A night of songlight

An old saree picture and a scribble for a Saturday

Shakin Stevens is crooning because I love you, it must be from the house with the boy. It’s the radio playing, nice. I should play the radio too.

Unbreak my heart now and Toni Braxton sounds soulful and sensual all at once. I slip out of my dark bed and stand unseen behind the curtains in my bedroom. I think I see the man-boy’s shorts. It is him and he stands behind the curtains of his room.

I’m lost in this pointless moment where two people stand behind curtains looking and not looking. I’m a voyeur while he’s trapped in a wordless mind. His days are mostly spent on a dusty terrace where he makes distressed animal sounds and ranges like a wild one.

Now it’s James Blunt on that radio, my mind drifts to the firstborn. It’s our song, the one she uses to deflect my telling her she’s beautiful. Mais oui, she is!

It’s midnight and I’m still enjoying the music. They are strains of my youth coming out through a busted speaker. I think of getting the radio from the Kid’s room to mine and playing the same channel but somehow this is better, a tenuous intimacy between unseen people.

The volume is down now, maybe the father has retired for the night and the boy still needs song. The neighbour’s air conditioning has stopped its loud whirring and Leo has found his pillow on my arm.

Let her go by Passenger spikes up the volume. I wonder if anyone else is enjoying this night of mushy love, unrequited love. They no longer make me yearn for languorous lovemaking but wash over like a pleasant breeze.

Their window is shut now and I can only hear faint crests and troughs of music. A cue to fall asleep but I’m still listening.

The radio is silent now and I’m wide awake…

Instagram memories

I’ve had many blogs over many years, always zealously private until something started to loosen up. Perhaps it was a sense of growing older and figuring out all of us had the same loves and losses. We guard our secrets from friends and family but let them tumble in front of strangers.

Some of my ramblings have been like this space, a kind of chatting over coffee and some have been anonymous journals of solitary roads that could be found only by those travelling similar paths. Most of the time, these writings are invisible and it’s only ever an offering. The words may flow through my pen or screen but their authorship comes from a source that has no beginning and no end.

It felt good to be acknowledged by someone who has been a practitioner for more years than I may ever be and a writer to boot. So, someone may be reading my musings after all. It’s a humbling moment and one of joy too. My next instinct is to duck under and hibernate until every one disappears. It’s the paradox of a solitary passion, the necessity of silence and the desire to be heard. Have I shared too much… Blame the grey day.

The youngling and I have time on our hands now and I imagine there is no school. In this make believe world, we spend cocooned days learning new words and making new ones up while not climbing trees or running free. Sometime during the pretend day, we will sip on a Pink soda with a dash of lime, kind of like today’s pop pink and lime green khesh and her tee.

Little K has got the mischief back in her eyes after a long snooze and will be a whirling mass of energy before I know it. Thank you for all your love and warmth, that’s just the magic we needed. .

📷courtesy: the youngling

– written in February 2018

forgotten words

I was hunting for some work notes in my old notebooks and found a few doodles by the youngling as well as some random scribbles. Now, the doodle involves her sister as well who may not take very kindly to her depiction so I’ll keep it off this space but the few lines I wrote then came through my fingers so here they are.

🌺The most beautiful things in the world are at once simple and profound, like the heart of a flower. Look into her depths and what do you see? The seed or the flower…🌺

Tears

Towards the end of last year, I did a series of ruminations on the chapter titles of a book. While the book remained very forgetful, the headers provided a springboard for some meandering. One of the headers was ‘tears’, the kind we cry. It led to a spontaneous poem and here it is, pulled up from the Instagram archives. I hope you enjoy it. The saree that fit the thought was this sungudi, filled with a million circles, tears or light bubbles, you decide.🙂

We don’t need anyone to tell us the healing power of tears.

At some point of time or the other, we’ve squeezed a few drops from the depths of despair.

Maybe we wept copious amounts over hearts that were shattered to dust.

Perhaps, we felt them wash away sadness for a while before a renewed attack.

We’ve also felt them in the lumps in our throats that threatened to swallow us whole.

We’ve screamed tears of physical agony or collected silent tears in our bones.

We’ve cowered in fear, holding back a flood of tears.

