Friday, September 29, 2017

For the love of Sarees

"Who took out clothes from my cupboard?" our mother's voice carried the threat of a severe telling off, perhaps even a whack.

Seema and I froze in our tracks, or more like in the act of finishing off a Social Studies or Science homework while sitting at the dining table.

We looked at each other like Scully looks at Mulder in X files: baffled and amazed at how did she know?

How did our mother know by just opening her cupboard door that we'd been in it? What are these extra terrestrial powers that our mother possesses? I often mulled over it but never cracked the mystery until I became a mother of children old enough to take things out of wardrobes and cupboards. Like a Ninja with extra sensory powers, I can suss out if my wardrobe has had a looking into by my children. Even if all they've done is opened the door and shut it--I know. How?

Mothers know. They just do.

"Switch on the light before you go blind in the dark." came the next missile from her room to our ears.

Her words bore evidence of her rising temper.

We knew our mother's temper and we didn't like to see it ever, but we often did. And that was that.

I pushed my chair back and flicked the white electric switch on. The tube-light blinked a couple of times before it decided to shed its light to us. We sat, Seema and I, in the fluorescent light, waiting for more missiles to reach us. We were nine/ten or ten/eleven years old at the time.

Evening Arati (prayers) sounded out on the loudspeaker of the temple near our house. It was Wednesday. The time was a little after seven pm. Less than an hour for Chitrahaar to start.

We had to be really, really good and really, really fast. We had to make sure we could watch TV at 8 without any of Mummy's daant dapkaar (telling off) interfering with our mid-week TV mazaa (joy).  She was really, really upset we'd messed up the neatly folded petticoats and blouses in her cupboard. We'll have to worry about the silk sarees which Seema and I had tried on and kept back in the trunk in the store room with extra care and precision, using the fold creases as guides, later. The cupboard situation had to be dealt with now before we lost the half an hour of TV magic--the only mid-weak television we were interested in when we were growing up. No, we never complained about our limited viewing options. We felt privileged to enjoy this mid-week treat.

Too many choices make us whiny.

"Mummy, shall I make the rotis now or when Daddy comes?" One of us extended the olive branch.

Our mother kept a very clean and tidy house and even cleaner and tidier cupboards. Any infringement upon her neat and tidy kingdom was dealt with appropriately: i.e. severe telling off while the songs of Chitrahaar were on. She never took away our TV privileges. Funny! Perhaps it never occurred to her.

We were her obedient and submissive subjects. We, too, liked to keep the house in order and our cupboards tidy. But we also liked to raid her cupboards and trunks and try out her sarees when she left us home alone to go to the market or to visit friends and family. But we always put everything back as neatly and as precisely when we were done dressing up. How she figured out our trespasses when she got back home was a mystery to us.

Our saree soiree would start as soon as we heard the clink of metal on metal--metal latch closing shut on metal gate--announcing Mummy's departure. Safe and free for a couple of hours, we'd pull out a couple of her sarees and start. Sometimes, when there wasn't much time, we'd forgo the petticoat and just tie a naada (drawstring) around our waists and start tucking.

We had a few favourites: the Coca-Cola Banarsi silk with silver butis (flowers) and a silver woven border, the Grass Green Japani (I don't know what the fabric was, but we knew it as Mummy's Japani saree) with white leaves embroidered into it, the Yolk Yellow silk with a hand painted border and my absolute favourite--the Multi-Coloured Chiffon with Sequins. That saree had the potential to zap me into a princess. "One day soon, the people of my kingdom will come looking for me and plead for me to come back."
Fantasy?
No. Simply, saree magic.

We would lose ourselves in her sarees. Time would stand still and evaporate suddenly. Like a sparkle of sun on still water, we'd be mesmerized by her sarees and just like that--in a blink of a sparkle--it would be time to wrap up: tidy away all evidence and resume whatever we were doing before the interlude so that when Mummy got back home, she'd think we had been doing homework etc. for all the time she'd been away.

The mistake we had made on this occasion was that we'd forgotten it was Chitrahaar day, so there was no time for her to cool down! Lesson learnt for future raids.
Sarees are time machines.

