Thursday, September 20, 2007

disappearing words and domestic architecture

Where did they go? Some very common Hindi words have been taken over by ubiquitous English words- a verbal globalization, as it were. This may be a very North Indian, Hindi-centric post, but I'm sure the same thing has happened in many other languages.
To begin with- the bathroom. The word 'bathroom' has replaced words like 'snaan-ghar' or 'gusl-khaana'. Not only has the word been replaced, its placement in the household architecture has also changed. In most middle-class homes, and especially the ubiquitous government accommodation in Delhi, one bathroom was quite enough. Its counterpart, the toilet/lavatory/pakhaana/tatti (considered by my family to be an extremely rude word, not even to be thought inside one's head!) was considered to be the lowest of the low, and was delegated to the farthest corner of the house. If it was a single-storied house, the toilet would be located in a corner of the backyard. There would usually be no running water inside, even though there would be a functional flush tank with a chain and handle- you had to pro-actively fill the trusty 'taamlot' (special toilet mug, usually aluminium or enamel) before entering the precincts.
In my earliest childhood, staying at my aunt's house meant many interesting procedures: after visiting the toilet-in-the-corner-of-the-courtyard, you had to wash your hands with mud, and then with soap. If there was no one around to open the tap for you, you would use the inside of both wrists to manoeuvre the tap open, not touching it with either palm or fingertips. After thoroughly rinsing off the mud, you were supposed to wash your hands again with Lifebuoy.
Lifebuoy in those days was a carbolic soap with a peculiar, supposedly hygienic smell. It was also the soap used in our school Biology laboratory, post-dissection. (It is a soap that I then began to find unbearable.) Taps were simple, horizontally mounted brass affairs.
I often wondered how people managed to get to the toilet in the pouring rain. Where could you park your umbrella? And cold winter mornings, just imagine blowing out vapour trails on your way to the toilet!
In our first floor house the toilet was in the back corner of the house, with the bathroom next to it. It directly faced the back door, so that the sweeper could come in and clean the toilet and bathroom without 'polluting' the rest of the house. Unfortunately the poor sweeper woman who cleaned our toilet was blind in one eye and repulsively smelly, so we never questioned those practices. Any left-overs were given to her from a safe, non-touching distance.
The bathroom was a square room with a narrow window, a drain, a tap and a shower head. Wash basins were a luxury in those days, as were kitchen sinks. The bathroom tap had a length of cloth tied to it, directing the flow of water into a not-too-splashy stream. Which is where teeth were brushed and faces washed. Where hot water was rationed in winter- a steaming kettle-full was considered enough for a civilized bath. (Perhaps that is the root of my obsessive bathing with hot water now, even on a hot summer day).
Progress was slow, but it came about- running water in the toilet! Plastic mugs actually looked very smart to us when they replaced the rather untouchable 'taamlot'! Wash basins were installed, with a mirror above- you could actually see your teeth as you brushed them. Obviously you couldn't change the structure of a sarkari 'quarter', but private homes built in the late sixties and seventies became very modern.
The gusl-khaana and pakhaana merged into a new structure called the bathroom, which, having been promoted from Hindustani to Angrezi, also came right inside the house, attached to the bedrooms. What an enormous change! Since you now had more than one bathroom/toilet, there were far fewer desperate people queuing up outside the lavatory door, leading to jokes about kids knowing that God lived in their bathrooms ( Oh God, are you still in there?).
Presumably God had found a new residence.
Sweeping changes occurred- the sweeper was now less 'untouchable' than before, since he/she usually had to come into a bedroom to access a bathroom to clean. The part-timer slowly became willing to clean the bathroom, unless she also cooked for you. There were maids who would clean the entire bathroom apart from the pot. A revolution was slowly being wrought.

