A myna’s picture made me wander down halls of R&B with two blind musicians even as the skies kept time with pelting raindrops. It turned a room of light into a space of liquid amber and rich voices from the past behind closed eyelids. And just like that a weekday afternoon transformed into a room textured with late night live music even as long columns of numbers stared out of a screen. Between sheets of data and rain, there was a drenching in memory too, one in particular. A night of good food, great music, sounds of conversation, balmy sea breeze and sun tanned bodies dancing without a care. The evening continues in a private club for one.
All this thanks to technology, that brought a little bird on my screen and flew me back in time, recent and way before…
Another work week passed by like the clouds drifting past. This one was a slow one with tasks mostly on hold due to the latest lock down. The good thing was I finished one of the darlingest books in two days flat, stepping away just to do what could not be avoided. A few letters also got written and there’s a trip to the post office waiting for me when this opens up. Quite a few friends texted with images of letters that finally reached them, almost a month after I put them in the red metal box and that has made me a little more enthusiastic about another round. It got me to reach out for a shoe box of old letters and cards from across the years.
Letters are slow living and I enjoy writing them for a variety of reasons. Often, when I feel stuck, my day begins with a letter or two or three. In the pandemic, I even started writing a monthly letter to myself to be read sometime in the future. It will be interesting to see how I will react to it then. I imagine when I turn 50 there will be a pile to look at and see how the journey over the previous years panned out. Many books and even movies have references to letters and when I come across them, it brings a smile. The act of letter writing is not dead, at least not yet if it is being kept alive through other media. But it does seem like a fading practice or perhaps art.
I enjoy slow correspondence with a few good friends now and it is always a savouring to read their long, thoughtful letters. And when I think of letters, I remember J, long gone now. She wrote gorgeous letters, rich in detail about her days and travels. We got acquainted in the early 90s and continued our exchanges until she passed away in 2007. Letters were how we grew as young women in an age before the internet, sharing the pains and joys of life.We met every time she visited the country and the last time was the year she passed away.
I guess in the age of instant messaging and e-mails, the news in a letter is dated but seen from another perspective, it is a more alive memory. There is reference to the immediate as well as a think aloud that happens in their writing. Sometimes they just rush out in a stream and the times I don’t read it before posting, I wonder if it was all just nonsensical ramblings. But, then thankfully, I forget what I wrote and by the time a reply arrives, life’s river has already flowed far ahead.
Sometimes I am curious to know how many people still write letters like these. At one time, there would be letter writers who would be hired by those who couldn’t write. Those were days before the ubiquitous cell phone and news travelled in mail bags via road and rail. Recently there was an article that revisited the story of a postman who walked through jungles to deliver letters to remote villages in South India.
Last year, on a whim, I wrote a letter to the postman and dropped it in the box. I’ll never know who read it but I like to think that it might have brought a smile to his face, a letter in terrible Hindi but heartfelt gratitude. I have one letter brewing in my head as I type and that’s what I’ll do tonight. A long note to a radiant friend across the seas who writes beautiful letters of light and love.
Nine years to the day since my father passed away. It seems like a long time ago now. A couple of days ago, I was talking to one of the siblings and she wanted me to go over the events of the day he died. It was a Monday. He had had cataract surgery in the morning and it went well. Later in the day, an ultrasound showed a massive aneurysm. Mother called me from the hospital and I rushed there from work, a good 2-3 hours in Bombay’s viscous traffic. He was on the 10th floor and the elevators had unending lines considering the visiting hours. So, I ran up the stairs, not sure if he’d be alive, the aneurysm was a ticking bomb. He should have been dead months before if the size of that thing was any indication.
But there he was, leaning against the headboard of his bed, quite cheerful. He was a happy-go-lucky sorts and always good humoured. It took a lot to rile him. It was impossible to feel horrible in his company, he had a way of making you feel good about yourself. Perhaps, that’s why we always had people visiting. Young, elderly, new acquaintances, old friends and relatives, the house was always open. Sometimes the visitors were long term and as kids, we resented having to share space in an already cramped two bedroom apartment. Often, we had people from the neighbourhood as well as visitors from out of town dropping in for a meal or a cup of weak Malayali chai. The Gulf War days saw a lot of people use our home as a transit house. In retrospect, I see how generous my parents were especially in times when they were in a tight spot financially.
