Saturday, April 09, 2011


I would give my right had for a crystal decanter, I confess. As I hold the gleaming beauty in my hands and pour the amber fluid into the crystal glass, pure joy fills my heart. I experience ethereal exhilaration as I hold it (even when it is not frosty and there are no bubbles that die crashing against the floating cubes of ice) and behold it. Dammit, I have a weakness for glass and ceramic ware.

So much so that I cannot resist the temptation to acquire these delicate objects. One of the collectibles I look for in any curio shop (The Cottage Industries Emporium on the Janpath in New Delhi, for instance) is glass or ceramic ware. The only collectible I bought in Brussels was a set of six aperitif glasses. The Japanese tea set my friend Sanjiv Saraf gifted me is one of my prized possessions. The effort I took to make sure that my Frankfurt purchase – a set of tumblers featuring the castles on the Rhine – reached India with no breakages could fill a page. The ‘dowry’ that my father-in-law gave me was over a hundred whiskey glasses, beer schooners and wine glasses of all shapes, sizes and descriptions. Thanks to the care we take in handling them, all of them have survived a 20000 km journey in several instalments from Calcutta to Trivandrum via Cannanore, Mumbai, Calicut, Patiala and Bhavagar and a dozen change of residences.

This fascination for the fragile materials, I guess, arises from the fact that glass was a novelty in my young days. Glass tumblers were rare. All liquid was served in bronze, brass or copper (and rarely, silver) tumblers. For some strange reason, however, the tumblers were called glasses!) I remember that my father used to refer to glass tumblers as ‘glass-inte glass’ in Malayalam (meaning ‘glass made of glass’). Apparently tautological, yes, but was there a better way to describe it in order to distinguish it from, say, a tumbler made of copper or bronze or the Johny-come-lately stainless steel?

Even if a household did possess some glass tumblers, they were kept on the topmost shelves in the storeroom – beyond the reach of children, servants, women and men – to be taken out only on those rare occasions when special guests were entertained. On such occasions, the man of the house would climb a stool and carefully bring down the precious objects one by one and entrust them to the care of one trusted member of the family. It was her responsibility to ensure that the delicate objects are handled with the care they deserve and immediately after use, restored to the not-easily-accessible safe spot they were originally in. Heaven forbid if one of them were to slip from your hand while being washed in soap before of after use. The question ‘Who broke it?’ would echo all over the house. It was never ‘How did it break?’ or ‘Are you hurt?’; it was always ‘Who broke it?’ as if the culprit had deliberately flung it against a wall with all the might at his command, driven by the express intention of smashing it into smithereens.

It was quite a different matter if the guest, his finger scalded by the exterior of the container containing the hot tea, coffee or other beverage (like Ovaltine or Horlicks or Boost) were to drop it. Camouflaging his upset, the host would tell the ‘criminal’, ‘Does not matter’ and direct someone to get a fresh supply and another to clean the floor, all the while cursing the offending guest under his breath for his misdemeanour.

Coming from a middleclass family, one of the first purchases I made for the family from my first salary was half a dozen glass tumblers. It cost me a princely sum of Rs 3. I remember them even today: all of them had a red rim and a red ring near the bottom end. There were three galloping horses painted on the side of the tumbler at equal distance from each other. The horses on one were all black; the second had yellow horses; the others were green, blue, white and brown. Quite kitschy, if you ask me today but in 1969, it was avant garde!

The shopkeeper had put them all in a carton made of corrugated paper. Each tumbler was wrapped in thin paper and placed in one of the six square compartments made by dividing the carton using three cardboard pieces. To prevent chipping or breaking during transit when one knocked against another, if one was placed upright, the ones next to it were thoughtfully inverted.

The entire family was around when I reached home. My father was at his desk, writing some accounts, I guess. I gave the packet to my mother. She unpacked it, everyone eager to see what was inside. No one knows what exactly happened – one of the tumblers was perhaps wrapped rather loosely in the thin paper; or in child-like expectation and anxiety, one of my siblings pushed my mother’s elbow; or – to cut a long story sort, one tumbler crashed to the ground.

Without raising his head from his accounts, my father asked, ‘Who broke it?’


anilkurup said...

Reminds me of the incident some one told me. He was caught napping when his father saw him smoking a "Panama Filter Kings" ( a premium cigarette thirty odd years ago).He was in his teens and into college.He forebode thrashing , banishment without dinner etc. But the wise man he was, the father, feigned having not seen him smoke. The next day while he was leaving for college,the father called him aside and asked, "What right do you have to smoke with audacity when you cannot earn a nickel as yet"? Indulge when you earn!

Balachandran V said...

It was a summer shower to read you after a long dry spell!

I envy you for your father-in-law! And the description of the amber liquid makes me thirsty!!!!

Perhaps it the fragility and delicateness and graceful curves of crystal ware that draws a connoisseur to it. Er- am I talking about glassware or beautiful women?

kochuthresiamma p .j said...

great have a way of capturing the mood of byegone days.

tumbler becoming glass- it is a type of semantic change where the object takes the name of the material it is made of. the word box is one such word. a container made of box wood.