The old man, retired from his exalted position in the government, had plenty of time on his hands. While in office he had had to entertain important visitors from many parts of the world. He had taken great pride in bringing them to his beautiful house with its elegant furniture and vast collection of objects of art.
After he stopped working, he and his wife spent most mornings getting the staff to dust and polish the fine furniture and carefully supervised the cleaning and re-arranging of their collection of beautiful things.
The old man had engaged an English decorator to beautify his palatial house and given her a free hand; he was a very wealthy man. The decorator added exquisite cloisonné vases, painted china cachepots, and paintings from Japan. Lace curtains were imported from Venice and glassware from Murano. The verandah had chairs covered in chintz in a pattern of pink and white cabbage roses – the English lady must have been homesick – a contrast to his famous Indian collection of antique stone carvings, and brass and silver. There was also a large table all the way from Italy. The round table top was made of a solid, black and white marble and was supported by carved wooden legs. It was given pride of place in the entrance hall and rightly so.
He had four sons. The sons and their wives lived in at home as was the custom. They neither took interest in the upkeep of the house, nor the collection but it did not seem to worry the old man and his wife. They were quite happy to take care of it all.
When his adored wife died suddenly, the old man was inconsolable. He soon went into a deep depression and did not survive for long.
The sons and daughters-in-law went into a frenzy of greed. Then began the division of the spoils. Every object in the house was valued and noted. The brothers, and their wives, fought over everything: Persian carpets, objects of art, paintings… they watched each other with hawk-eyed vigilance.
It was decided that family home was to be demolished to make way for a five star hotel and a shopping mall. The brothers each built their own houses.
The wonderful collection was broken up and divided. Till only the marble table remained. And it was now the object of everybody’s desire. They fought over it, each son and wife… the wives in particular would not give up. They plotted and schemed to somehow get it.
One of them had the brilliant idea that the marble top could be quartered and made into four triangular tables. That idea was only dismissed when someone pointed out that the marble might crack.
Eventually it was time to vacate the house. Everything had been cleared out except the black and white marble table. Each brother and wife felt it belonged in their house. A solution that was agreeable to all had to be found immediately, and the only one… ‘neutral ground’. They thought of their bachelor uncle’s house.
This uncle was one of nature’s odd creations. Handsome and charming but totally eccentric, he led his life as it pleased him. His little house was rarely cleaned as he never allowed any one in if he could help it. He would appear at one or the other nephew’s house at lunchtime and eat with them. The rest of the time he had junk food sent over from the lowly corner eatery.
When he was laid low with a fever, the daughter-in-law who lived nearest to his house sent him lunch. When she went to pick up the tiffin boxes and find out how he was, she discovered the state of his house with shock.
She returned with a troop of servants armed with dusters and pans, brooms and brushes, buckets and mops. They carried a basket filled with phenyl and lavatory cleaners. On her instruction they were to remove all the furniture and clean, room by room.
After settling the bachelor uncle in the least grimy bedroom, they started on the sitting room. Every stick of furniture was removed and placed outside and the room was given a thorough scrubbing and mopping. Then, everything was put back inside. Except, the marble table.
The marks of spilled water and soda, the patches of brown from spilt tea and coffee that now stained the tabletop showed up even more clearly in the strong sunlight outdoors.
The daughter-in-law got hold of four hefty workmen and had the marble table carried to her house. To give her due credit, she immediately found an expert to come and clean the tabletop and polish it. The carved legs were dusted and varnished. The table was almost restored to its former glory.
When the other brothers and their wives heard what had gone on, they came rushing to her house. Bold as brass, she had placed the marble table in the centre of her drawing room. It sat there in splendour. They looked aghast at her cheek, her shameless stratagem.
“It was really in such a terrible condition. Soda stains, coffee spilt and not wiped. Horrible! It was best that a professional cleaning and polishing job was done. The legs needed attention too. They had to be repaired and varnished. It looks great now, doesn’t it?”
After a long pause one of the wives asked when the table was going to be sent back to the uncle’s house.
The daughter-in-law smiled sweetly and said it would be best if it stayed where it was. There was no point in sending it back to their uncle’s house. It would get dirty, stained and damaged once again. Besides, the uncle had been complaining that it occupied too much space in his small sitting room. It could stay in her house till they thought of a better plan.
They were stunned by her clever move and mentally prepared to concede defeat. But one of the wives was not ready to give up. She suggested it should be moved to each house in turn every year so that everyone had the pleasure of enjoying its beauty. This gave rise to an uproar. In the end it was agreed that it was not a practical solution. When they finally left, they were still plotting to find a way to take it away from her house. But in their hearts they knew when they were beaten.
And so the table stayed where it was. When the daughter-in-law and her husband died, their son inherited the house and all there was in it.
The son’s wife had very different ideas. She restructured the house into several small flats and rented them out and kept a small portion for herself. When the family came to visit she told them proudly that she had changed everything for the better. They were aghast to find four or five pink plastic chairs and a matching table with a vase of plastic flowers on it. She said they loved their chairs because they were so easy to clean with soap and water.
After recovering from their initial shock, one of them timidly asked what had happened to all the things that were in the house. With a look of contempt on her face she said, “My mother-in-law spent all her time and effort getting those awful old things dusted and polished. My father-in-law was just as bad, forever hiring expensive carpenters to repair and varnish all that stuff. So I had them all removed to the shed next to the garage. We couldn’t get everything in; some of it is still outside.”
That’s when they saw the beautiful marble tabletop thrown against the crumbling wall of the old lean-to shed.
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