Are places just places or do the ghosts of events past lurk around their corners, dribbling narratives and memory like senile elders? Can they ever be sterile, antiseptic, scrubbed free of the flotsam that is a solitary man’s story? Will there always be a stance to a square of earth, a side of emotion, a tug, a claim? What is it about places that make them more than places?
Perhaps just the fact that everyone has one. And loves one. Even if the ‘twain do not meet.
She sat alone in the car, mopping tears that sprang when she heard those lines.
“Every place I go, I think of you; Every song I sing, I sing for you.”
Then she busied herself tidying up her face. Wiped clean, sniffle-free, composed.
Wicked stepmothers can’t be seen missing little souls not born of them.
….revolves around an ivory leather couch. And a dutifully vacuumed beige carpet. Around a sweet-smelling fruit basket and an oven bubbling with cheese. Around a shared silver car and welcome home kisses. Sherlock Holmes episodes at night and the polite chirping of robins by day.
Life in California revolves around rattan chairs and a white table. Scented candles and sunflowers in a blue vase. Around the warmth of family, a clutch of friends and a cat that eyes me with minimal interest.
Life in California is the goodness of home cooking, lavender in a yellow planter, mildly scented laundry and red Netflix envelopes. French coconut pie, lemons in iced water, shimmering peach gloss and aroma oils. A merging of rhythms, the strains of Sinatra, wide open spaces and Mexican dancing.
Life in California is the technology buzz, swirls of innovation, the thick of things. The beautiful Valley and Mt. Diablo and sting of the cold Pacific on browning skin. Sareed aunties and baby booms and fresh bhel, bhature, bhungra around the nook. Sunshine and summer and chilly evenings; poolside and wifi and stacks of free books.
Life in California is an exhaled breath, a winding down, that feeling of calm. Cherishing people, valuing life, savoring a hard-fought way of being. Counting one’s blessings, praying daily and dangling an evil eye talisman in every reader’s face.
Then comes one downpour in the city of my heart and the fickle spirit turns traitor again.
Nana worked in the admin office of a South Bombay girls school for 40 years. With her clipped boarding school accent, strong sense of discipline and not a hair out of place, she held court from behind a large desk, stepping out only to silence high-decibel schoolgirl chatter with her mere presence during Assembly. At least two generations of schoolgirls quaked in their shoes as a hush swept over the room, and I, on my rare visits to her workplace, would wonder how they couldn’t see the person whose love of laughter and good times I have inherited.
Knowing her extreme honesty and loyalty to her employers, traits historically associated with our community (but certainly not exclusive to the Parsees), the school board entrusted her with the annual fee collection. “If I had taken only a hundred rupees from each of the families who came seeking admission, we’d have a bungalow on Altamount Road today,” she was fond of saying. But for Nana, Altamount Road bungalows held little attraction if they came with dishonor, and so we continued living, as had 3 generations before us, in a humbler locality down the road, where the prices of homes run into only single digit crores versus the doubles Peddar , Carmichael and Altamount Roads command.
But this post isn’t about Nana’s honesty. It is about the rules she lived her life and ran her home by. The etiquette that made her every bit of the lady she was—straight-backed, well-mannered and house-proud. And it is now, in the setting of my own home, that I realize how tremendous her influence has been. How grateful I am for it. And how I have consciously and unconsciously modeled my home living on her ways.
This post isn’t to toot my/her horn or uphold a certain way of life over others as much as it is a documentation of the lines I grew up hearing. The practices that insidiously crept under my skin and now hold me very willingly captive. This is a collection of my grandmother’s hostessing, housekeeping and daily living beliefs, but they are certainly not the only things she held dear. I write this so that someday I may pass on to my children a way of life that they are tied to by blood. Whether they choose to follow or reject it will be up to them. Some or none of these may apply to you, but bear with me, I do this for myself. Without further ado, here are The Lady Rules:
- A home must be, at the very least, clean and organized. Beauty is not optional. As much as you can afford it, take the trouble to tastefully design and maintain your nest. Make it a joy to live in.
- Don’t confuse simplicity and frumpiness. Worse, don’t use the former as an excuse for the latter. Decorating a home needn’t be expensive or bury you under the effort.
- Maintenance is key. Polish the furniture, use dust covers and moth balls where necessary, rotate the crockery and linens, nip signs of wear and tear in the bud. Antique furniture requires devotion. There’s a reason why Parsi-owned cars sell at a premium.
- When playing hostess, do not ignore rooms you think your guests won’t see. Lay on the embroidered bedcovers, tidy your desk, have potpourri/perfume and extra hand towels in the bathrooms.
