Saris and an almirah

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(Tonight is the first day of Navratri.  I started my day on a beautiful note by wearing my mother’s this crisp, beautiful ikkat sari. I feel a deep sense of love and happiness when I wear my mother’s sari.)

Every time I look at my wardrobe before going for a special evening, my standard dialogue is “I have nothing to wear.” I stand in front of my almirah with hands on my waist, look at it closely and shuffle through the items and repeat the same line again and again almost like a faulty gramophone. It can’t be more contradictory because the shelves in my cup board are choc-a-bloc with clothes of different designs, colours and textures and handbags collected from different places. Yet I end up complaining that I have nothing.
Even as I write this, my mind goes back to my mother’s Godrej almirah. The almirah was/is always sparkingly  clean. Not a single sari could ever be found in a crumpled state. The locker was in the middle and unlike the new-age cupboards available in the market now, the length of the locker was the same as the other shelves. The locker had my mother’s saris meant for special occasions. She called them ‘bahar ka sari’ (meaning the ones you wear when you go for a wedding, for an engagement ceremony, for a musical/dance performance or to pay a visit to a relative living in a different town). During my early childhood, I clearly remember there were exactly nine saris in this ‘bahar ka category.’ This collection also included her two wedding saris and she kept mothballs to keep the insects away and for that ‘fresh’ smell.
I have always seen my mother wearing only saris. Well, I find nothing extraordinary about it though today if I wear a sari and come to my office, colleagues keep on asking me, “what’s the special occasion.. birthday ya marriage anniversary?” “Nothing”, I say with a straight face. Pat comes the reply, “Come on, it can’t be true. It got to be some special occasion for you to wear a sari.” The best (sic) comment came from a senior male colleague when he saw me wearing a beautiful hand woven ikkat sari, “oh…today MTV has become Doordarshan.” Well, my mother had been wearing saris everyday with no special occasion attached to the day.
Her other shelves included cotton saris meant to be worn at home only. The saris were always perfectly ironed, neatly stacked up in a clean vertical line. There was a different shelf for her blouses and petticoats. And it’s not just about a wardrobe or her saris. It’s also about memories tucked away comfortably lovingly in her wardrobe. Her aging and slightly yellowing black and white wedding  photographs, letters written by me and my sisters, letters from my dad when he was away from her on work and cards sent to her on different birthdays of hers over the years, special Durgapuja edition of literary magazines, medals won by us for essay-writing or for being the best girl of the school—- the wardrobe has it all. The almirah also has her gold jewellery and no matter how much we persuaded she had resisted for long all talks about opening a bank locker for storing her jewellery. It was her complete world which was so very intimate to her and to her children and in the end she could just lock it up and sleep peacefully.
One of our favourite leisure activities was to tell her to open the almirah and then all of us would lie on the bed together to have close intimate awestruck look at her world. Every time I went back home during vacations, I loved sitting in front of my mom’s almirah and looking at her new additions and reveling in the old treasures which are my memory now.   Every sari has a story of its own. Every ‘vanity bag’ of hers has a tale to tell. The stories never got boring or repetitive. And her locker had many many more saris bought by her daughters from different places of India. To be fair, my dad also had a major contribution in adding vibrant colours and hues and of course numbers  to her nine-yard collection.
And now we have many  more wardobes and almirahs in our house. My sister definitely has a much larger collection of Baluchoris, Maheshwaris, Mysore silks and Banarasis. But the romance of intimacy lies in my mother’s almirah. Not in my sister’s.
And most importantly, times have changed. She left this world in 2013. But the almirah is still at the same place where it has been for years now. I have now some of her saris in my wardrobe. And these saris are my rich possessions. I carry forward the legacy of India’s rich textile heritage.  And every time I wear my mother’s sari and walk, I feel as if she’s walking with me.
But most importantly, unlike me I have never seen my mother standing in front of her almirah and telling “I have nothing to wear.” One day when she was fighting against cancer, I had asked her about those days of ‘nine bahar ka sari’ days and she said “It’s essential to be happy with what you have.”

(A longer version of this piece was published in Chicken Soup for the Indian Mother’s Soul)

 

 

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Rains

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Every summer, I read Alexander Frater’s wonderful book titled Chasing the Monsoon. Through the pages of the book, I make a desperate attempt to soak in the anticipation of arrival of rains. My fantasy becomes my escape route. I curl up with the memories of my growing up years in Orissa. Nothing can match the magic of watching the evening rains lashing against a lamp post.  There’s  something deeply evocative about Orissa’s magical monsoon.