Every time I drape a saree, the exact moment of its purchase, the place I bought it at or the person who gave it to me as a present or bought it for me, emerges like a pattern. It wraps me in its threads of memories and the feelings I'd experienced that first time I'd laid my eyes on it: thrill, joy, love cocoon me for the rest of the day. Ask any saree lover. They'll tell you.

Yes, a saree is a time machine: soft as cotton, smooth as silk, fluid and graceful and liberating and yet holding within its folds that first moment in time when humans created a piece of cloth to drape their bodies. A saree is, after all, just a piece of un-stitched cloth.
Sungudi sarees drying on parched Vaigai in Madurai
The year was 1992. I was twenty-one and poor, trying to make ends meet. I had graduated from Delhi University less than a year ago.

I'd found a job. A good job with a poor salary.

British Airways (India) was holding a long drawn selection process to interview, re-interview fresh graduates for employment. I had applied. If I got the job, my salary would multiply by four! I'd become non-poor. I was very excited. But BA's selection process was never ending: it had taken eight months already.

Currently, my meager salary covered the rent (as that had to be paid at the start of the month) but ran out before the month was over. So food bills dwindled to basic bread and milk for the last week of every month.

My friends'  homes became my weekend refuge where their mothers would feed me yummy home cooked (Punjabi or Kannada) food at the weekends. I wasn't starving but I didn't have the extra cash to source a new outfit for each new round of interview/group discussion BA (India) deemed necessary for us to clear just so we could prove our worth. This was India in the early nineties. It wasn't easy to find a well paid job as a graduate. It's even harder now.

Every round I cleared seemed like a miracle. I dared to dream of having enough money to eat well on all the days of the month.

Then I received a letter informing me that I had one LAST interview to attend. The panel would consist of BA's top shots.

I had to dress to impress. My work wardrobe of khaadi kurtas and jeans wouldn't work. I had manged to buy a really lovely indigo salwaar kameez in Kamla Nagar from a pataree waalla (sidewalk hawker) for 120 rupees for my previous interview. AND it had worked. They wanted me back for another interview. BUT, I had no more money to spare.

I was at Anu's house the weekend after I received the letter and I was, as usual, trying to figure out what to do. Perhaps, borrow a saree from aunty (her mother). I had borrowed a gorgeous Mysore Silk from Asha's mother a few months ago for a preliminary round of interview. Borrowing was certainly an option. Things always have a way of working out.

"Tu chal mere naal." You come with me, said Anu's mom.

"Kahan?" I asked.

Aunty was already at the door.

"Bachhee ka interview hai--achchee see saree mein jayegee, aisi thoina bhejoongi apnee betee ko."
My child has an interview. She has to go looking her best. She's my daughter after all.
Said aunty as she pulled at the glass door of the handloom shop in Karol Bagh.

She chose a beautiful Carrot Pink (gaajjaree) Bengal cotton saree for me. She bought blouse material from a tiny shop nearby and lent me her petticoat.

Anu and I were in college together. Aunty (Anu's mom) was an educator and a widowed mother who had to manage her finances very, very carefully to ensure her three children got the best education India had to offer. She didn't have spare cash lying around. She had an extremely generous heart.

Aunty died after a long period of Alzeihmers' a few years ago. In the busyness of career and children, I didn't visit her as often as I should have.