I was glad to see him in good spirits and we chatted for a couple of hours. I got my parents to agree to wait until I came back the next morning to drop them home. It was around 8ish in the night and dad forced me to leave, saying that traffic would be bad. So, goodbyes were said and we waited for the elevator. Mother was upset considering that there was no real treatment we could get for him, with all the complications he had. She is a worrier as much as dad winged it through life. We discussed options as we waited for the elevator to ding on the floor. While waiting, an ayah passed by and asked if the patient in bed number 13 was related to us and we said no. She grumbled saying that the man was lying down with the plate on the bed and had made a mess. Dad was in bed number 12. Later, we figured that she got the bed number wrong. It was dad who was sprawled in that fashion. He had died almost as soon as we left the room.
I was at the hospital gate when mother called. The first time around, it was blank and I thought it might be a mistake; the second time, she just cried and managed to say, “he’s gone”. Long story short, I rushed back to his room. There was a crowd of doctors and nurses trying to resuscitate him. I could only see his feet and they had changed colour. He was gone. Someone removed his wrist watch to find a vein and gave it to me and I put it in my bag. I would discover it after a couple of weeks and it has remained with me ever since. I wanted to tell the medicos to let him go but they had to do the hospital thing and leave no stone unturned. Saving a life is a messy affair and has little dignity for the body. For the next hour, they tried everything till it was finally time to call the time of death. And just like that dad became a body, no longer a person.
While recounting this to the sibling, she asked me what I felt then. I don’t recollect feeling anything. I was glad that he didn’t suffer and went in a flash. Mother was in shock though, the last few years of her life revolved around him. The night was long, my brother arrived from Bangalore in a few hours and by the time we were finished with all the paperwork and calls to the undertaker etc., it was almost early morning. Somewhere in the middle of all that, I managed to have enough sense to eat something. It was simply easy to take charge of the situation and tick off things. Crises are perhaps easier to handle than emotions.
Dad was buried on a rainy Thursday. The house was packed with mourners, I was surprised at the people who showed up despite the bad weather. They came from all over the city and country. A cabbie, maids who helped out, security guards, friends, extended family and the church community, including one of my more recent friends all the way from Goa. They all had stories of his kindness, generous tips, a patient ear, help to get started, advice and so on. I had only known him as a father and through the experiences of all these other people, I started to see a person who was liked and loved by many. I loved my father although I never told him that and I am fairly certain he knew it. He was an awkward hugger and his would be a bumbling daddy hug topped with a kiss on my head. I find I unconsciously do that to some people I hug. A tiny benediction of a kiss.
That afternoon, we stood by the freshly dug grave and I watched the rain drops as they fell. It appeared as though in slow motion. My sister spoke on behalf of the family, she’s a natural. While everyone watched him on his final journey, I found myself going back to the night in the ICU when I bid him goodbye, alone. I continued to watch the rain pelt the coffin. It was a typical tropical downpour and the grave was flooded so much so that the coffin had to be weighed down with stones. I wondered what if he came alive and found that not only was the coffin shut but there were huge stones on top of it. Would he think that we had left him to be dead forever? Gravesides have their own kind of thoughts, on death, dying and being left behind. Warped, some of them. It was evening by the time we reached the house but there was barely any time to even sit as the father-in-law had taken a turn for the worse. He would pass away in 5 days. In one week, I lost two fathers. Both quiet men who let their actions do the talking.
I think of my father often, his thoughts are present in his favourite foods, Christmas time, the smell of whiskey, in quiet moments when I stare out as he would look out from his wooden easy chair. I don’t think I miss him too much now, not in the way it used to be a rude hole in the region of the heart, not in the way I wished I could have the abandon of a child sucking her fingers and snug in his arms. In the last nine years, much changed in all our lives. A nephew born after his passing away reminds me of my father, he has that same charm. Mother gets a little misty this time of the year but a pandemic has kept her distracted as has a new place to call home. She still needs solemnity of loss while I like to celebrate a simple, uncomplicated life.