I now live in Gujarat. It has been raining incessantly in Ahmedabad for almost ten days. I no longer enjoy the rains. The thought of struggling to reach office on a rainy day depresses me.  The roads are full of potholes. In some parts of the city, the roads can’t even be called roads. The infrastructure around us collapses in no time. Looking at the pouring rains gives me a sense of uncertainty, fear.

But some loves don’t die so quickly. They always find little alleys to pop up again. Like a dancing sunflower. So, on some days when it’s raining heavily, I just listen to Elton John’s Sacrifice or Scorpion’s Always Somewhere and I feel I am in another beautiful world. There is intense beauty in melancholy too. My heart fills up with a joy that can not be described in words.

Rains also make me realize that you can never go back to the home you left behind.

 

Grief. Political

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In the times we are living in, grief is no longer personal. It is political. Last evening, I spent hours discussing about Chinese human rights activist and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. I woke up in the morning to find out he is no more. He died of liver cancer while being in custody.

Recently I had read a beautiful story on  Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia’s unique love story published in The Guardian.  “Even if I were crushed into powder,” Liu Xiabo wrote, addressing the love of his life, “I would still use my ashes to embrace you.” If you are interested, you can read the story on the below link.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/12/devotion-amid-despair-the-great-contemporary-love-story-of-liu-xia-and-liu-xiaobo

 

 

 

Of Angels and Bitches

“That bloody bitch … She’s such a horrible bitch.” All through my life I have heard this about women. And both women and men indulge in ‘bitch’ talk. I have also heard people talking about having an Angel in their lives.

Angel

 

This adorable bitch’s name is Angel.  Abandoned by her mother, Angel survived on her own on the brutal streets of Ahmedabad and came to my house for a brief time before she was adopted by another family.

Angel is playful, deeply affectionate and loving. She had this habit of playing hide and seek with me in the house.

On International Women’s Day, here’s to the Angels and the ‘Bitches’  of the world — playful, naughty, loving and survivors who play a game of hide and seek with life. With a kick-ass attitude

Happy Women’s Day

An aunt wishes happy birthday

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(Wow. That’s what people say when I tell them that my nephew Sarthak’s birthday is on December 31.  For me, you are the ‘WOW BOY.’ )

It is difficult to be an Indian kid and have only one name. Even when you live in Atlanta. In your school, they call you Sarthak. Your aai (grandmother) used to call you Babu.  Your mom, dad call you Sarthu. Simrita, your loving elder sister dramatically calls you ‘Brother.’ For me, you are Gogol (named after the famous Russian writer Nicolai Gogol).  Sometimes, we also call you – ‘The thinking boy,’ ‘The little Buddha.’

It’s December 31, 2016. You will turn 9 today. I still remember the day when I received a call from your mom telling me that you have arrived. You and I live in two different time zones.  It was evening and I was in my office doing the pages for the next day’s newspaper. Suddenly, I felt as if I were in the clouds.  Deliciously happy and joyful.  Aah, the pleasure of having a nephew.

This is the first time you are celebrating your birthday in India. Here I am sitting on the balcony of the house which my parents and your grandparents lovingly built and writing this. In this house, we have a generation of memories (of your grandparents) tucked away in every nook and corner. And having you on your birthday in India makes me realize that we all are creating beautiful memories for the years ahead.

With your American accent, you now say, “I love India and want to move here.”  You even talk about doing home-schooling in India. In you, I see the magic called life. You take my breath away with your questions, sharp observations and your love for the wonderful world of trees, flowers, sea shells, fish and cats.  I wonder how seamlessly and beautifully you blend into the natural world. When your mother screamed after accidentally touching the tail of an overweight cat beneath the dining table, you non-chalantly said, “Mama screamed like a little gal and it was just a cat.”  When we put  fish in a water container, you said, “Look, look.. that fish is going crazy.”  You wanted a fish expert to come and rescue the female fish(es) so that they can have babies.

I am impressed by your knowledge. From the sparkling world of gemstones like ruby, topaz, sapphire to dinosaurs, you add so much to my knowledge. Talking to you, I realize I have so much to learn and unlearn too. Seeing me sipping my morning drink, you started talk about coffee beans, grinding of beans to make coffee powder. All that I can do is to look at you in amazement.

We talked about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. You told me about Donald Trump’s talks about building a wall. You vehemently said ‘NO’ when I asked you ‘Do you like Donald Trump?’ You said Hillary if elected would have been America’s first female President.