But, even today, her saree wraps me in her warmth. I can see her twinkling eyes and taste the gobhi ke paranthe she used to make on Sunday mornings. The time machine of her saree takes me back to Karol Bagh in 1992 and I can hear her throaty chuckle as clearly as the day she paid the bill for a pink Bengal cotton so that I could go for an interview feeling my best.
******
I'd love to hear your favourite saree/garment  memories. So, If you're willing to, please share. And I'll share images of these beautiful women I've had the pleasure of exchanging smiles, laughs and stories with on my recent travels in India.
She hitch-hiked a (bullock cart) ride with us in Tanjavore.
She'd worked all day at a construction site and was making her way back home.
It's a hard life. She works to support her children so that they can get a good education.
And still she smiles.
Ma Saraswati drapes her favourite white and plays the veena in Brihadeeswarar temple, Tanjavore.
Rural folk don't waste time. They are quick to smile and even quicker to talk to you. And this group of ladies (from Andhra Pradesh on a pilgrimage to Brihadeeswarar) demanded that I take their pictures and show them the results on the display screen. 
"Stand straight!" I felt that's what was being said by the leader--I wouldn't know. 
I don't understand Telugu.
I was just very, very happy to follow instructions:)
Don't miss the little fellow on the right...how adorable is he?
They drew me into their smiles and colours and as I type this, I beam with the memory of those moments shared with strangers. 
Strangers?
Such a pretentious word that is.
Connected. All of us. Just open up and see.
 Anklets and Kasavu (a traditional off white cotton saree from Kerala--with a gold border)
Madras check and jasmine in hair.
Marwari ladies who've adopted Tamil Nadu as their home and speak fluent Tamil.
I asked and they agreed to be photographed.
Meenakshi Temple, Madurai.
The year 2017 started with a trip to Kutchch and it continues to colour me in all shades of India. I'm loving it and for the sake of saree lovers among you, I will put a post together about where-to-shop-for-sarees-in-India, soon. 
And while the weaver dreams of new patterns to weave on his loom...
I'd like to wish you all a life full of colour and warmth and light and love.
And as we celebrate Shakti,
I pray:
 May all of our days be Dusshera.
And all our moments reminders:
of the victory of good over evil,
of humanity
and 
of peace.
Thank you to all the goddesses who've been my life's blessings.
Photos taken at Dakshin Chitra, Chennai.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Paddy Homestay is my kind of paradise.

"People think of heaven as a paradise garden, a place where they can float on clouds and laze in rivers and mountains. But scenery without solace is meaningless."
says Mitch Albom in his book:
the five people you meet in Heaven

Swinging in a hammock which is tied to two tall and curvy coconut trees, under the canopy of dappled sunshine and lush green palm leaves, I re-read the last line. Something about solace strikes a chord. I underline it and read it again. Dipping in and out of slumber and wakefulness to the rhythm of the hammock and the balmy breeze, I ponder on the line with my eyes closed. The book rests on my belly; its covers closing slowly, almost in slow motion over the pink pencil I had used to underline solace, like heavy eyelids, simultaneously open and shut, awake and asleep, rising and falling, keeping pace with my breathing.

I am in paradise. Paddy paradise. Imagine a  place where:
A lush green field of paddy stretches as far as the eye can see. Fresh coffee is made with milk that is milked on site, by hand, in a bucket, by the farm hand while the happy cow munches on fodder in an open spot outside the kitchen. Warm fluffy rice is served with hot sambhar and vegetables. Yes, the rice is from the paddy field I'm currently in and the raw banana subzi I've asked a second helping of has come from the banana tree I was taking pictures of just this morning.
The banana that became subzi.
This is Heaven. But is it because I've found my solace or has the scenery around me put me in this state?

I guess it's like night and day, like light and shadow, this business of solace and scenery. One is needed to notice the other. A beautiful scene has no meaning if one's drowning in one's inner turmoil. A hungry belly needs food, not scenery. I get it.
But, is solace possible without scenery?
Can a peaceful mind find its paradise in a noisy, busy, dirty place? I'm sure some people who've found their zen can. But I'm not there yet. I need peace and quiet before I can sit and meditate or do yoga or read a book or cook or even do the dishes. I often listen to music while doing the chores. Even the walls of the house seem to relax when the notes start to float. Am I escaping the reality of dirty dishes in Sufi-land or am I orchestrating the notes of my scenery to arrange my solace?

Is this a form of escapism? Or is it a simple act of marrying the mundane with music so that if in the middle of the washing, one spots a rainbow, one dips into it first and then carries on with what needs to be done. To me, it's being in the moment, every moment: noticing it, accepting it, living it. If a few notes sung by Ustad Shujaat Husain Khan make the soap suds in my kitchen sink sparkle with colour, then why not?

Moments are the atoms memories are made up of.