At the other end of the alimentary canal was the rasoi-ghar/bawarchi khaana/chowka.
Which have all been replaced by the extremely uninspiring word 'kitchen'. The kitchen is probably much the same in many parts of the world now- with its sink, counters, storage, refrigerators, blenders, microwave ovens etc. It may be larger or smaller, more modern or less so, but it has far more uniformity than ever before. The Indian rasoi was preferably apart from the rest of the house as cooking on coal stoves was a smoky affair. There were also deeply entrenched notions of purity and pollution, and it would be unthinkable to enter the kitchen with shoes on. Most food preparation was done at floor level, including grinding stuff on the sil- batta.
Chopping and cleaning was often done in the courtyard or verandah. The fridge became popular and more easily available in the late sixties, as was cooking gas. Coal, coke, kerosene and occasionally electricity were the fuels used. The kitchen sink also made an appearance around the same time. ( No, I'm not talking of the colonial houses left behind by the Brits). Pots and pans were scoured at a low, shallow, slightly below floor level space in either the kitchen or the courtyard.
Ashes from the coal stoves used with coconut husks were the scouring material. Brass vessels were scrubbed with tamarind or lemon peels to make them glisten. Nylon scrubbers and Vim were revolutionary when I was a youngster. Having a kitchen sink installed was being very very modern indeed. The entire kitchen was slowly raised up from ground level, for better or worse.
Cooking gas was largely responsible for this upward mobility: as a safety feature, the stove was meant to be above the height of the cylinder. Initially wooden tables were used, until such time as the PWD was willing to lay down slabs at the required height.


Homes, as such, were largely communal spaces. An average middle-class, more-or-less nuclear family home would have two or three rooms (rooms, not bedrooms), a couple of verandahs, a store room where large quantities of wheat, rice, dals and pickles and bedding were kept. The front room, or baithak, would have , perhaps , a takht or diwaan, some old cane-bottomed chairs, and that was that. Meals were eaten either on the kitchen floor, or in any of the rooms , usually on chatais (mats) spread out on the ground. The floor would be swabbed, shoes removed outside the room, and then the meal would be served. The same room could be a bedroom in winter, or a study, or studio. People had areas marked for keeping their clothes and personal stuff, but having a whole room to yourself was unthinkable in the middle class set up. Perhaps there could be a master bedroom, with the furniture gifted to the lady of the house by her family at the time of her wedding. Mostly, however, sleeping was communal in summer- either on the terrace or in the courtyard or open space outside. Many families would be sharing the same large open space, clusters of 'charpais' set out near each home. Even in winter, there were no/few dedicated bedrooms. Beds would be laid out at night, removed in the morning. It was part of the daily routine of the home, a job usually handled by teenagers and pre-teens. Verandahs were the repository of rope cots standing on their sides. And what wonderful fun these cots could provide: a bedsheet on top of the wooden frame rendered it into a tent or a palace or a cave- the possibilities were endless.
There was a caste distinction in the bedstead hierarchy- 'palang' was the top quality, fancy, often carved bedstead. This usually occupied the sole/master bedroom in the house.
The mattress was usually placed on a network of what looked like thick bandages- 'nivaad'. These were criss-crossed all over the frame, and would be re-woven a couple of times a year, depending on how loose it became.
Next was the wood-framed 'khaat' or 'charpai (literally translated: four-legs) the struts were not polished or carved, though the head and foot supports were usually shaped on a lathe. The struts and frame all slotted into place, and the cot was woven into intricate geometric patterns with a thin rope called 'baan'. These bedsteads were carted around as required. Lower still was the 'baans ki khaat'- the struts were made of humble bamboo, fitted into rough wooden legs.
When it was really hot, even cotton mattresses seemed to exude heat- just a durrie covered with a sheet was comfortable.
At least a foot would be left unwoven at the base, with a thick edging. Through this a thicker rope was roughly laced- this served to tighten the woven base whenever required.
Jagjit Singh has immortalised the humble 'khaat' (manji in Punjabi) in his rendering of Southall poet Chaman Lal Chaman's immortal Punjabi lyric "Saun da Mahina Yaaron". Among other monsoon nostalgia are words recalling how the troublesome rain makes you bring the 'manjis' in from the terrace again and again, and tighten or loosen the rope.
(Bada hi haraan kare mahina ae tay kanjiyaan nu,
baar baar laana pave kothiyon tay manjiyaan nu;
Deelli kadi kassi hoi, don da mahina hai
Saun da mahina yaaron, saun da mahina)
We also have popular film lyrics such as 'sarkaye lo khatiya, jaada lage'.
The 'khaat' remains part of the rural setting. Part of dhaabas. In most urban middle-class homes it has disappeared, or has evolved into the folding-cot. Most useful for guests, easy to store, but lacking the charm of the charpai.