There are times when I see you lost in deep thoughts. You fit in so beautifully to the names we have for you –‘Thinking boy,’ ‘Little Buddha’.

I am amazed at how you turn away from anything that is excess. On a restaurant table full of dishes like rice, hariyali dal, mutton rezala, panner kalia, diwani handi,  chilli mushroom, green peas masala, I saw you happily savoring just butter nan, little spoons of rice and a tiny piece of chicken tikka (which came as a starter.) The overflowing table with dish after dish just didn’t excite you. To see you so happily enjoying that frugal meal felt so joyous. When we went to buy new clothes for you, you tried just one kurta and after that you were least bothered about how many were we buying for you. I marvel at your sense of minimalism. How far are you from this world of excess?  The world of excess which we adults are all mindlessly creating and feeling proud of. There’s so much to learn from you.  You reaffirm my faith that less is more. In you, I see a hope for this amazing universe.

You are an American citizen and many in this world would give up everything they have to flaunt that passport (more from Gujarat where I live). But in you, I see this ancient land called India. I know, the world is changing. India is changing too. Very drastically. There are intimate moments when I feel you are as beautiful, kind, compassionate as our fascinating, layered land called India.

When I gave you the bag of kurtas in the shop and told you, ‘This is your birthday gift’, you told me, ‘No, no I have seen this. There’s no surprise. You have to surprise me.”

I wish you health, knowledge, love for nature and people from all walks of life. And may life always spring up happy surprises for you.

I will wait for the day when you will grow up and read this blog and realize you have been a real wonderful and precious gift to all of us.

We love you deeply. Happy Birthday, Sarthak.

India and its privileged class

Most of India is standing. Standing in serpentine queues in front of banks. Even before the banks have opened their doors, people are standing in queues. All conversations are revolving around Rs 500/Rs 1000.. And then there are some well-fed, well-oiled, net-savvy Indians who genuinely believe that their story is the only story of this vast, diverse country. If I remember correctly, more than 60% of Indians don’t have bank accounts. Yet, there are privileged urban Indians who talk like this:

Why can’t people just use paytm?

(Hello, please make sure that your domestic help, vegetable vendor, garbage collector have access to paytm. It’s like Queen Marie telling ‘let them eat cake.’ )

I commute to work by uber. I have no problem in paying as the money gets automatically deducted from my net wallet.

(Thank you very much for sharing this STATE SECRET)

I just ordered some designer outfits online using my net-banking.

(You definitely deserve a Nobel prize for peace for this extraordinary charity act of yours.)

India should be just cashless. America is so cool in this case.

(Yes, my dear, thanks for having such a wonderful realistic vision of Indian society.)

All my friends are all net-savvy people.

(Yes, your friends are God’s gift to this ancient land called India).

To a large extent, privileges make most people blind. The challenge is to open your eyes and see life and people around you.

The tragedy of India is that one half has no idea of how the other half is living.

My little story of Rs 100

I have my little story of Rs 100. It was early 1980s, I was a school girl. We were living in Cuttack, a town in Orissa. My father was a professor of chemistry and we lived in a beautiful campus. Cuttack is famous for (among many other things) Bali Yatra. Bali Yatra is about a huge fair that is organised to celebrate the memory of Orissa’s brave-hearts who used to sail to Java, Sumatra and Bali (South-East Asia) eons ago for trade and commerce.  It is now part of our maritime history. As kids, we used to wait for days together to go this magical fair which had giant wheels, swings, stalls selling lip-smacking food, artisans selling indigenous crafts, clay toys, dolls and the like. It felt simply magical to be there.

These crowded fairs were also notorious for pick-pocketing. I had gone to the fair with my parents, sisters and an elder cousin too. My dad, as a safety measure, was  keeping his left hand on his shirt pocket which had his wallet and I was holding my father’s right hand and taking my measured steps.  While finding our way through the jostling crowds, in a nano-second somebody picked up my father’s wallet. And the wallet had Rs 100. My father lost his precious hard-earned money.

We all came back home with lots of disappointment.  I remember my mother didn’t eat her dinner that night as she was mourning the loss of Rs 100. I also remember my father urging her to eat her dinner as the money would not come back. But feeling of loss and logic don’t really go together. The memory of my father losing the Rs 100 note in the fair and my mother not eating her dinner has somehow always stayed with me. And somehow that memory of  my mother’s grief that night has always made me treat money with respect.  It gives a me a deep feeling of where I come from. And how I should sail through this world. Not succumbing to mindless consumption.  To respect what I have on my table.    

