Oh, tablecloth, where have you been?
The printed fabric now drapes our contemporary dining table, made of glass and stainless steel. The soft blue design, printed on a cream-colored background, makes a subtle statement in an otherwise modern decor of bold primary colors.
When my pal, now podcast co-host, Rekha Basu, was preparing to go to New Delhi, India, last month to sort through her late mother's things, she asked if there was anything I wanted her to bring back; the answer came immediately: a tablecloth—one of Rasil Basu's tablecloths.
I find myself enchanted by this round symbol of an elusive past.
To have known Rasil Basu is to understand the importance of the conversations around the table this adorned.
She had an essence about her that was hard to describe. As an annual visitor to Des Moines, Rasil developed a following of admirers that reminded me of moths swirling around an outdoor light in the night, pulled into her illuminating presence.
How old is the tablecloth? Was it part of her life when she worked for the United Nations in New York? Probably, thinks Rekha, as she and her sister remember it from their growing-up years in the family's Manhattan apartment. Was it put to work around the terrace of the Basu home in New Delhi, where the large backyard abuts the famous Lodi Gardens, a 90-acre park? How many poems were composed by prolific author and poet Romen Basu, Rasil's husband and Rekha's father, then recited to delighted guests seated around this tablecloth?
Was it put to use when Rasil was working on a documentary film to tell the world about the vast numbers of farmers in India who were committing suicide as they became over-extended due to the high cost of production and saw no way out, leaving destitute women and children in their wake? Or when writing her memoir, At Home in a Big Little World?
Each year Rasil and Romen visited Des Moines, they would tell me I must come to India. Dozens of Iowans did so at their invitation, but it took me until February 2018, when circumstances would finally allow me to take the 20-hour flight to the other side of the globe. Sadly, Romen Basu had preceded Rasil in death. And as it turned out, she was in her final two years when I could experience their homeland.
Not much deterred Rasil Basu from when she was a young woman and she was told Harvard didn’t accept women (she persisted and graduated from Yale), or when she married for love outside of her religion and then on to her final years as an aging body no longer cooperated with the schedule she demanded of it.
Rasil's work on human rights and women's rights through the United Nations would introduce her to Eleanor Roosevelt, Mother Teresa (who scolded her for not staying home to raise her children), and lesser-known but equally fascinating people worldwide. Through Rasil, I’ve met the former publisher of India Times, a renowned world-traveling photographer, and a producer with filmmaker Ken Burns. Just to name a few.
And yet, she said many times, the friends she made in Des Moines were some of her best.
Ah, tablecloth, you will be a touchstone reminder of an extraordinary hostess, friend, and difference-maker. May you, a mere piece of cloth, continue to be the visual foundation for relationship-building, story-telling, and problem-solving, for years to come.
And, of course, a touch of gossip.
Videos by Julie:
Rasil, at home in New Delhi
The celebration of Rasil’s memoir release:
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I love how a personal possession can evoke memories and inspiration - you capture that so beautifully in your words and photos. And your Taj Mahal picture is very special….
The title - honoring past, present and future relationships - was apt. Thanks for sharing this delightful story!