Nostalgia has a charm of its own! Anything that you miss that is no longer part of your daily life? Do write in with your own nostalgic memories of words/objects that seem to have disappeared.......

17 comments:

Space Bar said...

lovely post dipali. i love loo posts! kidding apart, i'm actually all for the upgrading that's happened. the only fun part i sometimes miss is the communal sleeping on the terrace in summer. but then, who even lives in such large families anymore?

choxbox said...

lovely post. brought back so many memories of long summer days spent in my nani's house in bangalore. it was a huge house complete with...

hang on this is getting too long. will put in my blog!

DotMom said...

am a recent reader, aand really enjoy your posts. This post was very nostalgic. I still remember an incident when my uncle and aunt decided to attach a bathroom to their bedroom while building their hosue and what a furor it caused. To have a commode there was unthinkable!!

2B's mommy said...

loved the post Dipali - brought back the memories of summer holidays spent at my dadaji's and tauji's place when we were little. My tauji wouldnt even let one bathroom's bucket into another one !! And absolutely loved sleeping on dari's on the terrace and run back in at night if it rained - oh what fun that was !!!

neha vish said...

Lovely post! While the difference in the North seems to have creeped in over the last three decades, I've noticed a similar drastic change in the South. Even as late as 1990 - I remember houses being built with that notion of a "space" within the house - that was open. The courtyard usually. Even when the house was for a nuclear family. That is fast disappearing. With every square foot being used for a "room" rather than "space".

And I think I really really miss that...

Amit said...

Woesome post! :) Fabulous... truly reminiscent of an age gone by!

Raj said...

That was a very nice post, Dipali.

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be, eh, as Yogi Berra put it.

Anonymous said...

Bought back memories ( fond of course ) of summer holidays in Kerala back in the day where there were no toilets so to speak and we "went" in the fields. Nothing like wet grass tickling your botton while doing your business in the morning.

Alapana said...

Thank you,for taking me back to a simple,yet beautiful childhood where life was more easy:)

dipali said...

Thank you all for the appreciation!
I'm enjoying all the upgrades too, but it's fun to remember a different era.

Usha said...

I remember all of this. In my paternal grandparents' place you had to pass through the yard to reach what was supposed to be a toilet - this village did not have sewage facilities even when I was 3 years old and I have seen the menfolk go to the fields for their "business" in the mornings!
Things have changed so much that I am scared to use the Indian style toilets now. Fear that I may not be able to get up without falling off!
Lovely nostalgic post.

Y said...

Incidentally,I know someone who broke up with his girlfriend because her mom once told him on the phone 'she is in the lavatory'. Can you believe it? He just couldn't handle her being in a 'lavatory'.

How shallow can some people get!!

But I fell over laughing anyway.

salil chaturvedi said...

Lovely post. I've been at the receiving end of the nostalgic communal sleeping. I was living with the my grandfather in Allahabad, and was assigned the task of taking the folding beds (version2.0 of the khaats) to the roof every summer evening, putting the maseharis (mosquito nets) and sprinkling water on the roof to cool things down. I remember my grandfather waking up in the middle of night every so often, struggling with the masehari that had collapsed all around him and muttering, 'Behanchod, masehari lagaani bhi nahi aati!' while I feigned to be asleep.

dipali said...

Y and Salil, just read your comments- almost fell off my chair laughing:)
Yes Usha, now using an Indian squat-pot is a major challenge.

lekhni said...

Wow. How much we have changed. I guess we take so many things for granted :(

And as generations pass - our tolerance also diminishes, I guess. My nephew now does not even like to step on wet bathroom floors.

Madam Zeenia zanza said...

Hey, nice post! I have one request. Could you please translate the saun da mahina song for me? It sounds so wonderful.. if only I could understand what it means.. :)

dipali said...

@Madam Zeenia zanza: Welcome!
My Punjabi isn't very good, so I will give you a very impressionistic translation of this stanza:
This month is really troublesome,
We have to keep bringing the cots in from the terrace
Sometimes having to tighten the ropes,
Sometimes have to loosen them
It's the month for both.

Do listen to the song- it's lively and fun!(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZBPmsxdpyg)