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  • Writer's pictureLyla Bhalla-Ladd

Wilson House


Nanima (center) on her wedding day with her husband, Ravi (right) and his brother Madhi (left). The wedding was held at Wilson House.

The feathers, the pom-poms, the sequins –– all typical staples of that closet in the basement. Forgotten, outgrown, overpriced pieces from two seasons ago, and two decades ago. I go fishing in that closet every time I go to visit. Diving into the past, combing through the pieces I remember from last time, and discovering a new chest of drawers beneath five white kurtas.


My grandmother’s house can only be described as full. The garden in the front, the figerie in the back, the garage, the fridge, the pantry, every drawer –– it is all full. That burgeoning house. Nanima’s house was where I learned of ornateness, and where my desire to be forever-adorned and surrounded by beauty was born.


Each summer, one of her children travels to her, and each summer, the fullness has multiplied. They come to give her structure, to help her see the method that can be found in her messes. They try to organize and label and contain and shelve Nanima. Her daughter empties every kitchen cabinet, wipes it down, and restocks them all according to type, use, and proximity to the sink. She pastes Post-Its on each cabinet, to guide Nanima until she knows the contents by her own memory. But by each autumn, she has overcorrected, flowing back in her same paths, dismantling any resemblance of their systems.


Nanima never repeats an outfit. Each time I pour over her old clothes, shoes, and jewelry, I wonder how she ever managed to collect so much, move it across 11 homes, and invest so intently in a piece I can call my favorite twenty years after she bought it and still wear it fifty years younger than she is. I wonder who gave her that eye for value, for style, for legacy.


Nanima taught me too much jewelry was the perfect amount, that a vest needs feathers, fur, or leather and the meditation of tending to a garden. Meeting Nanima, you would hardly believe she ever meditated. You would hardly believe she has ever sat still.


Nanima walks through her gardens, each day, noting each blossom, weed, and empty plot. She claws through her fridge, the ingredients at the front are all she can gather to use. She wanders through town, picking up what is already in the back of her fridge. Nanima’s house, her mind, is overflowing. Each object has a legacy, each thought has wisdom. The fruit of the day is seasonal, and every piece is an heirloom.


I, the youngest of her daughter’s girls, watching all that she does, absorbing all that she is. I marvel at her. And I wonder where it all came from.


***


“At high tide the ocean was in the garden,” Nanima recalls.


It is that mirage of a homecoming that strikes deepest. The distant, fading, illusion of what we once had, of what once housed us. The walls that used to surround us, and the sky we used to play under.


Nanima was born Vrinda Dutt, the daughter of the Port Master of Bombay (now, Mumbai), the youngest of two girls, and set to marry a friend of another prominent family in the area. Her mother endowed her with all of her independence.

Vrinda (right) and her husband, Ravi (right) in the garden

Vrinda did not fit in at Irish Catholic school. The nuns hated her, and she resented them. Vrinda showed up to her first day in her little frock with ruffled sleeves and open back (Bombay gets quite hot in the summer). Her mother said, “one look at your dress and they aren’t even going to let you in the door.”


The Port Master’s House, Wilson House, was a grand, three story house for six families of mariners. The house was a gift of the British Navy, to the people of their own land. The British built it for themselves, so it was the best. Vrinda’s father was the first Indian to be Harbor Master since the British left. Along with cooks, maids, and servants for the children, all the families lived in luxury on the West coast of India. The Dutts lived on the bottom floor, which gave them the garden.


They threw parties every night. Wilson House was like something out of The Great Gatsby –– extravagance, grandeur, and unbelievable beauty. Shining silver plates of food and sparking saris on every lovely girl. Everybody knew that house. All of the girls would get married in that garden.


During the days, Vrinda would sit out on her veranda, making batik saris. There was enough room for a small stove to melt the wax, and for the six yards of sari fabric to lay out. At high tide, the ocean waves would roll in and wash over the garden. She woke up every morning to that sound, and it played all day.


We never took any pictures. Wilson House was supposed to be there forever. Vrinda was supposed to get married, move to Boston with her husband, spend some time in America, and come back every year to visit.


***

Nanima last saw the Port Master’s house in 2004, when she visited for the last time. In the carnage of the aftermath of Partition, the British destroyed that Bombay. That oasis on the coast, that garden, all lost to memory.


It was like a dream, you’re lucky if you remember anything of it.


Wilson House stays alive through the memories shared and passed on. Nanima lives through the house now. I see glimpses of it in her new garden. I see her view over the San Francisco Bay, and imagine the Indian Ocean. I see her replanting and harvesting, studying to know everything she can.


I wish I could have seen Wilson House, but the bones of that building may not have meant as much to me as Nanima’s words do. More than I wonder what kind of house it was, what the parties looked like, or how the ocean breeze felt in the Indian heat, I wonder who that girl on the veranda was. The youngest daughter, whirling around those fantastic parties, giggling with her cousins. That young girl, in her ruffled frock, stared down by Irish nuns. Who she was in that house, who she was in that old Bombay. If we lose who we were there, when it is gone.


She wouldn’t live anywhere in the states but California. I had to have palm trees. When she landed at LAX, and saw the lines of palm trees surrounding the pick-up lanes, she decided she could stay. Her home had to pay tribute to old Bombay, nothing less could feel right.


All that home is, all that it was, and all that we were in it.


It is a mirage of a homecoming to some. An old memory, a demolished house, an India no longer there. What becomes of a memory so far gone? Now I make up for it. I take three hundred photos of everything. The fondness of home keeps it alive. The memories shared and the cherished moments help dull the pain of loss.


All that home is. When home is gone, when we did not get to say goodbye. All that it was. Chai with the boy who used to live next door, and phone calls with him even today. All that we were in it. The youngest daughter, feisty as her mother, looking out west over the water.


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