They are rattling breakfast plates/ In basement kitchens.- “Morning at the Window”, T. S. Eliot
When I was fourteen and on a visit to my grandparents’ house in India, I read this sentence aloud while sitting alone on a balcony. It was the first line of poetry I memorized on purpose, drawn by the feeling of opposition it contained, between “breakfast”, out in the clean space of morning, and “basement”, dirty and dank, an antagonism I couldn’t yet articulate, of being in the sacred light versus trapped in the dark.
“Rattling.” A word written by T.S. Eliot from some doubtlessly-cleaner room than the one in which I sat, a room of Eliot’s own, granted to him, first indirectly, but eventually as a direct honor, an Order of Merit, by his adopted sovereign, in the capital city of an acquisitive island. His Great Imperial Britain of temperate greens, reasonable roadways and soothing teas, carefully-spiced.
The English poets occupy a place of pride on my grandfather’s shelf, which sits in a decaying house built by the Raj, allotted to him as part of the salary of a government servant, which my grandfather was, a judge, serving enthusiastically and loyally, as proud of his books of English poetry as he was of studying law in England for a few months, of learning a substantial amount of Greek and Latin in college in India, as Eliot did in college too.
Like Pound, Eliot is one of my grandfather’s favorites. As if my anti-fundamentalist, anti-sectarian, atheist grandfather never read the openly anti-Semitic line, “The rats are underneath the piles. / The jew is underneath the lot. / Money in furs,” a line that makes me later, at twenty-two when I discover it, try and retract my admiration for “Morning at the Window” and “Prufrock” without quite succeeding.
My grandfather never got to know my sentiments before he died. When I was fourteen, racism, anti-Semitism (nightmares about Nazis after reading Anne Frank), sectarianism (fanatics throwing babies of the other religion off of balconies, amputating Sikh men’s arms during the post assassination riots that killed 2,000 Sikhs in New Delhi) already filled me with rage. Target of my teenage bravado, colonialism was a red-faced bigot on a corner asking to be punched.
In my neighborhood in Flushing, when I walked home from the Main Street subway station after commuting from my magnet high school in the city, there were indeed such people, on corners, ranging in age from twelve to late sixties, shouting with vigor, “Fucking Hindoo.”
In India, when I sat reading Eliot’s poetry, as I heard his words in my head, I saw myself from the outside, as if I were sitting in a room with that Colonial Enemy and daring to sip tea from his own cup. I was a brown girl the erudite Eliot might have looked at in passing, maybe with a moment’s curiosity, but never stopped to talk with about Shantih, shantih, shantih, though just a few short years later, I would be studying Sanskrit at Yale (just as Eliot studied Sanskrit at Harvard).
In my first week at Yale, three years after the summer I first memorized Eliot’s line about breakfast plates, I bought a gold-leaf copy of The Four Quartets. By then I was seventeen, old enough to be certain my life would be different from my grandparents’, but not yet able to see how.
Eliot, long-dead by then, had written (to me) in that golden, costly book, “communication/ Of the dead is tongued with a fire beyond the language of the living.” I yearned for Eliot to notice me, to include me somehow, the way he never could Grandfather.
That autumn in New Haven, spending more dollars than I could afford to buy that book, it excited me, rather than giving me peace, to copy out Eliot’s line, Shantih, shantih, shantih in Devanagari, a native script whose brush-strokes Eliot had taken pains to memorize, persevering thru his academic probation at Harvard, before he went on to win renown and scholarships).
But years before, in India at fourteen, I already knew that to Eliot, I would probably have been part of the “brown waves of fog” that appear in “Morning at the Window” ‘s second verse. (His friend, Pound, was an anti-Semite, after all).
My straight-backed, carved wood chair was set down in a very dusty room, in my grandfather’s house in India, upstairs, on the verandah of a balcony that afforded a view of the garden and the street and its children and beggars and animals, and doubtless settled my nerves, affording me time to be alone and uncrowded.
While reciting Eliot’s line about dirty plates, I could hear, from where I sat, the rattling, the clattering, of metal plates downstairs in a quite-dirty-seeming kitchen that was actually swept out and washed nearly five times a day.
The impression of dirtiness came from the kitchen being traditional and Indian. That is to say, floor drains were used to dispense water, dirt, and human secretions (hair, blood, and crumbs) that had accumulated on the rough concrete floor. Buckets of water were poured, to mix with whatever refuse was still there after the first two sweeps; then the brownish solution was swept into the floor drains.
