The Silver Refinery

I had a set of old silverware that was left to me by a cousin of my mother’s whom I’d never met. It had an art deco pattern, and was monogrammed with the letter B. A couple of weeks ago I remembered it, lying in its wooden box in a drawer.  I had never used it, even once, and I decided that it was time to let it go, as Cousin Helen? Or Florence? had, more than thirty years ago.

I looked at the back of a teaspoon and tried to decipher the tiny markings. They began with an H with a circle around it, then a W, then what looked like an English pound sign, then a copyright C, the word STERLING, and “PAT. 1917”. I looked it up. The H was for Hirsch & Oppenheimer of Chicago, active from 1904-1922. The design was probably patented in 1917. I couldn’t find out what the W represented.


I checked on the net to see if it had antique or commercial value, and it didn’t seem to; I asked my sister if she wanted it, but she had already inherited two sets of silverware of her own. My friend found the name of a place in Nungambakkam that called itself a silver refinery. We gathered all the knives, forks, spoons, salad forks, soup spoons, and butter knives, and dumped them unceremoniously into a cloth bag.


The street where the refinery was said to be located was too narrow for sidewalks, crowded with one-room shops: Fancy Stores, dry-goods stores where you stand on the street to talk to the shopkeeper, who is separated from you by a counter with large glass jars of plastic-wrapped sweets, and hanging strings of individual sachets of shampoo and paan masala.  There was no sign of a refinery.  We asked a man perched on a parked motorcycle if he knew where the refinery was, and he nodded and gestured to the building in front of which he was sitting. I guessed that he lived or worked there, and that the motorcycle served as his veranda, a place to sit and get some fresh air. He had a handsome, smiling face, gray hair, and a big belly.


He ushered us into a narrow passageway, dark, but with sunlight at the end of it, shining through an opening in the ceiling. Before we reached the sunlight we turned to enter a small room. There was no furniture except a table in one corner, with a glass-fronted cabinet on top containing an electronic scale.  Woven plastic mats covered most of the floor, and framed lithographs of gods hung on the wall, along with a garlanded formal photograph of the founder of the business, wearing a Marathi cap and with a Marathi name, Something Rao Patil, lettered below his formally expressionless face. On one side, embedded in the floor, were two round steel plates, or anvils, with two short-handled mallets behind them.


My friend and I sat down on the mats, but the man from the motorcycle gestured for us to move to one side. I hastily sidled over, so that we both occupied only half of the space.  Now another man arrived, carrying a plastic chair, and after him came an older man with thin white hair, wearing a white undershirt and veshti. He was clearly the proprietor.  He sat on the chair, while we sat on the floor at his feet like supplicants. The motorcycle man and the younger one who had just arrived sat down by the two round plates.


We explained our business and spilled the silverware out on the floor. The two workmen looked it over, held up pieces of it, tried to bend them, put a drop of what the old man said was nitric acid on the back of one of the spoons.  The old man watched, and mumbled some directions that I couldn’t understand. They put everything into a wok-shaped pan, except for the knives. Their blades were stainless steel, which they separated from the handles by hammering them on the anvils, one for each of them. The knife handles were hollow, and were filled with reddish dirt, so that they would keep their shape. When the workers emptied out the dirt from each handle, I felt a sense of wonder: more than a hundred years since this dirt had been closed up inside! Then I realised: what is a hundred years to dirt, after all?


So they hammered and bent and flattened, and finally brought out a small crucible, a little bigger than a coffee mug. They filled it with silver pieces, and carried it and the pan containing the rest of it into an adjoining room.  This had been nothing but a dark doorway to me, but I stood up and peered in, and saw a fireplace there, raised to about waist height. They placed the crucible and lit the gas so that flames roared up around it, and began to feed bits of silver into it, as the molten metal reduced in volume.


I returned to the first room and sat down, and before very long it was done, and one of the men brought in a silver bar and placed it in my hands.

It was weighed, and we paid the melting fee – Rs. 300 per kilo of silver bar. My friend put it into her purse, the old man told us that they melted gold as well as silver, we thanked them and walked back through the dark passage to the crowded street, the sunshine, the Fancy Stores, as though there were no refinery here, where people hammered silver and melted it, and gold, too! into cool, heavy bars.


