The week that was

More trees have fallen in the woods, the paths have shrunk and the ungulates have been busy here. There is beauty in the lushness but this particular corner of the world is also beautiful in its brown starkness. Bumped into the runner lad coaching two young girls. Always a happy sight, runners.


Sometimes I walk the nights as though I’m one with the shadows. The feet move to a steady rhythm past homeless men and strays sleeping under open skies. This warning signal has been smothered by the rain growth and made a pretty picture in the dark.This white spotted fantail was busy feeding three hungry young ones and pecking a cat that strolled too close for comfort. Managed to get a little more of their morning drama and also their cute little home. You can check it out here.Choco chip cookies with a sprinkle of sea salt made by hand, made with love. They have been an indulgence ever since a friend sent a bag of these.A morning out of the city, chasing stalks and watching birds, cruising winding ghats and picnics on the road. Comfort food, quick and easy. What you don’t see here is the nice big dollop of ghee that melted into the khichdi. At times, these meals happen alfresco.No sadhya or pookalam this year but an almost vintage kasavu to mark the day. The weave remains my absolute favourite for its elegant simplicity. This one’s a little worse for the wear but soft with multiple wears and washes.

Unfolded. Refolded.

Sarees were a constant until a couple of months ago when I traded them for shorts or pants depending on whether it was yoga or walking. Monsoon days also mean longer drying time for clothes and cotton sarees take their own sweet time. I’d still wear them for some online meetings but largely they remained in the dark confines of my cupboard. Today afternoon was spent refolding them, something I do every few months to prevent them from developing fold marks.

It was a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours. As I unfolded and refolded them, they reminded me of many people, experiences and thoughts. I was reminded of the days when I would post regularly on IG and some of the lovely people I got to know thanks to a common love for the six yards. Some of the sarees were bought on travels, some from the saree seller who would come home every few months, many were gifts, some were shared, some were mother’s and a few of them were from a stranger I haven’t even met! The last lot were vintage sarees, over 50 years old and found their way to me via a rather circuitous route- NY to Montreal to Toronto to Bombay to Pune.

There were two easy breezy mul cotton sarees on the line today thanks to a respite in the rain and as they fluttered, I wandered through the sarees that have come to occupy space in my shelves. Unlike other clothes, the six yards somehow hold memory more firmly. Some of them happy and a few that also hold darkness but that is the fabric of life. A little of this and a little of that.

A couple of days ago, I wore a Sambalpuri ikat with the most gorgeous design of fauna and flora on its body. A jeweled green and red, this one was an impulse purchase on one of my trips out of town. The technique is a marvelous one of mathematical precision and craftsmanship. Ikats look identical on both sides. Most of the designs are drawn from nature and motifs include flowers and leaves, peacocks and elephants, lions etc. The single ikats are a tricky proposition but the double ikats are even more mind boggling. Both the warp and weft are dyed in the desired designs before being woven. They are not unique to India and the form has been practiced across different regions like South America, Central and South East Asia. Truly art that can be worn. Even within the country, there are different clusters that have their unique style, like the Patan Patolas or Pochampally ikats or Chinnalapatti silk cottons.

A closer look at the motifs

This country is rich in its textile heritage and the sheer diversity is staggering. It’s interesting to trace the way techniques have crisscrossed the country, a perpetual assimilation that continues to this day. Some of the migrations have been slow and organic while others have been a violent clash. I’m partial to the soft cottons from the south or then the light as air taants from Bengal which are perfect for our tropical summers. My favourite though remains the kora kasavu from the land of my foremothers for its timeless elegance.

 

 

A day in pictures

Morning visitor says my garden is a happy place

Propping up with bricks and books

Wore jewellery after months!

All bets off.

Green grave for bikes

Sometimes the resident artist approves of picture take-outing 😁

She sings and I ride on her words and the clouds, half a century away…

A little about some of the things that matter

This was meant to be a blog about sarees when it started but lately it’s grown to be about the days of a pandemic and a mix of some of the things I enjoy. But then life too is like the warp and weft of the six yards. It crisscrosses and adds motifs in its weave or then through embellishments. Lest it be forgotten that this is still about pleated stories too, a saree picture from yesterday- this one’s from the home state of my parents, Kerala. I didn’t expect to be writing here everyday but it has become one of the things I look forward to after my hours outside.