I never found the time to grieve him as I lost the father-in-law soon after. It was a chaotic time, buried one father and then had to cremate another. A Christian funeral and a Hindu one with its elaborate Brahminical rites and rituals. At the time, the rituals were a pain but I see that both the spouses needed the comfort of age old customs of public grieving. It was nearly 3 weeks by the time all that was over and the guests departed. I thought I could sit down and mourn the losses but found that the time had passed. I hadn’t shed a tear and now there was nothing to grieve.
Strangely, mourning happened in small, leaky sorrows every time I attended the funeral of a friend’s parent. Waiting as one of the crowd, my mind had the opportunity to be present in an environment of grief and allow the sadness to rise. It never felt done until one Christmas. The brother and I pulled out old family albums and looked at them with mom. The sister got to see some of them via messages halfway around the world. Technology can be a wonderful thing too. That season, there was some closure for all of us, a sense of being able to move on. Else, all special days were fraught with the weight of an absence.
I wonder if any of his friends remember him now. It’s been a while and our memories tend to get overwritten with current relationships. Life grows around loss adding layers of newer experiences. Eventually, the loss becomes like a fossil, imprinted deep and looked at only when excavating old memories. This evening, I went for a walk and the woods were lush. The grass has grown quite tall in patches and I almost stepped on a snake! It reminded me of my father’s house in Kerala, fertile green acres of teak and coconut, jackfruit and mango trees. I wish I had the opportunity to walk on that land with him and listen to stories of his growing up directly from him. Maybe this is missing him.
Over the last few months, the food on my plate has slowly gone back to the food I ate as a child, thanks to the mater. She loves to cook and feed people and prepares meals that hark back to when she was a younger woman feeding three growing children and a house that was always open. We often had long term visitors as well as people dropping in for a cup of chai. Meals were prepared in large quantities to account for the inevitable visitor or two. It was probably a carryover tradition from the ancestral homes with large families.
Those kitchens were marked into clearly defined areas for cooking, storing and prepping. In my grandmother’s kitchen, she cooked with firewood and the area always smelled comforting. It must not have been very comfortable for those doing the cooking thought as it wasn’t very well ventilated. Pieces of meat and fish would hang over the pots as they slowly dried to be used during the wet months. As city kids who came from homes with compact kitchens, it was exciting to watch the sparks fly as the fire would be stoked. It’s still mesmerizing to see the dance of fire.
Circa 2020, my mother feeds me and mine with foods that used to be childhood favourites like puttu and pazham, kappa puzhungi (steamed tapioca) with chamandi (chutney), ethakka appam (plantain fritters), idiyappam (string hoppers), chakka kuru manga (a curry with jackfruit seeds and mangoes), moru kachiyathu (cooked buttermilk) etc. I barely made them before she came to live with me, the tastes of the youngling are more urban and generic. She didn’t care for the unique texture or food combinations and I couldn’t be bothered to make two different kinds of meals.
The kid hasn’t really warmed to those old foods but I’ve rediscovered those tastes and textures. It also reminds me of my father. Puttu and pazham were a favourite breakfast item but as a child, I couldn’t get around to mashing the banana into the puttu. Dad would do it for me and when it was a nice sticky mass, I’d dig in happily. As even smaller kids, we would have hot rice, ghee and salt mixed and made into small balls to pick and eat. It’s yummy even for adults.
Food has been revered and there exists a rich tradition in their preparation, presentation, consumption etc. but we’ve lost much of those practices to convenience. Elders are needed to continue traditions that are worth saving but it’s tougher now with nuclear families. Perhaps, the loss began with the breaking up of joint families. These days even the nuclear families have fragmented into single person units or fractured families as members live across different cities or countries due to work or study.
The act of cooking together and eating together also faded as appliances reduced the need for increased time in the kitchen. Plus, ‘healthy eating’ was simpler, it didn’t call for elaborate or time consuming prepping. I’m a reluctant cook, a basic one at that and can subsist on simple fare. But, it’s always nice to taste all those old foods once again and have my fill of them too. Maybe, get mother to write down those recipes for me. Maybe someday, I may want to experiment with old food.
Leaving with a quote from one of my favourite Upanishads,
From food all beings are born, having been born, they grow by (consuming) food. Food is that which is eaten by the beings and also that which in the end eats them; therefore, food is called annam.