Delhi police 'encounter' specialist shot dead by friend – that’s one of the headlines over a story that will surely turn up soon in one of the gangster movies made by Mahesh Bhatt, Ram Gopal Varma, et al.

The job title ‘encounter specialist’, first of all: an ‘encounter’, in India, is an armed engagement between police/army and criminals/terrorists. In the police context, it has often come to mean a legalized killing of criminals, bypassing the overburdened and inefficient courts. In movies you see a policeman telling a crimnal 'Run!', and then shooting him while he tries to escape. Encounter specialists have been presented as heroes, albeit controversial ones, in the press. There was a 2004 Hindi movie about an encounter specialist called 'Ab Tak Chhappan'-- 'So Far, Fifty-six' (killings). The poster for this movie reads 'Doctors Cure / Engineers Build / I Kill.'

It's clear that this kind of power can clearly lead easily to a sense of being above the law.

photo from

The dead encounter specialist looks a little like a younger Shatrughan Sinha (an actor) to me. The property dealer who killed him called a TV news channel to tell his side of the story. It's all so media-ready. Here's the story, from The Hindustan Times:

Encounter specialist Rajbir Singh outgunned, finally

People who live by the gun, die by the gun. Police officer Rajbir Singh, in fact, died of his own gun, not very far from the site of the first of his 45 encounters that made him such a legend, a controversial one no doubt.

Police said a Gurgaon property dealer, Vijay Bhardwaj, has confessed to killing Rajbir using a gun loaned to him by the officer a few days ago. Rajbir took two shots in the head and died on the spot. Gurgaon Police Commissioner Mohinder Lal said at a news conference on Tuesday that Bhardwaj and his office boy have been arrested. He added Rajbir was killed on Monday evening at Bhardwaj’s office. ...

Bhardwaj owed him Rs 60 lakh for a land deal -- the nature of which has not been specified yet. Rajbir had given him 72 hours to pay, ending Monday evening.

"He had threatened to eliminate me and my family and had given me an ultimatum," Bhardwaj told Hindustan Times, adding, "I was already under heavy debt and was unable to meet the deadline."

The troubled property dealer had even tried to commit suicide. "But my family found the suicide note before I could kill myself." And they prevented him from taking that extreme step.

Rajbir drove to Bhardwaj's office on MG Road in Gurgaon sometime between 7.30 pm and 7.45 pm with his security detail in a Qualis -- the police officer had been given Z category security.

They began talking. Gurgaon police said after some time, Rajbir asked the security people to fetch some snacks from a nearby petrol station. And now the two were by themselves in the office.

Rajbir and Bhardwaj had known each other for 20 years. But that evening, they could have been enemies. The property dealer got up from his seat, went behind Rajbir and opened fire from a .32 revolver. Gurgaon Police Commissioner Lal said, "Rajbir gave this revolver to Bhardwaj for his safety as he was expecting the payment of a huge amount of money -- his money."

The first shot went right through the middle of the head, the second grazed the side and the third completely missed. The first bullet had been sufficient to kill Rajbir.

Mumbai police's encounter specialist Pradeep Sharma, who knew Rajbir well, found it hard to believe how an amateur like Bhardwaj could keep a steady hold of the gun.

Bhardwaj also kept a hold on his nerves. He walked out of the office, got into his Hyundai Verna and took off. While driving around he called a friend for the telephone number of a TV news channel. He then called the local police station, asking if his office came under its jurisdiction. Bhardwaj then called the channel and said he wanted to speak to a reporter about the murder of a senior police officer. ...

My Gym Shoe


My gym shoe misses the gym.



Lockdown Diary Six - March 31, 2020

 I woke up at 5:30. At first I felt good, that I had broken my new early-waking habit. Then I opened my eyes. Darkness. My hands smelled of garlic from yesterday’s cooking, in spite of the multiple times that I wash my hands every day. I refused to get out of bed until 6:30 — that’ll show them!

I went up to the roof at 7, but my heart wasn’t in it, and it was getting hot, so I only walked for half an hour. 