“Basement kitchens”, hidden away in shame. Always at a remove from the proud life of a colonial Indian house like my grandfather’s, exemplary, thereby exempt from the rulers’ scorn, an example of “fully dominated”, properly-educated Indians’ disgust from the way that other Indians lived – Macaulay’s directive, realized.
I remember: the visceral discomfort for anyone crossing the kitchen floors in their bare feet (the majority of laborers, servants, cooks, who couldn’t afford shoes). The sound, starting at dawn, extending late into the night, of sweeping with muddied birch brooms, loud with the efforts made by women bending and swinging, harvesting dirty water, hidden, vigorous, singing songs and emanating what my father referred to in Tamil as “the smell of whores”, while the cheap bangles at their wrists clicked, shimmied, perhaps rattled, as they moved.
To my mind, at fourteen, the dirtiness was inherent to an Indian kitchen, and not because I wasn’t cleaning it. I’d literally never stoop to wash that kitchen since I was not only a woman but a visiting American, granddaughter of a judge from the colonial era and therefore a memsaahb too.
But this fact was noble to me then. Not cruel. I would be independent, a writer. I would never lower myself to do housework. I’d live in a way that changed the meaning of “woman.” My smiles would be triumphant, showy, visible – never ineffectual or “vanishing” like those of the women Eliot pitied.
The phrase “They are rattling” was critical to why I fell in love, indeed fell into, sentences, and with writing in general. For, if one (to lean on Virginia Woolf) is sitting in a former library with dust thick from books that haven’t been unearthed in decades, with some books unread within the current century (in stacks inherited by my grandfather from his grandfather, who could read in Sanskrit but who didn’t read in English) – if one is sitting and reading, perhaps indistinguishable, at that moment, from an Englishman reading – then one is not serving a master. One is not doing anything with dishes – an unseen they is bothering with them. Without saying so, by focusing her attention on the quality of the meal served, to a writer, at a rich college versus a poor one, Virginia Woolf intends us to take it for granted that we the women writers are digesting and dreaming, not rattling, not silenced by domestic expectations.
Eliot must want me out of the kitchen. Without saying so, he is suggesting I might be muffled by those rattles in the kitchen, unless I watch out. Without knowing and indeed without ever having consented to it, T.S. Eliot is showing me sedition, thrilling me. Without ever inviting me into his soothingly-pristine bed (which I suspected he might have thought would become dirty, for my brown skin being naked in it), he has seduced and liberated my chubby fourteen-year-old reading self.
No dishes or dirty floors for me ever, I think. Reading and writing (for I have a blank notebook here with me in this upstairs room next to my grandfather’s library) will occupy the time for breathing, for seeing, for moving and thinking.
Already there is talk of how I won’t know how to cook when I’m married, how I “study too much” to be married. Yet this poem, Eliot’s line, reminds me that domestic noises, “rattling” that resonates with people being gathered, watched, fed, around a table first wiped down by someone’s wife – these noises could be like the rattling of a kettle being brought to boil, before it blows.
Whoa, bleak! Mutters my fourteen-year-0ld self. But how can it be otherwise, for women whose souls, if they don’t explode into fire, will eventually turn into Eliot’s “damp souls”, of the second verse of the poem, and whose smiles will only be smiles of resignation, and never have any effect upon anyone, becoming smiles that are “aimless”? Eliot’s pity, veering toward contempt, is palpable for the women (those aimless women busy with meaningless errands). This is the female equivalent of “measuring out (one’s) life in coffee spoons”, as the Eliot of “Prufrock” writes.
And yet – and yet – somebody has to clean dirty dishes. In a hotel, a restaurant, a house. They do pile up. And children generate errands, some of which prove aimless, even when enjoyable.
Everything I was afraid of came to pass. When my children make damp, sticky disasters in a re-finished basement, I bend down to clean up after them, aware of the morning light visible through the large windows of a drawing room upstairs I’d hoped would be the holy place I wrote in undisturbed.
I do the dishes as often as we must. I clatter them, scraping off debris, sweeping my own kitchen of dirt. Even as I write this, a mess of wadded-up towels awaits me in our basement, thanks to a toddler.
Even worse, I’m stuck with the thoughts in English I’ll pass onto my children. I cannot speak or write this language – no one can – in a way that doesn’t reference Eliot’s cadence, a Modernist’s cadence.