A couple of evenings ago, a friend came over. We met after a few weeks. I love it when she calls to say, “I’m coming over, will have coffee.” While I prefer a strong shot of black, she prefers filter coffee and I enjoy the slow process of making it happen. The smell of coffee as boiling water is poured into the filter, the clang of tongs and the vessel as they are set down, the sound of milk coming to a boil and the whoosh as it settles down. Finally, the long pouring of coffee into two cups. It’s an incredible sensory experience.
S was the first friend I made in this city and as our tentative acquaintance found common ground, she and her family became mine too. Slowly, the pieces of our lives grew like a comfortable patchwork quilt.
She is an amazing culinary artist, we met over food on a now defunct food platform. It was an idea just a little before its time. I did a feature on her and in the course of our conversations, discovered that we shared a common love for flowers. There’s something about fresh stems which makes any living space light up. The last lot she got had yellow snapdragons, uncommon in the Pune market. Usually, it’s a mix of tuberoses, gladioli, liliums, chrysanthemums and whatever wild flowers are in season. Sometimes, we would toss it up with roses, carnations, orchids etc.
Once a week or fortnight, we’d head out to the market and lose our heads over the gorgeous blooms, always returning with more than we needed. Eventually, we got our quantities down to a pat and still later, we became even more efficient with one person shopping for the two of us. But that efficiency killed the slow mornings and unfolding of our selves. The couple of hours shopping, coming back and sorting the stems over coffee stretched to make space for sharing the travails of raising our kids, relationship challenges and work related issues. It took a backseat in the busyness of our work and chores. I suppose it is the case for almost all relationships, a ticking off check boxes in order to maintain them or appear to do so. Conversations can quickly settle into the nature of updates. People still meet for a meal or coffee but the spending of time doing an activity together has a different flavour.
Those unhurried times helped to strike roots in this city, perhaps not very deep but still strong enough to not have a sense of being in transit. Although there is a lack of attachment to the place, there’s an easy familiarity and love for its flowering trees, quiet stretches and laid back feel although it is a lot noisier and crowded now. Flowers make my heart smile, there’s something so full about them, especially those on trees and plants that have but one day of living but what a glorious day it is!
The most beautiful things in the world are at once simple and profound, like the heart of a flower. Most of my pleasures remain simple and freely available- flowers, birds, bugs, stones, trees, animals, water bodies, clouds and all things in the open. They gladden my heart and senses. Since lockdown, I’ve enjoyed their colours and scents in my little garden as well as the riotous burst on the streets. Summer is always a good time in Pune, the colours rising almost like a Mexican wave- purples, yellows, oranges, reds, whites.
From the garden today and a few lines from a while ago…
in a world without flowers the world would know no colours rainbows would grow pale and die
One of the things I took for granted as someone who lived in Bombay for over two decades was 24/7 access to electric power. Pune was different as I discovered when I moved here a few years back. Once a week, usually on Thursdays, there would be an outage from about 10 in the morning to 5 in the evening. And in the monsoons, any time we had rain a little more than a drizzle, it would go off. I never figured out if it was a preventive act or one of a breakdown. It didn’t matter since I had backup which could power up lights and fans and charging points.
Yesterday, we had heavy winds and lashing rain and the power went out sometime in the morning. It was restored only post noon today, a little more than 24 hours without electricity. My current place has no backup and all the devices drained out quickly considering they were in use from 6 in the morning for class and work. Half written documents, notes and e-mails sat inside my screen and I shut the lid on them. Afterwards, I lay on my bed and watched the clouds hurtle past, the winds were really strong and it seemed like they were being herded along.
One of the nice things about my present home is a small terrace balcony attached to my room. It faces a green patch and I wake up to an expanse of sky and treetops. The woods here have many winged creatures, both visiting and resident and it is a delight to watch them. There is a pair of grey hornbills that comes by sometimes and a family of 7 peafowls call it home. Some evenings they fly their bulk to the top branches of the trees as they prepare to rest for the night. This is in addition to a whole host of common birds like drongos, bulbuls, koels, sunbirds, crows, mynas etc.
