Those big, heavy wooden doors with big hinges and a heavy chain-clasp to shut them close. The dark hallway leading to the staircase made of some heavy stone, with no handrail but only the thick wall to hold on to as you slowly climb the high steps. Only when you get closer to the first floor the darkness thins out, and you can see another big heavy wooden door that is almost always open, inviting you into the large open veranda of the main house.
This is no ordinary veranda or courtyard.
This is a multi-purpose room where all the household activity takes place. The part that is open to sky serves as the outdoor living room with two charpoys, arranged in an L-shape and covered with phulkari-embroidered thick bedcovers. Also are placed a couple of old rugged wooden stools that serve as perfect tables for all your meals, snacks, games etc. Some rustic looking low chowkis that serve as extra seating and also as perfect footstools, and a few round moodahs complete the seating arrangement.
On the right side of the living room is a thick stone bench built into the low wall itself. On one side of the bench, which gets better sun, rest some potted plants, including a couple of Tulsi plants. The other side of the bench is left vacant, to be used for sitting if necessary, but mostly occupied by various things such as heavy ceramic pickle jars and other food items kept out for sun-drying and processing.
The bench curves naturally with the wall and leads to the far corner where is found a flower-print cotton curtain hiding the washing area and further down a dark bathroom and a dressing area.
Behind the living room section of the veranda is another staircase that goes up to the roof terrace, which is the preferred sleeping room most of the year around, except when it rains.
But let us stay here on the first floor.
Directly opposite from the open-to-sky living room and on the far end of the veranda which is protected from the elements by a ceiling is the heart of the home, its open kitchen. Thick wood shelves built into the back wall at different heights give a symmetrical look to the kitchen, and hold nicely polished brass vessels and utensils, beautiful in their sheen and soft patina. There are a few new-looking stainless steel utensils too but they seem a bit out of place.
On one side of the kitchen are kept two iron stands each holding up a big brass matka for storing water. On the other side is an old cupboard where all the pulses, grains, spices and other food items are stored. In the center is where all the cooking action takes place. In one corner are stacked a couple of low wooden chowkis to sit on while the cooking is being done on a low stove kept on the floor.
Everything is spic and span, nicely arranged, sparse and yet rich in its simple beauty.
In material objects there are physical forces trying to maintain the forms. But there is even some life-force gathered round the form by the universal consciousness which is behind it. (Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo, recorded by A.B. Purani, dated 04.02.1926)
In between the living room and the kitchen area are two doors on each side, opening into two rooms.
On the right is the formal sitting room, with a diwan against the back wall, covered with another phulkari cover and some matching bolster pillows. In the center of the room are two old-style reclining chairs and a couple of side tables. This room also has some in-built shelves displaying a couple of brass flower vases, a few old books, one or two old photographs, and other memorabilia of a family life.
On the left is a very large room — same size as this open veranda — where are stored some charpoys placed horizontally, several trunks full of family members’ clothes, bedding and many such household articles found in any home. There is also a small, nicely arranged, simple puja area occupying two in-built shelves on the long wall of the room.
Everything is neatly arranged, in its right place. No ostentatious display of any kind, but everything looks beautiful. There is a harmony which can only be felt.
This is how I remember my nani’s house in Punjab. Simple, uncluttered, clean, open, inviting.
And always magical. Like all nani’s houses are.
I remember finding so many treasures there — material, emotional and psychological.
And I haven’t even described the dark store-room on the ground floor near the heavy big staircase, which used to be our favourite place to play hide and seek and to find all kinds of treasures like old glass beads and what not. Or that dried up well in the back of the house. Magical place for any child.
Several decades have passed. But even today some odd picture of some old object takes me back to those memories.
The simplicity and solidity of those old objects I see in antique shops or flea markets in my area remind me of those well-used and scrubbed kitchen utensils in my nani’s house in Punjab. Especially the large tumblers and pitchers she had for serving warm milk or cold lassi (chai was not very popular in Punjab in those days, or at least not in my nani’s house).
She had to leave all those things behind because the house had to be sold off in a hurry when the state of Punjab was going through a dark period of separatist terrorism in late early 1980s. My grandfather had died a few years earlier and my grandmother was already living with one or another of her daughters for most of the year with occasional visits to Punjab to check up on her home.
But when the situation started to become critical, the house had to be sold. She moved in permanently with us and never had a chance to go back to that old house. Just a few things made the journey with her to her new home with us.
Sometimes she would reminisce about all the things she had to leave behind in her home; she would tell stories about where and how she acquired those big brass matkas for storing water, those big round thalis for serving meals, the shallow bowls and large tumblers, all those objects which make up the memory of a woman, a wife, a mother.
But this was not the first time she had left behind most of her possessions.
She would sometimes speak of how she had to leave behind most of her good stuff in Pakistan at the time of Partition of India, including some of the things that had been gifted to her by her parents at the time of her marriage.
She would recount how she and my grandfather had to face some very harsh times in the new town, the Indian side of Punjab where they had migrated, and how they struggled to save pennies to buy some of the basic essentials for their new home and kitchen.
Often when listening to those stories and reminiscences I would try to picture those objects because of the details with which she would recall. It was a simple but meaningful walk down the memory lane, for her.
And for me. Over the last decade or so, some of the old utensils that have been in the family from my grandparents’ times have found a new place in my home. I have used some of them for various purposes around the house, as vases, urlis, and also to hold pens, candles, post-it-notes and all sorts of things.
But those are not merely kitchen utensils. They are pieces of history – not just my history or my grandmother’s history, but history of a time when each object meant something to its owner.
It meant something because it was acquired with a deep mindfulness. It was purposefully utilized, carefully cared for and consciously passed on from generation to generation. It wasn’t just one more thing among thousands of useless things found in most modern homes.
It was one of the few possessions people had in those times when life was not about possessions. It was one of the few things people proudly displayed on their shelves when life was not about display or exhibition. Even a simple household object, a simple kitchen utensil took on a different meaning.
If only I could experience that kind of magical and uncluttered simplicity in life!
Certainly, peace, purity and silence can be felt in all material things — for the Divine Self is there in all. (Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, CWSA 29: 152-153)