Try as I might to push him out, I find that Eliot’s abiding contempt – for the domestic, for brown skin, and thereby for the substance of my life, my “soul’s sap” as a woman in a life with mess and stink– is not repulsive in a simple way. His stone-cold glare through those oddly-effeminate eye-glasses isn’t enough to turn me away.
Even now I can summon up the image of him at the chalkboard in Encyclopedia Britannica, in the edition my parents bought for me as a child from a traveling salesman who promised them that buying these books would make me successful in America. How painful it is to contemplate that the same person who could grasp the pain of being poor, unknown, of being consigned to domestic obscurity, the same poet who could write, in true humility, about how in mid-life he found himself still “Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt /Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure” – this person is the same one who wrote “Inventions of the March Hare” in his twenties, when he was the same age that my grandfather was when studying with such awe in England. “March Hare” contains poems, as Michiko Kakutani pointed out in a 1997 review, like Eliot’s blithe meditation on Bolo, a king who presided over brown subjects the poet refers to as ”a wild and hardy set”—calling all foreign, dark people ”an innocent and playful lot/But most disgusting dirty.”
The idea that “the first cut is the deepest” (itself inflected with description of Jesus Christ as “the wounded surgeon” who “plies the steel) – this image, this idea that has become part of my thinking, our thinking, must be why Eliot’s hatred of the domestic, of brown lives, of entire nations of people, hurts me so more than the hatred expressed by other Modernists.
Stevens, with his “pale Ramon,” “not intended to be anyone at all”, but actually the name of a Nazi collaborator and Marxist critic who replaced a Jewish professor sent to the camps in Vichy France. Marianne Moore, perhaps my favorite poet in college, for what I read as her resistance, her ‘feminism’, sister of Virginia Woolf in her irreverence and independence – Moore had her anonymous “Negro” pointing to the Washington monument and, in the background of her art, the ‘re-education’ school for Indian children where Moore passionately supported the racist “educator” Pratt, committed to cultural genocide. Pound isn’t worth talking about – his poetry too artificial to grab me enough to care that he could write, and dare to broadcast, lines like, “The big Jew has rotted EVERY nation he has wormed into.” Woolf had already broken my heart too, when we were assigned to read her diary in high school and I’d found her pitying statement about a “nigger gentleman” and the “degradation stamped on him” because of his hand “black as a monkey’s on the outside…tinged with flesh color within” and cried, putting down her book and staring at my own similarly dorsal-dark, palmar-light hands, because of how much I had loved To The Lighthouse.
But Eliot introduced me not just to poetry but to productive melancholia in general, with that one line, “They are rattling breakfast plates/ In basement kitchens.” Even now, he provokes a double-shame – my shame at still remembering his words, and the shame I share with both the servants in my grandfather’s regal house and with my grandparents themselves, that none of us are more like Eliot, in his clean, burnished, hallowed place. All the brown millions of us being from the side that was dirty, a race deemed by his chosen people, the British, to forever be lacking the capacity for an adequate scrub.
By inviting me, seducing me, to think in his language, to see my own face the way my grandfather saw his – not as a face to represent ‘faces’ – Eliot re-educated me, though when I first read him in my grandfather’s house, I was on my summer vacation, out of school.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician and writer whose story collection is forthcoming in University Press of Kentucky’s Contemporary Poetry and Prose series, and whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Awl, Narrative Magazine, Michigan Quarterly Review, Asian American Literary Review, Compose, Redux, r.k.v.r.y., Bangalore Review, Notre Dame Review, aaduna, jellyfish review and elsewhere. Her fiction has received Squaw Valley and Grub Street scholarships, as well as a Henfield award, and she is at work on a novel.
T.S. Eliot. Collected Poems. Harcourt Brace (1971).
T.S. Eliot. Inventions of the March Hare. Mariner Books; First edition (April 1, 1998)
Virginia Woolf. A Room of One’s Own. Albatross Publishers (September 24, 2015)
Michiko Kakutani. “Bigotry in Motion.” March 16, 1997. Accessed at http://www.nytimes.com/1997/03/16/magazine/bigotry-in-motion.html
Marianne Moore. “The Hero.” In Complete Poems, Penguin Books, 1981.
Wallace Stevens. “The Idea of Order at Key West.” In Vintage; Reissue edition (February 19, 1990)
Virginia Woolf, edited by Anne Olivier Bell (1981): The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol 3: 1925-1930, Harvest/ HBJ Books, 1981.