I came back down and mixed the ingredients for the cold brew coffee liqueur which I had prepared yesterday, and decanted it into a wine bottle to age.  There was some left over, so I poured it into my coffee and drank it as I washed the dishes. I rarely drink at all, but it sure helped with the dishes.

I was listening to the great On Being podcast, in which Krista Tippet talked to Ross Gay about delight.

There’s a question floating around the world right now — how can we be joyful in a moment like this? To which Ross Gay responds, in word and deed, how can we not be joyful, especially in a moment like this? He is a writer, a gardener — also a former college football player. To be with him is to train your gaze to see what’s terrible but also to see what’s wonderful and beautiful. To attend to and meditate on what you love, even within the work of justice. We practice tenderness and mercy in part because to understand that we are all suffering is one quality of what Ross Gay calls “adult joy.”

— Krista Tippett

I also made kichdi and washed the kitchen counters and swept and mopped the kitchen floor. Oh, what a good girl am I.

(This is the last entry that I wrote as a lockdown diary. Now it is just my life.)

Lockdown Diary Five - March 30, 2020

 Woke up at 5:30 again. I hope this isn’t going to become a habit. Had problems getting to sleep at night, too. I am thinking of ways to exorcise the bed, or maybe move into the guest room for a while. 

I watched hours of a Turkish historical serial on netflix: Resurrection – Ertugrul. 

Beautiful faces, landscape, clothing. Lots of galloping horses and swordfights, because it’s about the establishment of the Ottoman Empire. Nice background music too. What more could one ask for? In Turkish with subtitles.

I tried to listen to the Turkish and pick out some of the words that have made their way into Urdu / Hindi (insaaf, adaalat, munaasib, zaalim… so many). In fact, I googled and found an interesting research paper online:

Common Vocabulary In Urdu and Turkish Language

I made cold brew coffee liqueur! That was exciting, though I can’t try it for a few days.  I got the recipe on

I didn’t have Demerara sugar, so I used half white and half jaggery. No one’s going to punish me for that, I hope? And my coffee comes from Blue Tokai Coffee Roasters in Delhi. They sell single-plantation beans, and roast them just for you.

Lockdown Diary Four - March 29, 2020

 I am writing this to sharpen my observation, to pass the time. It’s frivolous. But when I look past my locked door, it really looks like a culling. The Earth, culling its tormentors, starting as usual with the old and sick. Then various governments, culling their inconvenient poor. Refugee crises, starvation. How many people are dying, and how long can they bear it? Then war? It looks like William Gibson’s Jackpot is coming sooner than we are pleased to believe.

I woke up at 5:30 with tears sliding down my face, no energy behind them, just self-pity I suppose, something about R, my husband. I managed to go back to sleep and woke up again at 6:30. I was still feeling gloomy, and I thought, okay, today I won’t get up early, as if I were expressing some defiance against someone who would care.

I got up and went to the roof. I looked down at the road and saw that a few walkers had ventured out, widely spaced and hurting no one, already tired of huddling inside. My roof- neighbor also emerged, with his phone, but soon put it away and began jogging. The crow-drum had gone, but there was a long white dribble of its contents, which the crows had not been able to scrape up with their cruel beaks.

I was listening to Sufi music. My favorite song, by Kabir: Naiharwa, sung by Kailash kher, was playing. ‘Sai’, the beloved, is god, or the Guru, or Ram; someone divine.

Whenever I hear this song I see in my mind, for no good reason except the cold ‘ping’ that opens it,  an image of a snow-globe, with delicate snow falling.

I went inside and made child’s food, snow-globe food: a mug of hot chocolate. And in the afternoon, for lunch, I used up the stale sourdough bread from Pumpkin Tales, and the last of the maple syrup, by making French toast. In short, I ate my way out of self-pity.

When my maid went home before the lockdown, this was one of the things she left behind. It looks like things a bird would collect.  Just in case – what?

