Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Friday, 22 November 2013

Of Floors and Feet and Foreign Places

The men came with Stanley knives and bulging biceps. They ripped the carpets off the floors exposing tattered underlay and ancient aspirations. Very gradually they laid the walnut floor, with reverence as befitted the bill at the end. As they worked, Radio 1 kept them company. I listened, excluded from my living room, and longed for the voice of Miriam Makeba. I am not of here, I thought.

   In the evening my son came home from work as usual when the chaos had been sorted out by the women. 
   'Mmm... A little too dark for me,' he said. 'A shade lighter perhaps?'

   This is all a bit beyond me. I remember the floors I grew up on, barefooted.

   First, the house in Thalassery. The floor was cow-dung except for the front veranda and my father's quarters upstairs. Every Thursday and festival day, my cousin, Nani edathy - my friend and foster mother - got the maid to collect a basket of recent cow-droppings.

   The cow-dung was mixed with water till she got a smooth watery paste. While she stirred it with her hand, she would pick out the twigs and undigested debris and throw it away. After the house had gone to sleep, she would apply the cow-
dung to the floor with a spatula made of the bark of the arecanut tree. 

   A room could take an hour or more. Some times, if I was a very good girl, she would give me a small bowl of my own to apply to the floor. Bliss!. I would have to bathe all over again before I went to bed.

   Next morning the floor would be a fresh green-black colour and smell slightly of dried dung. We would be ready for the Friday prayers and the puja.

   When we moved down the road to our new home, which my father built when I was about fifteen years old, we thought we had gone up in the world. Only the kitchen had a cow-dung floor. The rest was red cement. It was beautiful though the polish came off on your feet and your bum, when you sat down, for a while.

   It was only after I got married , at twenty-three- and went off to Colombo, that I realised there were cement floors and then, cement floors.

   The floors in the Colombo-seven house where my in-laws lived had red cement floors that gleamed. You could check your pottu in them. When my very handsome brother-in-law came to greet me, I slipped on the bottom step of the staircase and had to be hauled up to talk to him. It could have been the sheer surprise of his starling good looks of course.

   Every week the maid applied Cardinal polish and buffed it till it shone. Nothing came off on your feet. In between, once a month she applied colour-less Mansion polish to make it sparkle even more. 

   In my father's house, the floor was dull and pock-marked by the time I left. Not in the same league. But I had learned something.

   When my family went to Nigeria in 1962, the floors in the Ministry of Works houses in which we lived were also red cement floors. My first steward, Akpan, buffed the floor with a large coarse piece of rag, dancing on the floor, as in a twist. Much later in life, I discovered electric polishers and learned to do my own polishing, to the rhythm of the High-LIfe.

   The rapid descent to cracked linoleum happened on my first visit to England, staying in cheap B and Bs , who would not turn the non-whites away. Much later there were the scuffed carpets of no discernible colour in the lodgings I occupied briefly, in Richmond.

   Get your bearings, girl, I mouth to myself silently ,as I watch the new wood floors in my son's suburban house. What next?


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