Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta

We’d been married three years, through a rubberwood and pine phase, the bright and easy phase of Scandinavian designs copied from Ikea brochures bought at the Churchgate used-book stalls; and then we realized, as we moved up in life and deeper into old-money South Bombay, that the best houses had only antique pieces, in mahogany, Burma teak, and dark polished rosewood.

We moved fast: junked particle board, moved stripped pine into the baby’s room, shifted wicker and cane to the balcony, where they contrasted pleasantly with plants. We pulled off the Fab India upholstery, and bought raw silk. We allowed verdigris to collect, slowly and precisely, inside the curves of little brass statuettes. We exclaimed over old, hand-crafted, Tiffany-style painted lamps in dark shops at Mahim. We scoured Chor Bazaar for LP records from the nineteen-forties and fifties. We bid successfully for a set of black and white Beatles posters at an embassy auction.

And we shopped for antique furniture in the suburbs. Crammed into some twenty tiny shops along the main road was an entire antique furniture market. Rosewood chests-of-drawers with brass handles, long sturdy sideboards, round-topped dining tables with curved legs, nest tables. This was sunlit corridors and darkened rooms, filled with polished wooden swings, huge fragrant cupboards, elegant dining tables set for glittering conversation and carefree laughter. Not the formica-topped surfaces at which we sat with homework before us, writing our futures fervently into the pages of our schoolbooks, desperate to move out of those grey lives and into colourful, scented lives, where dining tables weren’t for homework but for floral arrangements, conte crayons and sketchbooks. I touched the dusty, unpolished wood, and thought of the kind of childhood I hadn’t had.

Then I saw what I’d been looking for without having seen such a thing before: a planter’s chair. I had read about these, of course; had seen pictures in a handbook of colonial antiques. But this one, its solid touchable wood before me, was the dream I’d dreamed.

I looked at the chair: the long sloping back, yellowing cane matting, long straight wooden arms, and the second set of arms below these that turned out at an angle all the way up to a hundred and eighty degrees, until they were in line with the ones above, and then you could put your feet up along these, stretch out, close your eyes, and go to sleep.

We bought the chair. We didn’t bargain: I was mesmerized by its beauty. It was delivered the next day by taxi—tied to the roof with yellow plastic rope. The delivery men carried varnish and I watched, pleased, as they rubbed it into the long dark grain of the wood. When they had gone, I admired my acquisition. I asked the maid to get me a glass of nimbu-paani , tall and cold and with a pinch of salt and a touch of sugar, and then I sat down on the chair. The clean, dark, polished grain of the wood. Its strength, its beautiful lines. The drawing room was darkening with these hand-picked old pieces. I thought of the dense forests in Burma and Assam, the huge spreading trees that came crashing down to make these beautifully crafted objects. The noise of birds, squirrels, and beehives inside the cool branches. The huge grey shapes of elephants as they threw the logs into the roaring river to be collected downstream. The weeks of seasoning in the sun. The careful cutting, sawing, scraping, smoothing, joining, polishing.

The years of sun and rain this chair had seen. I stretched out my legs, slipping lower into the chair and into the curved, concave posture of ownership. I was rich; I was idle. I was the planter as he lay in his chair on the verandah, watching bare, brown backs of workers as they bent over the undulating green of the landscape. I watched them work through drowsy, half-closed eyes, listening to the drone of afternoon insects and, out of the corner of my eye, saw a withered brown arm pull the punkah for me, up, down, up, down, creating an island of breeze. I lay there under the low brown tiles of the roof as it sloped down before me, creating a long rectangle of shade and silence as I drowsed.

Suddenly I felt movement around me: arms that carried dark curved machetes and thick coarse coils of rope, arms that moved silently and very swiftly as they wove the rope round and round my wrists and ankles and bound me to the chair. As they bent over me, I saw their faces: they were dark, and polished, and impassive as the wood.

And when the maid brought the nimbu-paani and I awoke, flushed with sleep and fear, I saw the pink criss-crosses where my arms had pressed against the cane as I slept.

Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta

. . . lives and works in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India. Her work has appeared in several publications, including Pindeldyboz, Muse Apprentice Guild, and Green Tricycle. She can be contacted at'