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a mundum neriyathum from the state of my ancestors

As a runner, I preferred early mornings since it set the tone for the day. But as a walker, I find I prefer late afternoons and evenings for their ‘in-betweenness’. These days there is a pattern settling in, usually trash collection first and dumping it in my car before ambling. That’s followed by a drive around the cantonment, gulmohurs are my current excuse considering that they’re blazing away in all their summer glory.

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roads in pandemia

This part of the city has been a familiar one through its different shades every season and I’ve mostly experienced it in the mornings. Late evenings were drives from class or work and often in the thick of traffic. The empty roads these days are a pleasure and sometimes I play speed demon on long stretches. But, mostly I cruise and stop to take pictures. It’s a frantic recording of these days. Much of change is invisible when it is happening and their unpacking happens with the distance of time. IMG_20200527_174708

and that’s the tree that called 🙂

The trail was a joy today, a little more than usual since I finally found my tree. Ever since I started walking here, I was on the lookout for that one tree that would call to me and today it did. I rested against it and watched the town below. There was a goods train snaking its way into the city and a truck lumbering along. Else, all was quiet. The tree swayed in the wind and my body moved along. The wind in the evenings makes the leaves rustle and it sounds like ocean waves. Most of the trees are glyricidias, closely planted and they creak as their branches rub against each other. There are a few neem trees and some of them are partners with the shishir. Today, the woods had a different smell, more herbal, maybe it was the section I was in although I didn’t notice anything different in the dried curly leaves on the forest floor. 

As I lugged the trash through the interiors, a young man joined me. Turns out he has seen me around and the trash bag caught his attention. He must be about as old as the firstborn and we got chatting. It is always nice to listen to young people and their dreams, this boy wanted to get into the police force and was out training for his physical fitness examination. As we parted ways, I thought of how easy it is to talk with strangers. No need for names or back stories, just the now. But there is also something comforting about the familiarity of faces on these walks which I haven’t been able to pinpoint. Like seeing Mr. C and his wife, even if it is at a distance. There used to be Mr. B  during my running days,  who would say, “things are on an even keel with all the familiar faces” and I’d think to myself yes.

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a bike with no rider!

The trail is always new. Every walk throws up interesting sights and sometimes a few things come back with me like a clutch of abandoned poems, pods, stones etc. Somehow, in its warm brown silences, a pandemic disappears and a child’s delight emerges.

A letter from Norway

Sarees brought me the love and friendship of many special people across the planet. Some of them lovers of the six yards, others not but all of them wonderful people. A few have grown to be friends I’ll love all my life. Some have also been correspondents over the last couple of years and I have enjoyed the slow pleasures of letters written in beautiful hands. Often these notes are accompanied by something handmade, in the case of a special sister of the soul, tea for two. 🙂

Most days, I go through life unconscious of my presence in anyone else’s life. But every once in a while, I receive an act of kindness which makes me feel overwhelmed. It is a surprise that one is thought of in private moments of the spirit of another person. One such happened today. I received images of a letter that was written about a couple of years ago in a train between Bergen and Oslo.

R discovered the notepad on which she had begun writing that letter to me recently and shared pictures of the pages today. I was deeply touched to know that someone remembered me on their travels, enough to write their deepest thoughts as they watched a white landscape hurtle past a silent window. The pictures through the glass speak of harsh winters although this was a trip in April or May. I’ve never seen snow, not yet and often wonder how it might be to experience the silence of a giant white blanket for months on end.

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Picture courtesy : R from her train ride between Bergen and Oslo

Letters though are a wonderful way to break that silence. They are a window into thoughts that are free from the constraints of conversation. Of course, they have their moods and colours. Sometimes playful, often contemplative, at others obscure and so on. But, generally, they tend to be a plane where there is a relaxation of our personas and an emergence of our person. Often they are about the mundane while at times the pen wanders to think about deep questionings and at still others they are simply a record of activities. It made me question why I write letters almost compulsively but that probably is a separate post.