But in the last few weeks, clouds have caught my fancy. They were always fun to watch but in the mood of these times, they also became a point of contemplation. I’ve been watching them lately and when there’s no distraction, it makes for a fascinating viewing. The white ones were sunbathing companions while the grey ones have been viewed best from my room. The edges diffuse, disintegrate and disappear into the sky, like the cracks between continents as they moved into the shapes we are familiar with today.
It made me think of disintegration. As I clean up the trail, I pick up plastic items in varying stages of decomposition. Plastics, paper, foil, cloth, laminated packs etc. all have a different rate of ageing and decay. It speaks of a passage of time and there’s a sense of measure I get looking at their state. Not so with the glass bottles and fragments. I did manage to salvage a few interesting looking bottles and they now hold greens in my house. The youngling was inspired enough to attempt a second oil painting looking at it one night.
And then I see the death and decomposition of dried leaves and flowers on the forest floor. First the intact dry crunchiness until it disappears into the soil, becoming part of the mud. But it takes time. Relationships also disintegrate- marriages, friendships, familial bonds too. It is just the nature of things, the blossoming, the dropping off, decay and disintegration and final disappearance. Sometimes it happens slowly, at other times fast but eventually if nothing else it disintegrates with the death of one or the other. In a larger context, there is breakdown whether in political or economic power. Old technology gives way for new and the cycle continues.
Rains are welcome after the heat but they are also a more introspective time. It feels like the middle of the monsoons right now with the grey skies and clammy weather. Perfect for adrak waali chai and bhajiyas. Maybe I’ll make some today. Yesterday was for snuggling under a blanket and reading the most delightful book, A man called Ove. I meant to read it after little K did but the book disappeared in the pile of her mad artisty things. It is such an endearing read, so much so that I sat by candle light to devour it until my eyes were tired.
Reading in that light reminded me of a few summer holidays at one of my aunt’s homes in Kerala. She lived near the beautiful Periyar river in one of the hillier districts in Kerala. As city children, we were enamoured with the lush green and flowing waters. The section near her house had a rocky river bed and the waters were so clear that we could see our bodies in it when we would bathe in it. In the distance, was a rolling hill and beyond a dense forest where elephants lived. The houses there were the last to receive electricity and as children we were equal parts fascinated and repulsed with the lack of modern conveniences. We were city kids who lived in sterile houses.
Now, I find a little longing for a similar slow existence but would I be able to live like that? One day is novelty but to actively choose such a way of life, I’m not sure I have it in me but then I’m not sure I don’t either. It does simplify life to its bare essentials and provides much time and space to live in rhythm with the day and seasons. There is more opportunity for a living meditation so to speak. Perhaps I might upgrade to such an existence, hopefully sooner rather than later but that’s still in a future and I don’t even know what today will unfurl.
There’s a bit of a cell phone declutter happening yet again and after the first couple of days, I wonder why do I go back after these month long breaks. The world is too much right now and knowing what’s happening doesn’t change anything. All it does is make one spout updates. What does it add but empty noise to a screaming world? Life still goes on in its messy spirals whether one is relatively insulated from a pandemic and other violence or thrown right into its boiling centre. It is wearying and staying away from the onslaught of information has increased focus and concentration. Maybe this time could be better used to grow inwards and be of assistance in the most basic of ways, by a fuller presence.
As a little girl, I would be mesmerized watching my mother getting ready for work or church. She would take her time choosing a saree and the right string of pearls to go with it. She would easily tame the six yards into tidy pleats and pin them up where they would rest obediently until it was time to come undone. Then would come the light dusting of compact powder and a change of jewelry if she felt like it. Last was always perfume. I’d watch her transform into this glamorous woman and gawk artlessly.
Later, when she was away, I’d rummage through the linen bag and wind her saree around myself trying to find her elegance. It never came. I grew into a lanky teenager, all long limbs and gauche, always falling short of the ideal of feminine elegance which remained her image. The first saree I ever wore was a deep purple silk for a school farewell and I remember being extremely self-conscious. One of the tallest in the grade, I stood a head above my classmates and on the fringes. It was both heady and excruciatingly painful grappling with the insecurities of that age.