Sometimes we drown in unshed ones.

And at times, we shed tears of exquisite joy and gratitude.

We survive. A few do not.

But, beyond the veil of tears, there is brilliant sunshine. You just have to believe.

A little yellow

Mommy’s vintage chiffon out for a spin. This one is four decades old, give or take a few years and one I recently inherited. While the flimsy fabric is not one of my usual preferences, I love the way it looks on others. In my head, I have this image of a saree around a pole if I wear such sarees but you can’t deny how dreamy it can be.

This was one of two in similar shades, the other one retained its plain looks. One of mom’s friends from her early Bombay (it was still Bombay then😁) days got this embroidered for her. I guess it must have been done at Gandhi Market, quite the haunt of young women then.

She came to the city as a young 18 year old, accompanied by her brother and went on to lead an independent life far away from a little village in the faraway hills near Idukki. Her beginnings were humble and she is a self made woman.

As a school child, she was an eager student and walked many miles everyday after finishing her chores around the house. Geography with its lessons about different countries fascinated her no end and she had a burning desire to see the world. Back then, it must have seemed pretty impossible for a little girl from a remote hamlet to roam the big, wide world but she went on to visit many countries and has ticked off more places than us kids have.

While this saree has not travelled as much as she has, it has journeyed with memories, mostly old ones. It remembers an ambitious young woman who chased her dreams and fought her demons without ever staying down for too long. It has watched her take her time getting dressed to dazzle. I wonder how my father might have been mesmerized by her even as she walked with him. They had a love marriage and I wish mom would reveal a little more of their romance. It’s a different thrill to hear about parents as young people, they’ve always just been parents.

Ok, I’ve rambled on and how! Here is the mellow yellow embroidered with bright yellow flowers spiralling through her pleats.

My Story

What do I write?

What is my story?

Abandon.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Lost Saree Seller

Twenty years ago, there used to be a Bengali saree seller who would come home to sell his wares. I don’t remember how he came home the first time but I do remember the first saree I bought from him. A grey taant with large borders. It was a saree bought soon after the firstborn came to be. The saree is long gone having been loved and worn before it died in Amma’s rough and ready use. A light breezy saree in an unlikely colour for a young mother but it whispered to me.

I digress, this is not the story of that saree but of the saree seller. Let’s call him Radhagobind. Him of the soft speech and unerring instinct of the sarees that were most likely to beckon you.
He would come around a few times each year and inevitably I would succumb to the lure of the six yards. It used to be almost like a choreographed dance. We’d exchange pleasantries and he would open his huge cloth bundles and start displaying the starched sarees that almost looked like little rectangular boxes. Radhagobind would keep a constant stream of conversation going as I swiftly sorted my favourite colours. He would then nudge my attention to the newer designs and sometimes it felt like there was nothing really to pick when he would conjure a beauty. I didn’t know the extent of the diversity in the weaves of our land and never bothered to find out the story behind them. As a young woman, all I wanted was a collection of sarees like my mother’s. Simple, elegant and timeless.
Now I wonder about Radhagobind. Where did he come from? Were the weaves from his family, his village? Did he leave his family back home as he trudged through the hot, sweaty streets of Bombay to earn a living? Did he ever sell all his sarees? What happened to those that didn’t find closets to call home? Did his wife wear any of those weaves? Perhaps she huddled over a loom and taught her children to conjure up designs as she sang songs of longing for her man out in the big city streets…
So many questions and Radhagobind is nowhere to be found. Part of a lost network of saree sellers, he dropped off somewhere as the malls sprang up and businesses went online. The mobile explosion hadn’t taken place and he was a nomad with his bundles. I wonder if he gave up the Bombay dream and went back to his village and stayed in the land of sweet sounds and beautiful women. There is a tailor in the neighbourhood who has the same quizzical expression as Radhagobind and what if, just what if, he is the same lost saree seller?
On an aside, I spoke to a young Bangla salesman to get a little detail on the sarees my old man bought me from Kolkata. He was eager to help but all he could tell me was that they were taants. I have a feeling that there’s a little more to a couple of the sarees. But, there’s the insta sisterhood of saree lovers that always comes up to share their knowledge.