In an age of instant news, instant sharing, I find an almost fierce need to protect the slow savouring of thoughts that belonged to a loved friend but could be relived in the reading of a letter. Perhaps it is a result of growing older and wanting the comfort of a touch of lives through paper, a medium that is comforting. Or maybe it is a need for a physical reminder of something that transcends distance and time. Most of the letters I have received have been from friends, very few from family. In my books, friendships are probably the best among different kinds of love.

As I type this, I realize that this too has turned into a letter of sorts, perhaps a reply to that letter written on a train miles and months away from here and now. Maybe that’s what this blog is too, one long endless letter. Thank you R for your gentle, compassionate touch in my life. It has been much the richer for your radiance.

Some letters are best received much beyond their writing.

Love

S.

Lavender

A fallen jasmine found hues of lavender decay

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.

Vintage lavender from about four decades ago

A stranger life

I’m not a big facebook fan and end up using it mostly in the course of work. So, I saw a message from a stranger almost a month later and it was a curious thing. This person had figured a few of my blogs as well as my name through them and was intrigued about a lack of face on my saree posts enough to want to reach out. Sometimes, I do that too, reach out to people although it’s mostly because of words. It got me thinking of how people connect in this century and also why. But that is for a later post.

In pandemic times, our interactions have changed in their texture. There’s either a frantic need to maintain old socializing in a virtual avatar or a retreating into journals, books, letters and blogging. So much of our lives are about places we go or things we do and so being confined brings very little to conversation as exchange of raw thoughts can be frighteningly intimate.

Yesterday, technology gave way. My internet device went bust and later the phone hung. It refused to shut down or restart. And truth be told, I was relieved to be disconnected. After trying without success to reconnect to the call I was on, I calmly put aside everything and wrote a letter. Then an entry in my journal to mark the day and a book in bed before sleep stole on me. I slept for 12 hours straight.

Today has been reflective, a little despairing, mildly cynical, a tad bit impatient and curious too. I could attribute the shaking of a steadiness to a variety of factors perhaps the last two books I finished? In case you want to know, they were Disgrace and Giovanni’s Room. They were recommendations from another stranger. Sometimes I think it is easier to exchange digital words with people one never needs to know. Days like these make me want to crawl into a cave. But life has a penchant for teasing and torments by denying what one seeks.

The shrieking parakeets this morning reminded me of this khesh saree and so it became the accompaniment to my day…

I sat calmly listening to a an old woman who needed to talk, a young girl who was frustrated about being unable to go cycling. Behind the eyes which were with them, there was impatience to get back to my page where a half written sentence demanded completion. Eventually, time made itself available but the need to finish the line dried up like the ink in my pen.

In the midst of all that, a friend prodded me to do something I wouldn’t ever have considered. But I said yes, spontaneously. It felt right although I didn’t expect it to move at the pace it did. I’ve mostly gone where the river of life has taken me and so far it’s been interesting. I suppose one can liken the river bed across miles to the constancy of one’s personhood and the different features along its course as the various experiences one encounters – enriching, depleting, polluting, reviving. Along the way, it’s song meanders through joyous notes and plaintive ones, furious thundering and quiet whispering. Eventually the waters will spill into the ocean and all those songs will drown into a majestic silence. I find myself with a longing creep in for that soundlessness.

Gendered Spaces

I was clearing my phone and came across this picture and it reminded me of an unusual experience. One that tickled me no end and also provided fodder for thought. Since there is time, let me tell you about an evening when I discovered what it felt like to occupy a space not really inhabited by too many women.

Earlier this month, I was back in Bombay, the city of my childhood. It was a trip with mixed emotions and thoughts, a happy afternoon with friends, an evening walk by the sea and also packing up my mother’s household. That last there was a heaviness, the knowledge that for all her aided liveliness, she would never live in that house again. And as is wont, every time there is a sense of being weighed down, I chop off my hair.