A few years later, the saree became part of my everyday as a young mother. It was a handy garb especially when feeding a hungry baby, providing enough cover and doubling up as towel and sheet. I wore cottons and that preference has remained a constant. Clean, cool cottons. But once in a while, there is a breaking away to enter the flirtiness of chiffons or whimsy of lace or then the stateliness of silks. But that’s rare. Today is one such day with a lacy number that belonged to my mother. I loved this one over its pale pink twin, never quite imagining that I would one day be wrapped as effortlessly in its fluidity.
My mother turns a year older today and she has been excited about it like a little girl. She was quite harried as a working mother of three and back then it would be hard to see her let her hair down. It’s nice to see her liveliness now. Age and decay catch up and I remain keenly aware of the frailty of human minds and lives. Here today, gone tomorrow. A pandemic, old age and a decline in health are more than enough reasons to wonder if there will be a birthday next year. For now, she feels loved and special with all the wishes from family and friends and I am grateful that she is happy.
Early this morning, she got a little teary eyed when I wished her and I realized that the mother had now become the child. All I could do was to gather her unto myself.
The last couple of days have been a bit of a whirlwind as I got swept into some volunteering work. It got me musing about the ways in which I’ve navigated the decades. Perhaps, the decades have navigated my life instead. I’ve picked up jobs, skills and interests along the way and mostly been a bit of a rolling stone. Today, in between long calls, I found myself wondering how I came to be immersed with a group of people I have never met before and I saw Forrest flash before my eyes.
My first job was probably around the time the movie was released and since then, I’ve seen how living changed for an entire generation. Work, relationships, entertainment, health and through all of it the inevitable thread of technology that now connects all of our lives, individually and collectively. Under the isolation of lock down, there are strangers seeing each other and hearing each other over a screen trying to help other strangers. 25 years ago, we didn’t have mobile phones and now it is possible to conduct business on one. While I ride on its convenience, sometimes there is a desire to unplug and go back to a simpler way of being, one of real breathing connections. You know, the kind where you break bread and share a coffee and drink in the scents and textures of the day.
Forrest Gump has been a beloved movie since the first viewing and not just for Tom Hanks. It’s mostly for an almost unbearable sense of lightness in the quiet stillness of his character. I think he possibly epitomizes maitri, karuna, mudita and upeksha in his simpleton self. Not a mean bone in his body and always the hint of a smile although that seems more like a Tom Hanks trait rather than just that of his character in the film. But maybe I’m biased. 🙂 He runs through the years inevitably in the middle of all the key shifts of the different ages while being removed from it. In the world but not quite of it. Detachment at its best perhaps? Maybe one needs to be a child at heart always for that kind of being.
I love the gentle kindness in the way he relates with the people who weave in and out of his life, the way he cares for the troubled and vulnerable Jenny who finds it so hard to bear the incredible lightness of his love and her own returning love. Theirs is an unlikely friendship and love story, less a juxtaposition of simple and complex and more one of a shared childlike blossoming. The weight of her brokenness is a shard that repeatedly makes her run away until near the end. Love is unequal, I suppose, the lover always loving a little more than the beloved. And Forrest is all the more richer for it in his uncomplicated wholeness.
The movie invariably brings a whiff of nostalgia for my running days, especially the latter ones where the feet were bare and the runs were long. It’s an occasional sweet ache now, the memory of that runner and the road as the seasons rose and fell. “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get” remains a delightful reminder about the randomness of life and a certain curiosity for its various tastes. Maybe it is time to unwind into the delights of an old favourite as light as the feather that opens and closes the film.
One of the earliest mythology books I bought was Myth = Mithya by Devdutt Pattnaik. Since then, I’ve wandered into Indian philosophy and her old sciences by various authors, Indian and foreign. Those old sciences and arts still exist although what we get is the pop packaged version. It is rare to find authentic practitioners amidst the din of the internet. For an inert screen, computers and phones do make a lot of noise.
The daughter had run out of books to read and I thought it might be interesting for her to get a taste of the fantastic world of Indian mythology. She took the book and in true bibliophile style, smelled the pages. I took the book to smell too and was washed not just in the fragrance of an old book but the milestones in its age.
