squatted in a corner of the room, in the 19th century he was banished to the outside of the house. In the hot weather, he pulled on a long, frayed rope over the room.”
In his book, British Social Life in India, Dennis Kincaid points out an unlikely victim of the broad sweep of the pankah—women’s bonnets. “Our bonnets were perpetually swept by the punkahs. They are dreadful things, I think. There is a sort of confusion which is bewildering,” says one unnamed woman.
Home Away From Home
In spite of the bewilderment, British women persevered in an unfamiliar climate, learnt the local language to communicate with servants, preserved ways of British life and made something that felt like “home” emerge from a space that seemed alien and distant at first. They also tried to keep up with everything that was happening back home in Britain in matters both important and mundane.
In 1858, Minnie Blanc sent an annoyed message through her mother to her sister, who was not keeping her informed of the latest fashion trends. “Tell Cissy she never answers my questions nor tells me how she does her hair and all the things I long to hear.”
Finding Home In Assimilation
And, then there were a few who walked across color lines in India, nurturing their individual interests and pursuits. There was Annette Beveridge who translated the memoirs of Emperor Babur from Persian, or Anne Wilson who studied Indian music.
However, the vast majority of British women learnt to be memsahibs and ran homes, making do with grocery items that were available locally, keeping track of servants’ duties and developing a sense of community within the confines of British society in Indian towns and cities.
A Room Of One’s Own
As I write this essay, I am looking out at the crinkled brown and orange leaves of the Japanese maple tree outside my window, unfamiliar to the eyes of anyone from Chennai, my hometown.
Inside my house, I am surrounded by bright yellow walls, a color specifically chosen to match one of my favorite silk sarees woven and bought from Kanchipuram, an Indian silk weaving center.
On a bookcase shelf, sit brass and copper pots of various sizes that once belonged to my grandmothers and elderly aunts. And, on a table, I spy a paperweight that resembles the black coal iron used by the dhobi wallah, a fixture of Indian streets to this day.
A graceful veena stands in one corner; prints of old Madras adorn my walls. A painting inspired by the mural style of Gujarat depicting Krishna and Radha by the famous artist Kartik Trivedi adorns one space. Atop my fireplace is an oil painting of a young girl set in rural India. On another wall is my friend Pavani Kaushik’s painting of an old man working with brass pots. A reclining rattan chair from Pottery Barn always elicits a gasp of recognition from guests who enter our home.
Something Old, Something New
However, when you open the coat closet near the front door, you will find the white and blue wallpaper and the dark blue carpet that was removed from every other part of the house. When we remodeled the house to make it fit our tastes, I wanted some part of the old to stay and there it is every time I open the door to hang a jacket.
Instead of the icon of Nataraja that surveyed my living room in my Long Island apartment, here, in this house, I have two images of Ganesha who watch all that I do.
My bright red terracotta Ganesha is in my garden shaded by a mirror work umbrella I purchased in Jaipur, blessing my curry leaf, tulasi and jasmine plants—all tropical climate loving plants that I protect through the cool California winters.
And, inside my living room sits a beautiful wooden reclining Ganesha in one corner, looking at me languidly, wondering about all that I have done to make the unfamiliar familiar.
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