Nabanita Sengupta gives us a glimpse of life in a sleepy little town, long before social-distancing set in
Those were the days of large-hearted people, living in homes with large windows and even larger balconies and sleeping in large beds. Life was different, quite unlike the matchbox sized measured lifestyle of modern society. Raya, growing up in those times, was used to that free flowing largeness of existence, not necessarily reflected always in their material possessions. Their house, as she always remembered it later, had huge windows in each of the two rooms, that were themselves not too big. A large part of both the rooms was taken up by a bed each, larger than what you find in the furnished apartments of today. Sitting far from Ghumi now, Raya often wonders at the disproportionate decor of their homes in those days.
Raya’s father was particularly large hearted when it came to hospitality. Raya doesn’t remember a single month when they did not have relatives visiting them. It was something they looked forward too as well. Though it meant cramped living spaces and queuing up for the solitary toilet, the fun compensated for all the inconveniences. And since her mom was an excellent cook, guests also meant lip smacking delicacies. If it were not the relatives visiting from other cities, there were local friends gathering for an evening adda*.
Since both her parents loved large gatherings, most of the weekends saw their friends and families coming over for evening tea. And those teas were almost as elaborate as dinners. Occasions were numerous too – a visit from someone’s kin, end of children’s examinations, someone’s return from a travel or simply because they felt like meeting up. Raya loved to see the women, her mother’s friends huddling in the kitchen, rolling out luchi* or spreading dosa* batter, laying out plates and also serving the juiciest pieces of gossip with equal élan. Or at times, they would be just pouring out their woes in the warmth of a bonhomie and empathy of like-minded friends.
Occasionally, men too helped out with food but mostly, kitchen was a space that these women kept for themselves. And children let go their boisterous spirits and ran around the house, laughing at the silliest of pretexts. At the end of such gatherings, Raya found her parents dead tired yet thoroughly contented with the day.
But there was a small glitch that at times interrupted the pleasant flow of these gatherings. And like every small issue that festers into something foul if left untreated, this onetoo took an unpleasant turn. Raya’s mother refused to entertain any guest till they had a new dining table, large enough to accommodate at least eight people. The one that they had now was a table for four, ancient and somehow supporting itself on wobbly legs. It posed a threat to the food that was heaped on it during such gatherings. Raya’s parents, especially her mother, were one of those kind spirits of the yester world who believed in smothering their guests with delicacies. And all painstakingly cooked by her! Her culinary skill was much appreciated. But the process of sitting around the table to eat had to be executed with utmost care, taking into consideration its rundown condition.
Those were the days before the instant gratification provided by plastic money and a ready credit offered by banks. Each purchase required careful planning because anything bought was considered to be an investment for a lifetime. The quality of the product was the most important criteria because durability was a must. Disposability had not yet become the norm. So, after almost a month of deliberations and discussions, Raya’s father went to the carpenter to place his order. Unlike big cities, small town Ghumi did not have any readymade furniture stores. In a place with a three thousand odd population, it would not have been commercially viable.
Raya knew that placing the order for the table would mean a visit from Mr. Sankar of Universal Furnishings to take the required measurements over umpteen cups of tea and discussions ranging from the cold war to children’s education. Just one-eighth of the entire conversation time would be dedicated to the discussion about the furniture to be made, its design and details. Raya enjoyed these conversations which seemed to move along serpentine tracks, changing courses or moving in circles, but always animated.The precocious mind of the little girl remoulded the adult discussions that she heard with utmost focusto give them a place in her own world of fantasies. So Shanker uncle’s visit was always one that Raya looked forward to.
And this had always been the ritual with every piece of furniture they procured. This table was not going to be an exception either. After the ritual of ‘ordering’ the table came the proverbial waiting period. Everyone in Ghumi knew what this wait meant. Normal deadlines never worked for Mr. Shanker and there was no account of the time that he would take to finish a product. If it was not a labour crisis, it would be some illness at home or some major existential crisis that would always upset the so-called deadlines of Mr. Shanker.No queries, no amount of harsh words or coaxing could affect the middle-aged proprietor of Universal Furnishing;he bore them all with equal fortitude and a smiling demeanour. But his products were of an excellent quality and that was what had helped him survive in his trade. The Ghumians had long resigned themselves to the fate of waiting.
Anyway, once the order was given and the advance paid, the gloomy cloud slowly faded away from Raya’s home and once again her mother agreed to have their regular guests for weekend evenings. As she served them food on the rickety table, she maintained her calm in the hope of a new one in the near future. The guests too continued with their cautious handling of both the food and the table.
After a long wait, that day also arrived when the ‘table’ entered Raya’s life. Five employees of Mr. Sankar came with a huge cardboard wrapping and four table legs tied together. They worked for almost an hour to fit the ‘table’ and once done, Raya and her parents were left speechless! A six feet by five feet dining table was not what one got to see every day and that too in an apartment measuring only 800 square feet. The ‘table’ took up almost whole of the room leaving little space for anything else.The ratio of the room size to that of the ‘table’ accentuated the latter’s hugeness. Raya cast a furtive glance at her mother and could immediately detect a sign that spelt danger. She just waited for the catastrophe to happen. But Shankar was perhaps a magician, to her complete disbelief, no tsunami shook their house that day! To her mother’s complete disbelief and boiling anger, Mr. Sankar had just one thing to say – “Bhabhi*, I thought you wanted it large! It is large enough to accommodate a dozen diners comfortably and more so if need be. You can also put it to other kind of uses.” The last sentence left her completely flabbergasted and was one of the rarest occasions where Raya saw her mother totally tongue tied. The ‘table’ came to stay though they did not even know what Mr. Sankar had meant by ‘other uses’.
But they did not have to wait long for the answer. Later that week when six of Raya’s cousins from Kolkata sprang a surprise visit on them, the ‘table’ happily got converted into a makeshift bed too. Since there were only two beds in the house, one for themselves and another for guests, one of her cousins, in awe of that huge ‘table’, suggested that two of them could sleep on it. Raya’s mother who had already given up any rational expectation from this giant of a wooden construct did not even bother to argue. And the ‘table’ happily went on to serve its ‘other’ purposes.
*Adda: An informal conversation
*Luchi: Deep-fried bread of fine flour popular in Bengal
*Dosa: Pancake originally from Southern states of India, made of ground rice and pulses
*Bhabhi: sister-in-law, a common form of addressing a woman acquaintance in Hindi speaking areas.
Dr. Nabanita Sengupta is an Assistant Professor in English at Sarsuna College Kolkata. She is a creative writer, a research scholar and a translator. Her areas of interest are Translation Studies, Women Studies, Nineteenth century Women’s writings, etc. She has been involved with translation projects of Sahitya Akademi and Viswa Bharati. Her creative writings, reviews and features have been variously published art Prachya Review, SETU, Muse India, Coldnoon, Café Dissensus, NewsMinute.in, News18.com and Different Truths. She has presented many research papers in India and abroad.
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