It lived longest in an old sheesham bookcase which also housed incense sticks from various parts of the country. Some were bought on travels, others gifted by friends. Every time I opened that cupboard, there would be a whiff of wood and smoke and it always reminded me of an old ancestral home that no longer exists. That house was deep in the hills, snug at the bottom of a green jungle, all stone and wood. I remember all too few weeks with my aunt listening to stories and watching the fireflies flit until we fell asleep. Life was simple in that way. Mornings began with the smell of black coffee and the kitchen would cough up food and smoke through the day until the embers were silenced at night. There was time for stories and aimless wandering, games in the open and books.
The sheesham bookcase was abandoned but some of the books made it through the various pages of my story. Stained, yellowed and with the binding showing signs of disintegration, these old books are uncannily similar to human lives. Fresh off the press, they are sharp and crisp and as they come in contact with hands and eyes, they start to lose some of those edges and become softer, beaten and develop age spots. Hidden between their pages, you discover old notes and cards, like the one I found in this book. It was from a colleague many years ago as she was moving on to a different role.
The past never leaves us, it circles around our present and comes up for air every now and then. Like a friend once said, we live our lives in the orbits of other people.
The year was 1969 or thereabouts. 50 years ago, India would still have been very young in her freedom and quite poor but the handcrafted aspect of her everyday was rich, a living, breathing continuum of history, full of colour and flavour. A tiny part of that piece of culture wound up in a country far away marking time.
A New Yorker visited India as her friend was from this exotic land of colour and chaos. Perhaps her only visit and she might have been enamoured by the colourful sarees she saw on the women around her, enough to splurge on a few herself. Soft silk with exquisite zari work, thread work and unusual motifs, they lived half a century in the wings before winding their way to me.
I wish I knew more about that lady, her impressions and thoughts about my country as it was then. Travel in that era would not have been like it is today with app based cabs and airbnb. It would have been fraught with logistical nightmares and culture shock. I am curious to know about her relationship with M, the Indian lady who was her friend. Which part of the country was M from? What nostalgia did she bear for her country that kindled a desire in her friend? What were the seasons of their friendship and how did their lives play out?
I don’t know any of the answers and the questions still bubble over as I run my fingers over 50 year old silks in extremely good condition. Part of me wants to know and the other part is happy imagining their lives and flavouring it the way I choose. All of life is really a series of choices, moment to moment anyway and a different choice at any point could result in a different unfolding.
These sarees found their way to me via a pretty circuitous route. I opened the package yesterday and they shimmered in all their silken glory. The choice of colours would have made it just the right range for an exotic garment of an infrequent saree wearer. I wonder how many times M’s friend would have worn it and the way she might have played with it.
M’s friend would have been quite the hippie and might have worn the saree out and about in NY. I imagine a happy woman with a full throated laugh who would own a drape and make it her own. In my head, I have an image of Audrey Hepburn like elegance. These were a part of her life’s possessions and her daughter kindly offered them to me, a stranger on the internet. And just like that six yards of silk stretched across time and space to connect the lives of 4 women and an unknown number of hands who wrote poetry on silk.
Social media often gets a bad rap but it’s brought me real people and their stories, some from many miles away. Often, homes are opened and strangers like me have been privileged to break bread. And sometimes, they take the shape of stories, like this one about vintage sarees that unfolded thanks to a fellow blogger’s generosity. Thank you Caitlin for sharing a piece of personal history with a stranger.
Update: The New Yorker in the story- that’s Caitlin’s mother Cynthia and Molly Tharyan’s friend. Cynthia wore these sarees around Toronto causing quite the scandal amongst the sedate moms in their understated and elegant pearls and cashmeres. She would have been an exotic adventurer considering she did a trip to India in a cervical collar after an ill fated dive into a swimming pool. The silks are so vibrant and full of life, colours of throaty laughter and uninhibited expression.
Half a century later, Molly has passed on, her sister and daughter lost to distance and time. Estrangement at many levels. Some wild art of me wants to see a story unfold here, it’s just a romantic’s dream. Maybe Molly Tharyan’s daughter and sister stumble upon this post via an unknown reader and connect with Caitlin. I’m not sure if that’s desirable or not but it makes for an afternoon’s worth of story making.