Life | Dream Of Luxury

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Dream Of Luxury
Text by Madhu Jain and Illustration by Farzana Cooper
Published: Volume 21, Issue 11, November, 2013

Madhu Jain, brought up with the Gandhian maxim of simple living and high thinking, has never loitered with intent in shops and malls nor has she satisfied any over-the-top gastronomical whims. What then does the word ‘luxury’ mean to her? She ponders the idea and comes up with her own definition....

Luxury. Those six letters of the alphabet, lined up in that order, detonate all kinds of thoughts and desires shoved deep into the recesses of the mind where they lie, mostly, dormant. Until summoned, even by a whisper. Brought up with the Gandhian maxim of simple living and high thinking hanging over our heads like the sword of a gentle Damocles, my sister and I were never encouraged to loiter with intent in shops, covet the very latest in fashion or even satisfy our over-the-top gastronomical whims.

Mind you we had everything we needed. But the focus was on getting into good colleges in the United States. Ergo: stay home; wanderlust reserved for your books. Or, put another way: have books will travel. Growing up in Washington D.C., this wasn’t easy. The other diplomat brats were always stalking what was the equivalent of today’s malls. Well, you could call them high street in that era. You sauntered there after school and locked eyes with the boys in your respective schools who were also loitering with intent.

Most of the parents of Indian friends would – perhaps could only – talk about shopping: washing machines, televisions, cars, nylon saris (yes, I am dating my years in the not-so-wild West). All the goodies they could take back to India to impress and lord over their less fortunate cousins and clan. Don’t forget the discount diplomats got – no taxes, and loads of luggage allowance. It was all about, buy, buy, buy! Must admit, even I was turned off by the shopping fixation. How romantic can a washing machine with a dryer be, or a mixie that made cooking seem like fun and less of drudgery?

Nevertheless, I had my fantasies about what we saw in the glossies. Tantalus was always reaching out, from print and the small screen.

The first image of luxury that sprung to my mind when I sat down to write this column was the French painter Henri Matisse’s exquisite and aesthetically sensual painting titled Luxe, Calme et Volupte – luxury, tranquility and pleasure – made in 1904. Actually, the title seduced me, though I imagine that the English word ‘pleasure’ does not quite capture the sensual overtones of the French word ‘volupte’.

Matisse stole the evocative title from a refrain (Luxe, Calme et Volupte) in Charles Baudelaire’s 1857 poem, L’Invitation au Voyage, from his best-known work, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). In this poem, the poet asks his beloved to accompany him to an imaginary place where the light is golden, there is an abundance of beauty – a place or refuge where all desires can be satisfied. Matisse captures Baudelaire’s celebration of life and sensuality with his post-pointillist brushstrokes, using jabs and daubs of colours to create a landscape and forms of women.

The idyll the painter conjures depicts nude women ‘luxuriating’ (I suppose that would be ‘chilling’ in our parlance) by the tranquil, azure blue sea in St Tropez. The sky has a touch of pink and the primary colours of this painted paradise are muted, even lyrical and far from the nitty-gritty of reality. A woman has just emerged from the water and appears to be drying her long tresses by throwing them over her head; another is wrapping herself in a towel. And the others sprawl indolently on the sand, where tea or coffee more likely, has been laid out.

Time appears to stand still in this picnic by the edge of the French Riviera. Matisse’s ode to pleasure and indolence is a scene clearly out of a dream. Here, tea seems to have magically materialised. In such a dreamscape there is no need to put a kettle on the stove, bring out the crockery and spread a cloth on the ground. Banish even the thought of washing up afterwards. There is not even a soupçon of the mundane, of the everyday in this paradise.

Life in the metro – in my case the nation’s capital – is far from delectable. Potholes as big as the craters on Mars, erratic power cuts, aggressive socialites of both sexes, conversations (if you can call them that) only about me, myself and I, nightmarish traffic jams, road rage and leering men. I could go on: this is a city on the edge and on the make. Ever heard anybody stop to listen after asking, “How are you?”

Recently a friend did ask me at the recent United Art Fair, where much of le tout Delhi, and a bit of Mumbai who are flaneurs in the world of art had turned up. He had switched on his million dollar smile which, increasingly, no longer lights up his eyes. But before I could muster up the words ‘I am fine’, he began to spew out all the great projects he was doing and all the European cities he had been to and was going to, and where, much coveted, he was asked to talk about his work. His wife just looked up at him adoringly, her doe-eyes getting larger and larger, nodding approval at everything he was saying. He wasn’t the only one to do so that evening. Networking is the order of the day and once-bosom pals tend to see through you as they elbow their way to the more recently-arrived – the ones who have the ear of the powers that be.

So, dear readers, the luxury I really crave can only be found in fantasy. Still not evolved into a shopaholic or a true gourmand, I find my tranquil refuge in the company of a small group of close friends of longstanding: here giggles and laughs punctuate the conversation, a bit of champagne fuels it and there is willing suspension of judgment.

Perhaps, the ideal luxury would be to disappear into Matisse’s painterly paean to indulgence.... Bonjour happiness!


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