My Story

What do I write?

What is my story?


No holds barred abandon to love, to rage, to sing or to cry piteously. It’s not different from the pages of your book, these stories within stories. Of time and places, pleasure and pain, a life very ordinary. I can’t speak for the extraordinaire so I’ll stick to the song of my life. A song…

Of a tempestuous love that burnt as it burned, of babies that never wriggled out of a bloody womb, of shame and guilt, of lust and hate, of a slow dying and a slower resurrection. The chorus remains the same, the choir changing as seasons do their march and children grow. The stanzas meander through chaos and calm, as the suckling child runs through childhood. Soon she is poised on the threshold of menarche and heartache. Terrible teens, they should say, not terrible twos. Terribly long and cruel too.

Sometimes there are breakdowns of the soul and the night is endless. But there is light, if you can just wait out the years. If not, there’s always the cigarette to pause the blur and whiskey to blank it all. Maybe you flirt with a stranger or wake up in someone else’s bed. Maybe, you just drool over your arms as you fall asleep in shabby rooms.

Somewhere in this crushing, there are deaths and weddings, illnesses and births. There are friends that come, friends that go and there are those that stay. There are fleeting moments of tenderness and stolen love, frantic searching and stale breath. Fragments of burning shame and terrible guilt. There are dinners and coffees, laughter and whining, as you battle weeks which will never be tamed. But once in a while, you stop and celebrate the light and hug those loved ones extra tight. The debt of friendship will forever remain unpaid.

And then, one fine day, as you wait outside in hospital corridors, you realise 40, 50, 60, 70 years have passed by and you are bald and slow. You need your bed and your bathroom even more. Your nest is empty and you wonder how. But secretly, you’re glad for the time and space for the thoughts that have raced all these years, months, weeks and days. So you sit with your cup of coffee and open that book to tease those wisps in your head on to that blank expanse.

And then you see, there are no pages left, only stories. Stories of your life that were written while you waited…

Note: This was an entry for a the Tata lit fest contest last year. I can’t seem to find the T&C for the submissions to see if it’s ok to put it up on my blog. I hope I’m not violating any rules here.

Songs of the loom

It’s been a few months since I returned from my whirlwind travels and a piece of my heart has taken root in the verdant hills of Anamalai and the small towns in its plains. Ever so often, I drape one of the Negamam cotton sarees that came home with me from the land of their origin and I am transported to a couple of days spent in the company of a gracious family and an unknown friend.

The 80s count Negamam saree is a little known weave and is typically lumped under the generic Coimbatore cotton umbrella. It is soft and hardy, extremely breathable and perfect for our tropical climate. Traditional designs include checks and stripes, like the ones the women in the village wear. Infact, Soundamma, one of the ladies we met was wearing a checquered saree that she had woven herself. These days, there are more intricate designs as well as solid colour sarees to pander to contemporary urban tastes.

We reached the cluster after a pleasant drive out of Sethumadai and were greeted with a spotlessly clean village of freshly whitewashed houses with pretty Margazhi kolams. As we entered the first house, the husband spotted an old game, Chenna Mane, from his childhood and Saavitri Paati’s daughter-in-law quickly showed him how it was played. It made me a tad bit sad that our children no longer have the pleasure of these rustic games made of seeds and stones. In the march of progress, we have lost many simple delights.

Saavitri Paati and her husband managed the spinning of all the cotton fibres onto the bobbins. The mechanised spinning makes for a very pretty boomerang like picture. About 25 of these are required for the length of 6 sarees, the usual that was stretched on the huge drums for warping. These then found their way to the dyers house where the pallus were given a different colour.

spinning 1

These days the yarn comes pre-dyed and only the pallu section is separately dyed. There is a separation of the six lengths into the body and pallu which are tied to mark the portion that gets dyed. The remaining length is securely covered in plastic.

Unfortunately, the dyes used are chemical as natural ones are not commercially viable. The hazards of the open flame, fumes and chemicals were of no consequence and when asked, they credited yoga with keeping them healthy. It was fascinating to see how they matched the shades sent for the sarees to the T using nothing but crude tools, the most intriguing of which were coins with holes! These were used to measure the powders and get the desired shades. We were treated to the magic of the yarn changing from no colour to a beautiful teal in a matter of minutes! The hanks of yarn were then left to dry before being sent for warping.

coins with holes

Usually, these large drums accommodate 2 different sets of six making for a total of 12 saree lengths. It’s a tricky task with the turning the whole contraption clockwise a certain number of times and then the other way around. Missing one turn can ruin the length but Soundamma and her husband, Dandapaani make it seem effortless as they explain what they do. Their pride in their work is obvious and they are more than happy to talk at length.

warping drum

The looms are mostly pit looms but there are a few that are over the ground. It is backbreaking work to sit angled on the stone ledge for hours on end. As a spectator, it is almost hypnotising to watch the shuttle fly non-stop with it’s clackety clack while the radio hums in the background. There is extensive use of jacquard cards which allow beautiful motifs to come alive on the saree. Paisleys, flowers and creepers as well as peacocks are common while geometrical designs also find their place. Some of them with a muted zaree make for mildly dressy sarees which have a quiet elegance. The looms work through the month except on Amavasya day in honour of Soundamma devi.

pit loom

The trip courtesy Thadam Experiences, was educational for a handloom enthusiast like me but far deeper than the sheer skill and artistry was the richness of their seemingly limited means. All the houses we went to were far more welcoming and hospitable than some of the richer homes in the cities. All of them invited us to stay and share a meal which I would have been honoured to partake had I the time. There was contentment and purpose as they went about their lives of hard physical labour and large hearts that shared their art and home to absolute strangers.

Theirs is probably the last generation that will weave these fine cotton sarees and with the end of their age, the looms may sing no more. There is a sense of urgency with creating these sarees to suit modern sensibilities and the looms have a frenetic touch to them as they marry warp and weft. There are hardly any takers from the next generation of their families  to continue the hard life and most of the children study and move on with urban jobs to secure their life ahead. While there is a sense of loss looming in the not so distant future for the weaves of this green land, there is also the fullness of song before dusk falls. It is the nature of life, birth and death and art is no exception. However, there are always seeds of hope. Many old weaves have found revival. I do hope, there would be someway this legacy can continue.

The sarees that came home with me will always remain special for I have seen where they were born and watched as the hands created magic. They will be cherished and worn with love and pride and someday in the future they will pass on as heirlooms to my daughters. And within the folds of these lovely sarees will be the strains of old songs of Negamam and a brief afternoon with some of the happiest people I have met.