I grew up with tablecloths.
I don’t mean that I had tablecloths for siblings. But my parents had a thing about tablecloths. Actually, not my parents so much as my mother. Her parents originally came from parts of the country that no longer belong to our country (Lahore and Peshawar), but her father wound up in what eventually became the diplomatic service in India soon after Independence. My grandmother adapted very well to the diplomatic life and did her utmost to maintain the diplomatic lifestyle till the end of her days, but my mother, unfortunately, did not pick up any of the “diplomatic” bits. The only thing she learnt from all of it was the art of bedsheets and tablecloths. The way she used to make neat folds and tucks with the bedsheets and blanket with surgical precision has to be seen to be believed – but that’s another post altogether. After I got married and found that my dear husband didn’t actually own a bed, I realized it was much easier to just crumple the bottom sheet up under the mattress, and spread the top sheet at night and fold it up in the morning. So I managed to exorcise the bedsheet folding demon; but the tablecloth demon stayed.
I don’t actually know the rationale behind covering up a beautiful wooden table with a tablecloth. I suppose it has to do with keeping the table clean. We had an interesting table in those days. It must have been teak wood, though it was polished too dark to see much of the grain. It was a rectangular four-seater. In the middle there was a cut running across the width of it. If you pulled both ends of the table apart, this cut would open out and a plank hidden below the table top would unfold to extend the table’s length. It would then comfortably accommodate six people. I wonder if they make tables like that these days.
So maybe we covered the table to cover up the cut. Or maybe we did it to keep it clean. Or maybe we did it because that’s what diplomatic families do. In any case, in my maternal home, every major meal merited a tablecloth. Lunch, which was a minor meal, consisting, for years, of sandwiches and fruit, merited no tablecloth, but even then we used table mats. Dinner merited a tablecloth with a padded blanked underneath, hot-dish mats on top, pretty china plates, and proper cutlery with knife and fork arranged on the right and left of each plate. Only the wine glasses were missing. Breakfast was king as far as laying the table went. It merited not only tablecloth and underlying blanket, but also plates, tea and coffee cups, a tea cosy, a little bowl to lay the sieve in after straining the tea, a plethora of teaspoons and butter knives (actually, ordinary knives used for butter; in my maternal grandmother’s home, they used proper butter knives, sterling silver, no less; and the butter came neatly chopped into little diamond-shaped cuboids, arranged in a butter dish covered with an engraved sterling silver top; oh, yes, it did!) and, for many years, till she grew too old to be of service, the Lazy Susan.
I daresay you haven’t heard of a Lazy Susan. I was surprised to see that you can still buy one of these contraptions in very exceptional shops in Bangalore. Lazy Susan is a round turntable kind of thing, on which you place lots of stuff, like salt, pepper, sugar, jam, pickle, artificial sweeteners, medicines to be had with meals, and whatnot. Then you put Lazy Susan in the middle of the dining table and all these items are in easy reach of every person at the table. Saves you all the effort of “Could you pass me the salt please.”
We made quite a production of breakfast, we did. It’s hardly surprising then that no sooner could my sister and I put together a cake mix, than we found ourselves put to work laying the table for every major meal. My sister, being older and taller than me (both of which she still is), always managed to spread the tablecloth with one enviable flick of the wrist. If I was around, we would both hold it from opposite ends and reverently lower it on to the table, then neatly center it over the blanket below. Then we would rush around ferrying plates, cutlery, and food to the table. It was on one such occasion, that somebody (it may have been my father) was carrying a stack of six of our favourite China plates (Friendly Village, we called it, because there was a fabulous picture of a village scene on each plate) and caught their sleeve on something. The top five plates slithered off the stack and landed on the floor with a crash, amidst a stunned silence from the entire family, including the dogs.
When I set up home, we didn’t use the one set of china that we owned every day. We kept it for special occasions. Which means, we kept it carefully wrapped up and stored in a fairly inaccessible place and almost never made the effort of unwrapping it and using it. Anyway, we never laid the table. Often, we served ourselves in the kitchen and carried our plates to the table. We used cheap stainless steel cutlery. We hardly ever made tea, and certainly never in a teapot with a tea cosy. We didn’t have a Lazy Susan. And our dining table, though it was a nice little round teak table, had cuts all over the top where planks of teak had been stuck together. It accommodated four and could not be expanded. We bought a set of table mats and used them unvaryingly for the next decade or so.
It was only when we started serving the kids lunch at the table that the sleeping tablecloth demon suddenly awoke and took charge of our meals. I began to spread the tablecloth for every major meal – lunch, which consisted of dal, rice, veggies, salad, curd, and fruit – and even went so far as to drape it over the chairs the kids sat on. Then when the meal was over and liberal quantities of rice and other things had wound up on the tablecloth and the floor, I shook out the tablecloth on to the floor and then swept the floor. Whether the tablecloth was therefore of any great utility or not I can’t exactly say; but something deeply ingrained in me from my childhood days made me keep on using it.
The girls have been in charge of laying the table for weekend lunches for several months now. (We don’t use china plates anyway – we use family heirloom tired blue melamine plates that are almost fifty years old and appear to be completely imperishable.) But spreading the tablecloth has been much too difficult for them – till today. Today, as I organized (I mean, heated up) lunch in the kitchen, the girls grabbed the tablecloth, knelt on the chairs at opposite ends of the table and delicately lowered the tablecloth on to the table. It’s a different matter that the tablecloth somehow wound in shambles up on the floor – but just to see them doing it brought back a lot of memories. Those were the good old tablecloth days. Maybe someday our girls will look back on this time as “the good old tablecloth days”.