- Take the trouble to look presentable when you have guests over. It’s disrespectful to be sloppily dressed and for heaven’s sake, don’t run around in your slippers just because it’s your home. Wear shoes, like everyone else. <Note: Parsis do not remove shoes at the door.>
- Stepping over the threshold necessitates a switch from house slippers to shoes. Yes, even to buy bread. <House slippers are a non-negotiable, by the way.>
- Slippers are what you wear at home. A sandal must have a strap at the back and at least a low heel, or you can’t wear it with a saree.
- A handbag. Never go without. And please carry one to suit the occasion and your outfit.
- Coordinate your handbag and footwear. And always carry a handkerchief, preferably with a dab of perfume on it.
- Dress appropriately. Be event-specific. Wear your family jewelry proudly but elegantly. Never pile on all the pieces. Bling looks best on Christmas trees. Don’t go around clinking and jangling like a bag of coins.
- When in doubt, pearls and baby pink always work.
- Manicures and pedicures are a good idea. Even if you just cut your nails short, your hands and feet are visible signs of grooming.
- Learn to lay the cutlery when you are young, so you know which fork to begin with when you’re older.
- Practice eating with a fork and knife in front of the mirror when you’re about 6, so you can be taken to the Taj and won’t embarrass your ancestors.
- Always “pardon?”, never “hanh?”
- Excuse me when you sneeze, God bless you when someone else does.
- Mind your Ps and Qs.
- Zip that mouth when there’s food in it and zip it good. And may Ahura Mazda help you if chomping sounds emanate.
- Clean the toilet seat each time you’re done. Especially in another’s home.
- Use “tameh” (the Gujarati version of the Hindi “aap”) for all older people, even the domestic help.
- Pick up after yourself and thank the household help. You’re not the boss of anybody.
- When sitting on a chair, your feet stay down, down, down. If you want to cross your legs, go join a yoga class.
- When visiting someone’s home for the first time, take a little token—flowers, a box of chocolate, something they would appreciate.
- Never give back an empty container. Not even to your mother. Put just sugar in it if you have to, but don’t leave it empty.
- Cash, cheques, letters are all handed over in envelopes. If you think it’s a waste of paper, don’t write on the cover and ask the person to reuse it.
- Write a note or call to say thank you for having me over.
- Apologize for rude windy sounds that emanate from your body. Burping after eating is for neanderthals in the hinterlands.
- Use napkins at mealtimes. Light a candle or have a pretty centerpiece at the table. Play soft, soothing music if possible. It aids in conversation and digestion.
- Do not display personal pictures in the public areas of the home. Portraits are acceptable. Photographs can be put up in the inner rooms that are not typically meant for guest use.
- Unless the guest is a close friend or relative and will be living with you, a house tour is an unnecessary Indian ritual. It is a home, not a museum. Unless you live in Buckingham Palace, a walk-through isn’t necessary.
- If you have been eating, wipe your mouth on a napkin before taking a sip of your drink.
- At a table, seating must be so arranged that a person from the opposite sex sits across from as well as next to you.
- Cutlery is to be laid so you use it from the farthest piece from the plate to the nearest.
- Have a basic knowledge of drinks that go with specific foods, even if you do not imbibe.
- If you are not comfortable with a guest smoking in your home, inform them politely and lead them to the balcony. Politely is the key word.
- Don’t confuse formality with courtesy. Many folks don’t know the difference, there is no reason for you to be one of them.
- When hostessing, ensure there is adequate seating for everyone. And extra crockery. The same goes for beds and sleep-over guests. We do not throw down mattresses and flop onto them, or, heaven forbid, sit on the floor and eat. <insert dramatic shudder>
- Do a weekly nail and hair check. Does either need a trim? Banish chipped nail paint. And oil your hair. Just don’t gad all over town without washing it off first.
- Iron your pillow covers and bedsheets. Or let the help/dhobi do it. Live genteelly, even if no one’s watching.
- Whites are always washed separately. They live longer that way. Refer earlier point on maintenance.
- Put washed linen and crockery at the bottom of the pile so the unused ones get a chance/an airing.
- Do not encourage latecomer guests. Do not be a latecomer guest. It isn’t fair to those who made the effort to arrive on time.
- Be warm and welcoming to family and friends. Even if you have leftovers, gather around, make them comfortable and enjoy life’s blessings together.
- Ensure your granddaughter is around, learning and imbibing these ways, so that someday she may write of the gray-eyed, pepper-haired grand dame with a heart larger than the vast home she lived and loved in.