We have all seen our maids, drivers, and other household help drink tea or having a meal at our homes.
Growing up, when homes were large enough to permit large kitchens with spaces beyond – outhouses and servants quarters – I remember seeing a huddle of domestic staff with their nashta. Cups half-filled with steaming and achingly-sweet tea, a few slices of bread and plates of leftovers from the general breakfast made for the household.
The image of a mini-family or a team of sorts may come to mind. They were teams of course: The senior cook having her daughter or daughter-in-law as apprentice or as any other form of help, the driver bringing in his wife as additional help for the house. Invariably, families and relatives would be coming in to add to the domestic army. Some even lasted along the lineage, within the same family tree, with all its extensions and offshoots.
Yet, this image of a family would never be like our own – at a table, with a set of 4 or six plates and a set of cups-and-saucers laid out. For “them” – the help, the maids, the servants, the bais – it would always be that which is out of the set. That chipped tea cup, or the one with a broken handle, that plate now scratched beyond repair, those twin glasses that don’t really go with the other pristine sets of 6. Warped, bent, bruised, maimed, broken or singled out – all these pre-conditions transferred cutlery and crockery to the personal use of maids. Dare they use the same glasses that we do, forget about spoons and thaalis.
Never mind that they break their backs washing dozens of utensils, fineware, flatware and barware after reckless unending parties. Theirs is only to wash and maintain, never to touch to their lips and stain. Generations of home-owners have practised this caste-ism and obvious class-ism. It has puzzled me no end. It haunts me into being conscious of what I do in my own home today. Domestic staff is free to use the same everyday plates as we do, the same cups of teas and the same glasses for water.
I wonder if this subtle practice of bartan boundaries still continues in other homes. With women and men juggling jobs, deadlines and such kinds of stress, are they still bothered about this or not? As the portrait of the contemporary homemakers and maintainers undergoes rapid changes, does the stand on domestic staff eating out of the same utensils as their employers do change too? Are we 21st century people cool with it, indifferent to it or still under the belief that this is a terrible no-no?
It should be noted that what once constituted the wealth of a hearth has also significantly changed. It’s no more the brass, stainless steel and fine Noritake -ware that constitutes pride of place. Now, there’s a double-door refrigerator or LED television that has changed our lifestyles and the vision of it altogether.
Until a couple of decades ago, every single stainless steel vessel would be etched on, with the name of the proud owner engraved on it for posterity. I too have inherited many such pieces – recalling a wedding or any auspicious occasion for which a thaali was gifted to my parents or my parents-in-law. How much does this happen today? And why not? Is it because it hardly matters to us who possesses these utensils and what’s the story behind their reception? Is it because this ugly unbranded ware doesn’t deserve the veneration that our Good Earth serve-ware does?
I recently bought a new set of steel thaalis for my son and wanted his name to be engraved on it. It took the shopkeeper a good twenty minutes to locate the engraving machine. And to my dismay, he engraved in English script instead of Devnagri. ‘Koi likhwata hi nahi hai aaj kal, aur who bhi Hindi mein toh bilkul nahi’, was his justification. We’d rather worry about a Bollywood starlet’s Hindi accent.
More bartan boundaries come in when it comes to guests. These are either godly guests or the mortal dining ones. A set of pooja bartans – to be handled by the purest of pure (read – a woman not in her periods, a Brahman, he or she who has “had a head-bath”, he or she who hasn’t eaten eggs for breakfast) – is always the sterling mark of distinction between mortals and divinity. And then the exalted, venerated sets only to be used for mehman-nawaazi. Handle with more than care – handle with your life and everything that it’s worth.
Undoubtedly, the only-when-guests-come crockery was and still is beautiful. Pink English roses in a gentle wreath around a cream-coloured, ten-inch plate are visual appetisers. Little blue periwinkles dotted across the face of an ivory dessert plate play peek-a-boo at every spoonful. And forks bearing intricate engravings prong and preen away on handmade cotton-lace placemats. But this romantic image will pixelate eventually. When a plate chips, when a spoon is amiss and when a glass meets the floor. Gourmet game over, people. You are now no longer needed at our tables. Go be the cook’s catch, go be the maid’s meal plate. Now that you’re single, get ready to mingle.
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