Sunset Family Salon is not really for the entire family, just for the men folk, a modest place with 6 seats under fluorescent lights and whirring fans. There was a popular show blaring on the tele and I tried hard to understand what made all those people in it laugh but didn’t get it. So, I sat staring at a mirror and saw men in various stages of grooming. Haircuts, massages, shaves- the entire gamut of male grooming at 10:30pm.

The owner was a genial man, late 50s perhaps with crinkly eyes that told of laughter and an appetite for life. He made me welcome, showed me to a chair and asked me to wait as he wanted one particular guy to cut my hair. I could have told him that it was not about a sharp hair cut but just a shedding of heaviness. But I didn’t and chose to observe the scene around me as unobtrusively as I could. It must have been strange for all the men there to have a woman sit there. There was silence except for the buzz of equipment. I’m unsure if it is so always or whether it was the presence of a woman in their midst.

It was interesting how the relief on the faces of the patrons was almost in direct proportion to the vigour of their treatments. The massages though very strange to witness close up, it seemed too close for comfort, a kneading that felt strangely intimate. The new age salons have private spaces and soft lights, this one was rough and ready under harsh white light. Hair colour was meticulously matched with eyebrows and moustaches although I’m fairly sure instruction leaflets would mention their use only for the mop on the head. The head massage looked like karate chops and truth be told, I was tempted to ask for one but the hour was late. It wouldn’t do justice to cut corners on something like that. Maybe next time, if there is a next time.

At the moment, I’m mildly contemplating learning how to cut my own hair or then letting it grow out. Long hair looks pretty but it takes effort. My current shock allows me to wash and wear without the need for a comb or brush. I’ve been lazy about going to a salon for what many women consider essential grooming like monthly manicures, pedicures, facials, waxing etc. Blame it on an indifference. My indulgence remains old fashioned oil massages and hot baths, easily accessed in the privacy of my home. When you spend enough time walking with naked feet outdoors and welcome the sun’s relentless heat, the need for a pedicure or facial fall by the wayside. As to hair, I like greys so there’s no question of colouring it. If there’s one extravagance, it is the draping of everyday cotton sarees. That is a deeply sensual pleasure, cotton on skin.  

A buttercup cotton saree a friend left behind. Yellow and white remind me of wild daisies.

I try to imagine what a reverse situation will be like in one of the ‘beauty parlours’ meant ‘only for ladies’ and it would not have been the same. There would be outrage. But I could enter a male space, like in the general compartments in Bombay locals and the same would not be the case no matter how much the men might resent the intrusion.    

The young man who chopped off whatever little he could from my already short hair was pleasant and knew his job. He was the owner’s son and worked in an upmarket salon by day and in his father’s establishment by night. Sunset Salon has been the place where little boys in the locality got their first haircut and while some may have transitioned to the unisex chain salons, the perpetually filled chairs indicate a staunch loyalty of its longstanding patrons. The owner would come over home to cut my father’s hair after his stroke. Maybe if I lived there, I might want to frequent it too for its no fuss service and sense of a throwback to life when I was a child and the streets were free from traffic. The current lockdown is reminiscent of that life.  

Spending half an hour in that joint got me thinking about the spaces occupied by women as women, especially roads. Sometimes, I walk late at night and till date have never seen another woman taking a walk by herself. Usually, couples walk together. If there is a lone woman, she seems to walk with purpose and accompanied by the trappings of work or study gear. Men and boys though walk with swinging arms or hands stuffed in their pockets. The gaze of men and women differ too, raw and diffused. There have been occasions when a refusal to avert my eyes has changed the dynamic of encounters with strangers. There is a perceptible shift. The neighbourhood streets have always felt safe even when deserted, yet there are no women walkers on night streets.

Short hair and a tall frame make it easy for people to mistake me for a man and perhaps that makes it easier to roam freely. It’s only when they see me up close that there is a startle in their eyes but by then it is late to rearrange their reaction. I’ve been marked as male and it is too much work to look at me as a woman. In many ways, this androgynous receiving is a relief.