Naiharwa lyrics

Naiharwa humkaa ne bhave

Humkaaaaaa ne bhave

Naiharwa aaaaaaaa

Naiharwa naiharwa aaaa

Naiharwa humkaa ne bhave

Humkaaaaaa ne bhave

Naiharwa aaaaaaaa

Naiharwa naiharwa aaaa

Sai ki nagariiiiii

Sai ki nagare param athi sundara

Athi sundara

Jaha koi aawe na jaawie


Jaha koi aawe na jaawie

Chand suraj jaha

Chand suraj jaha

Pavan na paani

Pavan na paani

Ko sandesh pahuchawie


Ko sandesh pahuchawie

Dard yeha

Dard yeha

Dard yeha

Sai kooo sunave

Naiharwa aaaaaaaa

Naiharwa naiharwa aaa

Bin satha guru apno nahi koi

Apno nahi koi

Ko yeh raah batawie


Ko yeh raah batawie

Kahat kabir

Suno bhaii sadho

Suno bhaii sadho

Sapne me pritam aawaai


Sapne me pritam aawaai

Sapana yaha diya hi bhujava

Naiharwa aaaaaaaa

Naiharwa naiharwa aaa


Naiharwa translation (from

I Don’t Find any Interest in My Parent’s House

My Beloved’s Town is Most Beautiful

However, Nobody Goes or Comes from There

There is no Moon, Sun, Wind or Water There

Then Who Will Take My Message There?

Then Who Will Tell My Pain to My Beloved?

There is No Visible Path to Move Forward

And You Blame the Past for It

How Should the Bride go to the House of the Beloved?

Powerful Pangs of Separation are Burning from Inside

Dual Reality is Fashioning a Dance to Its Tune

There is None Other Than the Guru Who is Mine Who Can Tell the Way

Says Kabir Listen oh Aspirant

Your Beloved Will Come in a Dream-like State

That Alone Will Quench the Thirst of your Heart

Lockdown Diary Three - March 28, 2020

 I caught the sun, trying to sneak in over the horizon.

I am still getting 1 litre of milk delivered to my door each morning, too much for me to use, and the small freezer is jammed. In the morning I took a tall glass of boiled milk down and offered it to the watchman, who is also trapped.  He smiled and refused. I wonder if he thought I am sick.  I should have offered an unopened packet, but then he would have had to boil it.

I ate a frozen peanut butter cookie. Not bad. I ate salad, trying to finish the fresh food. It was too late for the cucumber, though.

As I did my housework, I listened to the podcast, The Fall of Civilisations. Today’s subject was China’s Han Dynasty. The author/narrator’s measured speech is solemn but soothing, putting my small inconveniences into a much larger context. 

I culled my fiction shelves, working backward alphabetically. I have reached L.

Lockdown Diary Two - March 27, 2020

My eyes opened at 6 a.m., and I dressed and went up to the roof.

There was one man walking on a nearby roof, with his phone at his ear. Otherwise, I shared the roofs and the treetops only with two crows, playing percussion on a plastic container they were trying unsuccessfully to open.

I walked to the singing of Sanjay Subrahmanyan, the Carnatic master. His voice is playful, nuanced, perfect for a quiet early morning.

I talked on the phone to Mary, my maid of more than twenty years, to get her bank details so that I could pay her salary by bank transfer. Thankfully, the government has ordained that every Indian should have a bank account. She has been taken in by relatives, so she is okay. 

My part-time maid doesn’t have a bankbook because it’s in her drunken husband’s name, and he is likely to drink up money that she wants to use to educate her children.

I am washing dishes now. I have a dishwasher, but I never used it because my maid scoffed at it as being too slow and too wasteful of water. And now I can’t find the detergent for it.  Anyway, I am feeling some satisfaction as I pile clean dishes in the drying rack. Also, the skin of my hands has some texture now. And I got it while listening to Gillian Welch Radio on Spotify.

There was a TV ad when I was a kid, where a housewife laments to her manicurist, “Madge! I have dishpan hands!”  Now I do too! 

Lockdown Diary One - March 26, 2020

 I was alone, nowhere to go; the night before I had declared to myself that I would sleep late, luxuriate. But at 6:30 my eyes popped open, and that was that. I passed some time by playing at housewifery: tidied, made my bed, drank cold black coffee, looked out the window to see if anyone was defying the lockdown by taking a walk. Nope.

The previous day I had ordered groceries to be delivered: the PM had assured the nation that essential supplies such as food and water would not be interrupted. But instead of my delivery, there was an apologetic sms from the company: 

“Dear Customer,

Your order #—— scheduled for delivery today couldn’t be processed due to restrictions imposed by local authorities on the movement of goods in spite of clear guidelines, etc etc.”