On November 8,  Indian Prime minister Narendra Modi told the nation that Rs 500 and Rs 1000 will cease  to be legal tender from the midnight. All hell broke loose on the virtual world. My phone kept on ringing, there were endless chats on whatsapp and the like. I sat in front of the television watching the press conference by the Economic Affairs Secretary (an articulate man). And then I sat down to take out the Rs 500, Rs 1000 notes from my wallet.

I have been privileged to have couple of  Rs 100/ 50/ 20 notes to sail through. To manage my daily expense. I am yet to stand in a queue to withdraw or exchange money. I stood in solidarity with one of my colleagues when she went to the bank to exchange money.

I have been extra cautious in my spending for the last three days.  At the same time, I must confess that I am privileged to have debit cards and access to net-banking (I have a credit card too but I don’t use it.) unlike many others in this vast, diverse country.

I want to push myself. I will wait for 2/3 days more. The Rs 100 notes in my wallet give me a kind of strength, pleasure and a deep sense of my roots too.

I wish that the banks will keep a separate line for senior citizens and differently able. That will make their lives a little better in these tough times.

 

A love note to Autumn

There’s something tender about autumn. It’s that season of the year when even betrayal feels sublime.

There’s an autumn within all of us. There’s a tenderness in all of us.

We just need to express the autumn within us.

Be tender, Be soft. Be mellow.

Like the sun outside my office window.

Life feels beautiful.

Autumn, my lover. Thank you.

I am happy to feel your tender presence in times of global warming.

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Three years after my mom died…

It has been exactly three years since I lost my mother. October 18, 2013 is still there in my mind/heart like a photograph. Sitting on my computer today, I am trying to tell you a story. My mother was a wonderful story-teller. I always coaxed her to tell me stories. Again and again. I never got bored of her stories. No one now tells me stories the way she used to.  In the absence of the story-teller, I become the story-teller. Here’s my story of our story.

Love makes you do strange things. Without any struggle. I have never used a handkerchief in my life. But for the last three years, I have always carried this beautiful handkerchief of my mother in my handbag. This soft, humble cotton handkerchief with a pashapali (it’s called so because it resembles a chess board) print reflecting Odisha’s magical textile heritage is my constant companion. My mother never stepped out of the house without her handkerchief. Now, I don’t step out of my house without this handkerchief. My mother travels with me wherever I go.

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Ma loved wearing glass bangles. One of my most vivid and beautiful childhood memories of her is watching her put glass bangles. Every now and then. The sight made my little eyes glow in awe. It made life colorful, magical and sensual. I now wear glass bangles to feel closer to her. I love the clinking of glass bangles as I keep on furiously typing on my computer. The sound makes me happy and comfortable..

glass-bangles

I have inherited some of the textile gems (especially Odisha’s ikkat saris) from her wardrobe. The smell, sight of her saris in my wardrobe brings in a slice of her life to embrace me. I love wrapping her sari around me. I feel as if our lives are entwined. Saris like memories have no  S, M, L, XL size. You just need to  wrap it around you with love. It never fails to amaze me how a nine yard cloth can hold so many years within it. So much of love and warmth.

Sari magic

Joy and sorrow are part of life. There’s a winter. There’s a spring too.

Grief breaks you. And grief also makes you. Grief makes you look deep within and discover something innately new and warm. To embrace newness, you need to be open in grief.  During the process of healing the broken pieces of my fractured soul, I have discovered the magic of Buddhism. On many evenings. I now sit quietly and listen to ‘Om Mani Padme hum’ even as light and shadow dance in a joyous mood in my home.  Last April, while travelling in Sikkim, a deep sense of peace and calmness embraced me as I just looked at the tiny prayer flags fluttering high in the air. Spinning prayer wheels at monasteries elevated my soul. The majestic  mountains with the cool, crisp air gave me an intimate feeling of being at my spiritual home. Somehow, it also made me feel that my mother must be happy wherever she is now. It felt as if I have made peace with my grief, loss. I could feel the rush of love in my blood. Even in the absence of a lover.

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My journey in the last 1096 days (2016 is a leap year)  has given me the gift of looking deep within. I now have little faith in this whole talk of rationality. Modern life is too obsessed with rationality/ rational mind. I believe, if you listen deeply to your voice within with a larger sense of love and compassion, you can actually feel the presence of those who have left you. The rational mind has not really explored the mettle of heart. When you listen deeply to your heart, you will find your own answers. There’s no need to be limited, fearful.

