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Studies from an Eastern Home
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Pages (PDF): 140
Publication Date: 1913
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This is a set of essays by Sister Nivedita, published posthumously. Nivedita was a woman of Irish nationality who converted to Hinduism and spent her life selflessly helping the poor women of India. This book gives a rare ground-level vista of vernacular Hinduism from a woman's point of view in the 19th century. Pervading Nivedita's writing is an earnest quest for spiritual liberation and sincere love for the Indian people of all castes.
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WHEN I first discovered that my work would mean living in the Hindu quarter of Calcutta, the usual protests were forthcoming on all sides. One would have supposed that the chances of immediate death from cholera or typhoid were to chances of safety as fifty to one. I have not seen this alarm justified, however. I have been here now for some months without finding any reason for a day's illness.
My home is, in my eyes, charming. With its two courtyards, its limited second story, and its quaintly-terraced roofs, built at five different levels, it is a rambling specimen of the true old Hindu style of building. In the whole place there is not an inch of glass; the lower casements are protected by iron, and the upper by wooden bars, and so, while the sunlight outside my little study is softened by mats made of dark green splints, my bedroom is always open to the stars. Here some large family has lived in days gone by, and here maybe at least one generation has died off, and then, when the last of the older members was gone, those remaining would break up into smaller groups, again to become the nuclei of fresh communities. Crowded with memories the old house seems, of such lives as are passing continually beneath my windows, in the lane and the villages without--ignorant and unsophisticated doubtless, but full of human tenderness and simple worship.
The lane is quite clean and so charmingly irregular. First on one side and then on the other it gives a twist, and wherever there is a space between the larger houses little villages have grown up. Here is one, a cluster of mud huts, with their rich brown walls and their red-tiled roofs, nestling at the foot of a cluster of cocoanut palms. High up against the blue these wave their plumes, and below their long shadows lie across a tiny tank and the roof of the cowhouse and protect a few green things under the wall, To another village the pump-like hydrant is the entrance, almost always surrounded by its veiled women, carrying their beautiful waterpots of brass or earthenware. Everywhere the happy laughter of children in the sunlight, everywhere the flutter of newly-washed drapery hung out to dry, every here and there a cow or two.
Here, at my writing-table, surrounded by the books and pictures and the simple refinements of modern life, I look out on a world of many centuries ago. Nay, it is with me here within my doors. I can never forget the day when my old waiting-woman came to consult me about the purchase of a cooking-stove--to cost six farthings. Armed with this mighty sum she purchased three small iron bars, a large thin tile, and a little heap of Ganges mud, out of which she proceeded to construct a modest hearthplace of her own. On top of this she used, for cooking, a round earthen pot with a groove in the neck, and some days later she very diffidently requested another six farthings to buy something like a pair of tongs with which to clasp this when hot. It was a slight and curious-looking utensil, and I suppose no man could say how long her ancestors have regarded its exact fellows as harmless luxuries of housekeeping. The whole thing was eloquent of poverty, bravely met and decently borne through many generations. Still more significant was it, however, to hear her crying gently when she found her earthen pot, not unnaturally, cracked over the fire. Its value was just one farthing! This old woman is over seventy, and I, less than half her age, call her "Jhee" or "daughter." Even tiny children of higher rank call her, however, by this name, according to the beautiful custom of Hindu households, where to the women-servants the master and mistress are "father" and "mother," and the daughters "jewel sisters." Nothing is commoner than for these old attendants to attach themselves to a family as grandmother, claiming the privilege of scolding their employers and spoiling those employers' children to the end of their days. In such cases the social inferiority of this member of the family group would not be easily perceived by a stranger. The mistress prepares her servant's food and gives it with her own hand (a curious inversion of our notions), and when the servant dies, in the fulness of time, she is mourned by these kindred of her adoption as one of their own blood.
The number of services that Jhee could not perform made my early days interesting. On my second afternoon, when I turned to her for hot water for my tea-tray, I was amused to see her suddenly disappear. It was only for a moment, and she came back dripping, having found it necessary to take a bath before touching what I was about to eat. Exaggerations of this sort gradually disappeared of their own accord, and now, strange to say, she condescends to wash my cups and saucers, though when another mem-sahib visits me I find I must do this for my friend myself. These Indian superstitions about food, would surely repay elaborate study. But why has the notion of purification always been overladen with so many inconveniences and restrictions in Asiatic countries, while in old Greece it was apparently passed over with such lightness and grace?
My house has a courtyard. Why do we English carry the domestic architecture that is appropriate to the British Isles into this Eastern land of sun and shine? Would it not be wise to take up the style of the country? The Hindu certainly contrives to keep himself cooler than we do, and the great marble courts that we see in rich men's houses, with plants grouped against their steps and pillars, must be as beautiful as anything in Athens or Pompeii. Mine is no floor of pure white marble, yet it was long before I discovered the secret of the pleasure that I took in opening my front door on my return in the evening. Then I found that it was the meeting again with the sky and stars within. A great well of coolness and shadow in the daytime, and a temple of eternity at night, a playground of merry breezes, and an open sundial--who would not love a house with a courtyard?
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