So I decided to inventory what I had, plan ahead what and when to eat, make lists, and all that. I had just gone through the fridge and decided that a frittata would be the best thing under the circumstances — 

—and then I lost my mind, and began to make a batch of peanut butter cookies, like the ones my mother used to make. Only three ingredients: peanut butter, sugar, egg. Mix them together and roll the batter into balls and press a fork into them, and bake them for 12 minutes at 350 Fahrenheit, and you’re done. (I forgot to let the second batch cool, so they immediately fell apart. I could not save them.)

Reader, they were not the same as my childhood memories, nothing but sweetness, and I am sure that it was because of high-fructose corn syrup, which probably didn’t even exist when I was a kid.

Yes, and when I went back to put them in a container they were covered with ants, rushing to and fro. They must have been loving them. But one doesn’t want to waste food during a lockdown, so I removed as many as I could, and put the container in the freezer, as if that would resolve anything.

I listened to awful virus news, mainly about what was expected soon in New York City. At the same time, I understood at last, in my gut, not just intellectually, why my husband liked to have the TV on, even when he wasn’t paying attention: the hum of voices helped him not to feel alone. Leaving aside large-scale death and destruction, it is sad to understand things about a person when he cannot benefit from my understanding.

Oh, and I took a walk on the roof terrace at 9:40 a.m., and it was blindingly hot already, but there was a lovely cool breeze inserting itself between the heat-layers. I will try again tomorrow, when my eyes first pop open.

At 4:45 p.m., I was surprised that the day wasn’t over yet. And once again I understood something about my husband, too late. 

Lockdown Diary - Prelude: 25 March 2020

 I am posting a seven-part Lockdown Diary, which I began to write when it seemed that the Coronavirus lockdowns would be relatively brief, and that it would be worth keeping a record to look back on later. Now, half a year after they began, and still locked down, this seems to be the normal world. Maybe this view of things will prove to be wrong too. Here goes:

India: Lockdown – Prelude

I had been sheltering from the Coronavirus from home for five days before the Indian Prime Minister announced a nationwide lockdown, so Day One was actually Day Six for me.

My husband had died of heart disease the month before, my brother- and sister-in-law, who had helped me through my early days of grief, had flown back to America just before incoming flights were banned, the bank was tying me up in red tape. I had sent my two maids home, since they had declined to stay locked inside with me indefinitely. So I was locked down alone, except for email, whatsapp, the phone and streaming tv services, and for kind and friendly voices who occasionally emerged from the first three platforms.

Even before Day One, I had been keeping so busy that I could hardly think, which was good. I exercised, de- cluttered, puttered. I began to get used to the vast silence, to wondering what I was supposed to do next, to taking more sleeping pills than before. Things were smoothing out. I took an early-morning walk on almost empty streets.

I started to de-clutter the fiction shelves, and discovered a masterpiece.

I watched Secret City on netflix.

And then the PM came on the TV and announced the lockdown, starting at midnight, no time to run out to the grocery store for one last forgotten thing, nothing to do but try to calm down, and go to sleep early, and wait for Day One to arrive.

2020: The Year So Far

In February, my husband, Ramesh Gandhi, died after a long illness -- heart failure, which stemmed from a prolapsed mitral valve.

In March, the Coronavirus lockdowns began. Most people, at least here in Chennai, believed that in a month or so, things would get back to normal. I started a blog with my sister, called Occasional Fabrications . I began a Lockdown Diary. Then our exceptional circumstance became the way the world was, so I stopped.

Now, I would like to come home to this blog, which was a source of happiness to me for years.  I will begin with the announcement which I posted on my husband's blog, Ramesh Gandhi, of his death:

Ramesh Gandhi, 1936-2020


I am Nancy Gandhi, Ramesh Gandhi's wife. On 22 February Ramesh, who had been suffering from heart disease for the last five years, was finally unable to draw even one more breath. At the end, he slipped away silently in the afternoon, asleep. He died at home, as he wished, and he was cremated the same night without any rituals, which was also his wish.