PS Needless to say, there’s a pleasure, joy in the physical world — the world of touch, smell, voice,  beauty, warmth,  sensuality. The physical world is deeply fascinating and it can be soul-elevating too. My mother’s absence in this physical world hurts me.  I terribly miss her physical presence in my life.  For years, my morning ritual was to make a phone call to her. Sometimes with my eyes half-closed. With traces of deep sleep defining my voice. I now miss making that phone call early in the morning.

I miss her food very much. In her absence, food just doesn’t taste the same now. I miss everything about her food – the texture, the color, the variety, the seasoning, the rich, delicious mutton curry with huge chunks of potatoes, finely sliced aubergines fried and then gently put in a bowl of thick curd (seasoned with mustard seeds, cumin seeds and curry leaf),  piping hot pakoras that could give tempuras a real tough competition,  potatoes cooked in a mixture of puppy seeds and green chillies, her signature dish of scrambled eggs cooked in mutton gravy and lots more.  I try to recreate her magic by pressing the rewind button my memory.  But, as they say, it’s not just the same.

 I really find it amazing to see how people around you maintain a stoic silence when you talk about a loved one who’s no more. People try to play with their hair, ear-rings, mobile phones when you talk about your memories of a loved one.  They smile uncomfortably, most of them look like  unhappy stock brokers.  To all those nervous, fearful souls, I would like to say, look higher, look within. it’s not about death.  It’s about love and more love.

We ruminate and savor memories of those only whom we love deeply.  So, join me today in celebrating memories of  togetherness, joy and love between a daughter-mother.  There are always love stories in the world to warm the cockles of your heart. 

Aren’t these flowers beautiful?  So, smile. Just smile.

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In mood for more Pink

I am not an Amitabh Bachchan fan.  I interviewed him some years ago and that was one of the rare celebrity interviews I have done in my 20 year career which took place dot on time. That act of punctuality was refreshing. After I finished the interview, when I came out of the room,. scores of people rushed towards me and asked me. “How was he?’ That was my glamour moment.

I had no intention to watch Pink. My friends suggested that I should watch it. I came up with the logic that you need not convert the already converted. What will Pink tell me  more?

I had a change of heart while having lunch in my office on a Monday. The day at work didn’t look menacing. It promised to end on a sweet, hassle-free note. It actually ended like that. So, there was I with my friend to watch Pink.

I am not here to review Pink. I don’t think I am qualified to be a film critic. I loved the three young women actors. They were smooth like silk in their craft.

Pink brought alive lots of dormant memories within me. Pink brought back the life I lived in Delhi in the 90s.  Pink made me miss my dear friend from Manipur with whom I shared an apartment in South Delhi. Pink made me relive the horrors of living the life of independent, working women in a highly masculine city like Delhi.

Pink made me think of all the men with whom I had some kind of relationship/friendship. Pink reminded me of a friend who laughed when I was recounting the horrors of being molested near my house. Pink reminded me of one of my high-brow friend’s statement, “You are such a nice person. Why are you sharing a house with this chinky girl? ” As if that was not enough, he added, “They all are so easily available.” (Never knew, women are products.)

It’s rather unfortunate that for the women of India, the mean streets are becoming more brutal. In the midst of all shining superpower talks, woman are being attacked, raped, murdered. A woman was brutally stabbed and murdered in broad daylight in Delhi on September 20.  Her only fault was she said, “NO” to her stalker.

I have three young nieces. I hope, they will have the power to say ‘NO’ and there will be young, liberated men in their lives who will respect that NO.

I am still feeling the ache of memories buried deep within me. Almost all my male friends are parents now. They all belong to the creamy layer of society. I am wondering how are they bringing up their sons? Are they teaching their sons about respecting consent in a relationship? Are they teaching their sons to help their mothers in clearing the tables after dinner? Are they teaching their daughters to fly high in the sky without worrying about the length of their skirts?

There’s a kind of dull pain in my heart.  I feel like writing a note to my Manipuri friend. I feel  like hugging her, sharing a drink with her and looking back at the years that have passed by. She lives now in Melbourne and I am missing her a lot now. I hope our travel plans materialize and we will be able to meet soon.

There’s something tender about art, poems, films and music. They make you go slow. They make you remember moments. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes not beautiful. But they make you remember.

Remembering is a beautiful art.

(The other day, I was having a conversation with my friend about SEO titles. She told me it’s a bad idea to put a film/song name in the headline. Well, I can’t think of anything else other than Pink)