Notes on Antique Textiles, Folk Art & Timeless Traditions – Jaina Mishra
Pushpa used to work for the previous owners of our portugese villa before the family dissipated in numbers and before the house fell to ruin
As per Goa laws, she was given a little piece of land on which she build a hut. In the recent years, she earned a living doing day jobs in the fields around the village and could easily be summoned to work for us.
I never needed her services, but the sellers had handed us a legacy of relationships within the village, when we bought the dilapidated house, all jaded, all frought with problems of baggage and lack of maintenance. Just like the house, these relationships would need some tender loving care.
And so every time we visited we would all make a deliberate attempt to chat with all the newly introduced villagers.
On one such trip, along with the rest of my family, I walked down the little path to her home. After a happy exchange of hellos, she offered to make tea for the 5 of us. This is a customary ritual – offering tea is meant to convey that you are welcome in the host’s home.
( It is important to note that home-made tea in India – is milk tea – brewed the Indian way with milk and sugar all brewed along with the tea leaves. This Indian tea is strong and full bodied and amazing and its nothing like the tea of the English Sahibs and the Indian sahib-wannabes that is weak and insipid in comparison in which milk is not a necessary ingredient)
I knew Pushpa and her life well enough to know that there would be no milk in her house. Living alone, she would simply not have the need to stock milk in her frugal home. And so her offer of making tea, whole-hearted as it was, would require too much effort out of her. She would have to rush to the village shop to get milk and then make the tea for us. Then she would have to borrow 5 cups from the neighbours to pour out the tea…the little operational issues would be endless.
So on behalf of all of us, I refused the tea, explaining gently that we had just eaten and that there was no need for tea. In my own head I was doing the right thing and the kind thing keeping in mind her constraints.
But an unexpected reaction followed. A reaction that showed me how different our worlds were.
She asked me with direct eye contact “Are you not willing to eat and drink in my house because I am of low caste?”
This question stumped me completely.
Throughout my childhood I had eaten street food, ranging from salted raw mangoes and salted-chillied tamarind to the most amazing Pani-puris and faloodas, all sold to me by persons of ‘unknown origin’. I had no idea who these men were who sold all these soul-fulfilling foods to me. Were they brahmin? Were the Hindus?
To me they were the most important people around – they stood outside school, outside a park, outside a railway station offering me snacks that are remain unbeatable even 30 years later a period in which my palate has been exposed to a much wider plate that it was at that time. So who were these people? Why didn’t I know?
The people around me, my family, my grandparents, my neighbours, my educators – no one ever mentioned the issue of caste in my growing years.We lived in a building with Gujaratis and Maharashtrians and we all lived in amazing harmony. But the caste of my maharashtrian friends, even though it was definitely different from mine, was not worthy of a single mention in my home. And so, as one large neighbourhood, we all ate from each other’s kitchens and we all ate street food and we all ate from hotels once a year – without ever even thinking about the caste of the cook!
Today I get palpitations thinking that had my grown-ups been caste conscious, I might have been deprived of the street food of Bombay ….. that would easily have been the ugliest impact of the caste system on my life. I truly am grateful for being born and raised in a caste-less society.
And so when Pushpa asked me this question – I did not know how to answer. The idea that was so absurd to me, was completely real to her.
It was awkward. I wanted to tell her all the miscellaneous stories that were bursting into my head in defense – stories about my favorite chefs – the pani puri vendor, the chole puri vendor and even the muslim falooda vendor. But I knew that all the verbose explanations would only confuse her further.
And so all that I did manage to say was that I didn’t believe in the caste system at all. And that to make her believe it, I would love to have some sugar from her kitchen. So we all sat in her little room, and ate a pinch of sugar each. The kids also received a banana from the tree outside her home.
The episode ended on a good note. And we all meet every now and then.
But that one question taught me, that even though Pushpa and I share the dates on our respective calendars, the reality is that in our minds we are living in different eras.
Living in a village always held its charm. Life in the village is slow paced, and simple, with fewer inputs to one’s mind, fewer interactions, fewer episodes to mark one’s life by. This much I knew.
But I did not know that the people of the village lived in a different era. And every trip to my village would also result in time travel.
Pushpa lives in a time zone that I thought existed 100 years ago. But it does exist even today. Other events like this one, have proven that to me. If our lives are lived mainly through our perceptions and perspectives, then there is no doubt that in every way besides the calendar date we share, we live in different time zones.
And so, to travel to the 19th century, all that my antique loving friends need to do, is to walk deep into the life of an Indian village. And they will be transported to another era!
p.s. this story occurred in 2003 and it triggered so much thinking that 8 years later this small episode remains with me