A couple of weeks earlier, before he lost the ability to speak, his sister-in-law, Charu, had asked him, "Bhai, are you dreaming?" and he said, "I have so many stars to count."

His primary interest was in metaphysics, but he had many talents. He was a poet, a beautiful photographer. He was human, flawed, wise. He was quick-witted, funny, depressed. He had seen enough of the world, he was ready to leave.

I will close with a statement which he wrote about himself, many years ago:

"I look at the world. I look, distancing myself, so that somehow in that looking I might see the world as a microcosm of the universe, and thus identify myself with the universe and see my being, fragile, defective, transient, incomplete and fore-doomed, in relation to it. But no matter how far my mind and perception soar, the ultimate limit of physical detachment remains the length of the umbilical cord which ties me to a life, environment, conditions, of which I am no longer a part, and with which I have no pending business. What am I doing then? Why am I not releasing myself from the life-sustaining bond which at the same time strangles me, binding me to environmental attitudes which are alien to me, and situations with which I cannot cope."

What I saw on my afternoon walk

a fallen leaf

Murugan Flour Mill was grinding coriander and giving off such a sharp clean smell that it stopped me in my tracks. I followed it down the road until it was defeated by the more common odor of urine.

A smeared rangoli,

A scary warder off of evil,

A nap,

A warder off of evil who could use a nap,

A lovely but dead butterfly.

Several Things

From The Guardian
Things grow better with Coke

Indian farmers have come up with what they think is the real thing to keep crops free of bugs.

Instead of paying hefty fees to international chemical companies for patented pesticides, they are reportedly spraying their cotton and chilli fields with Coca-Cola.

In the past month there have been reports of hundreds of farmers turning to Coke in Andhra Pradesh and Chattisgarh states.

But as word gets out that soft drinks may be bad for bugs and a lot cheaper than anything that Messrs Monsanto, Shell and Dow can offer, thousands of others are expected to switch.

This amused me, from S. Muthiah's column in The Hindu:
While leaving a recent preview at the Film Chamber theatre, a friend drew my attention to a sign on a door at one end of the foyer. "Toilet now at backside," it read. Apart from wondering where else would it be, I couldn't help but recall the sign while mulling over Prof. David Crystal's view (Miscellany, October 18) on Indian Standard English. Would he have agreed to this usage of `backside' - undoubtedly derived from how `at the back' is used in many of the South Asian languages, as for instance in Tamil: `pin pakkam/pakkathil'?

(The article he refers to is here - Prof. Crystal spoke at the British Council about the future of the "Englishes" -- the many regional variants of English.) Of course many or most deviations from standard English come from translating one language directly into the other. It works the other way, too. I'll say something in Tamil or English, realise that it doesn't sound quite right, and then that I've tried to impose English structure onto the Indian language.

Flying Hanuman Mirror Ornament

Seen on Broadway, in Chennai's George Town area. I want one!

The Fire Star

Agni Nakshatram (Kathiri Veyil in Tamil), the period ruled by Agni, and traditionally the hottest time of the year, ends today!  Let the winter storms begin! (This is a joke.)

Agnideva, the Vedic god of fire who lives within the fiery sacrifice, doesn’t look all that terrifying, does he? Although one does sometimes feel as if one were being trampled by the hooves of a large animal when the heat is at its peak.

Happy as I am to see him go, I suspect that Agni will be reluctant to depart so abruptly, and that the crackling of his flaming crown, and the clopping of his mount’s hooves, may be heard faintly, if I pay attention, for quite a while yet.

Deep in the Jungle...

... a rare flower

cocoons hanging from the trees

a lost city

precious artefacts

... the end of the party

Pain Relief

On the third day of the Pongal festival I took a photograph of a sidewalk shrine: a few lithographs of gods, surmounted by a tiled picture of Lord Hanuman, fastened to a compound wall; but decorated with flowers, and with a pretty kolam design for the festival. Slapped onto an adjacent utility box were ads for "PAIN RELIEF CLINIC".

I thought, Well, this place itself is probably a pain relief clinic for someone, if only for the person (not in evidence when I passed) who tends the shrine. And it gave pleasure to me, too, when I stopped for a moment on a beautiful, quiet morning.