The fragrance of the jasmines in my mother’s gajra wisps between the lingering aroma of the tadka. The dosa crunches quietly under my fingertips, crisp and piping hot, contrasting with the textured fluidity of the chutney. My grandparents are at the dining table; the birds chirp outside in the garden as we all relish a lazy Sunday morning breakfast in my childhood home. The earliest memories are the sharpest; I still remember everything as if it were yesterday.
A two-bedroom, middle-class dwelling with a dining – a place for the dining table, a piece of furniture owned with pride. An imposing piece of furniture – hand carved from solid wood and polished to a high shine. It could be passed on as a family heirloom. Table covers used of two types: a cotton, hand-embroidered one, which was usually homemade, brought out for special occasions, and a more practical, easy-wipe plastic one for daily use. A vase with fresh flowers was kept at the center of the table, with a small tray of condiments – small jars of ghee and salt. A decorative container for the mouth freshener.
Tables that sat six. A number that could be stretched to eight and slightly more, the half members (children) when guests arrived. Extra chairs or wooden stools were brought in and placed at the table corners, worn smooth and round with time. The dining table – the heart of a home. Conversations grew or died in the mouth or lingered in the air, whatever the food, mood, and the space allowed.
Laying the table – the chore invented for children. No one cares how much this exercise built the children up for a future full of household responsibilities. Simply the children’s annoyance with the chore kept the memories fresh, only the emotion getting replaced by nostalgia. Getting territorial about a favorite spot and plates was common and still is. Clearing the table, which is most unappealing, is the most punishing of all chores. With leftovers safely kept away in the refrigerator, the cleaning, the wiping, and turning the kitchen and dining lights off give the final sense of closure.
The dining table’s role extends much beyond the food space. The table offers space for homework, artwork, needlework, and of course, board games. Books and stationery remain strewn around the table in the evening. Below the table cloth, holding it along its frayed edges, like cryptic messages in Dan Brown novels, appears algebra formulae interspersed with names, doodles, and even sketches, engraved with the compass from the geometry box
Pots of paint, palettes, and brushes would occupy the surface, jostling for space and vying for the young artist’s attention. Painting almost always resulted in the spillage from paper to the table, remaking the latter into a piece of modern art. In contrast, textile crafts called for a spotless table surface lest the embroidery sampler, sweater, or shawl got soiled.
The dining table serves as a desk for the household paperwork. Typing out letters on typewriters, completing accounts ledgers, and preparing stamped envelopes for business communication was a common sight. Working family members like the typewriter days still bring work back from their offices to complete at the dining table in relative peace and quiet after a hectic workday, only the devices have changed.
The dining table is a safe space for a family chat and entertaining friends, mostly. The solidity of the table is perhaps associated with a sense of security and stability for those sitting around it. Over the years, the average dining table has shrunk to a four-seater more often than not, keeping with the decreasing sizes of current urban apartments. Once displayed so proudly, the homemade, hand embroidered table cloths have been replaced with other, bought-out textiles. Over the years, the dining table has remained central to the middle-class home, offering a space to nourish and flourish.
Authors: TDLM Editorial;
[HR Advisor; London School of Economics; Poetry]
Illustration: TDLM Design Team