And memories are the cells that make up life. Some parts of us remember love, our mother's cooking, the feel of that first kiss. Other parts remember the road back home, the bills that need to be paid. And then there's the part (the heart or the soul or whatever you want to call it) that remembers that this is a journey, that we are all finding our way--inching towards the destination that is our origin.
A simple act of making the bed in the morning or stepping out into the garden, or even looking out of the kitchen window and watching a bird flit from one branch to another, can make a big difference.
"Beauty surrounds us; but usually we need to be walking in a garden to know it."
~Rumi~
Maybe, one day, while tending my plants I will dig into Rumi's words and loose all that I think I am. Maybe then I won't need to walk on green grass. But until then, I will continue to listen to music, stare at flowers for too long, hug my friends and kiss my family and cuddle in bed with a delicious book and create my own pool of paradise. And every now and then, I shall travel and seek out scenery that soothes for the world is beautiful and bountiful and I have finite number of days on this planet.
I open my eyes, hold the edge of the hammock to hoist myself up, swing my legs down to get up. The pink pencil escapes the book and drops softly on the red earth below. I pick it up and make my way to our room at Paddy Homestay--a slice of paradise in fields of paddy, cocooned in a grove of coconut palm trees.
Paddy Homestay came up on my screen when I was googling for a 'place to stay in Tanjavore'.  I clicked the link to its website. One look and a few review readings later,  I knew I'd found something special. 

What Ambika and I experienced while we stayed there was beyond any holiday experience. It was like visiting family (a loving and caring family). Thiru, Arul and their beautiful family made our three days in Tanjavore a precious memory to hold and to cherish. Their hospitality is that rare mix of efficiency, homeliness and love for their land that when you return home, you want to make plans to visit them again--soon.

One of the highlights of the stay was a bullock cart ride from the homestay to a village of potters and a popular temple nearby. 

Are you ready for some scenery? For a bumpy ride down a beautiful road in Tamil Nadu?

The sun is on its way to set.

Come on then. Climb up, hold on to the side rails--careful there!

All set? Let's go.
Children coming back from school and some going for evening classes.


The pots get a knocking with a wooden spoon to beat them into shape.
Patterns and prints are added with carved wooden bits.


The potter's children had come from school and were about to settle down to do their homework.
The two pots the smiley potter is holding came all the way with me to Doha:)
"You ride." says the bullock cart rider to me.
I obey.
I'm absolutely thrilled that he's offering me to take over and absolutely petrified when I do take over and feel the power of the animals travel from them to me via the reins I'm holding gingerly.
The bulls don't look too impressed, right?
Photo courtesy: Ambika
We park at the temple.
My legs are shaking a tiny bit but I'm grinning like a teenager who's just had his first taste of driving a car!

Setting sun. Stretching shadows.


Thank you Thiru and Arul for everything:)
*********
Looking at all the pictures above, you may think that such a place exists only in the lens of a camera held by a photographer who chooses to see what pleases the eye and ignores the 'reality' of life. Yes, I'd agree with you. 

There are serious problems that the farmers and potters of this region face. Almost all of their problems (economic and ecological) are the direct result of indiscriminate exploitation of land for farming, deforestation and ignorance of the people who make policies or even the ones who don't but who despite getting an education, prefer to ignore how big an impact big and small decisions made by individuals and governments have on the day to day lives of rural Indians.

"Oh! how sad that they've started using plastic here." I comment perched on my green urban high horse.

"Chinese stuff!" adds Ambika.

"Why?" she asks the potters.

"The wells nearby have dried up. We have to travel six to ten kilometers to fetch water. Plastic is lighter. It's easier." comes the matter-of-fact reply.

Our city- dwelling -preaching -green- to- the -farmers selves nod our understanding.
Plastic vessels have replaced traditional brass and terracotta ones because the villagers have to travel longer distances to fetch water. Pipes are being drilled deeper and deeper every year to try and reach the depleting water levels.

Men continue to beat their wives and scavenge off them to feed their alcoholism. And women continue to work as labourers on fields and construction sites to feed and educate their children. Ambika and I came across such stories in the three days we were there. 

Yes, I choose to capture the light, for the dark was, is and will continue to exist along side the light.

Solace is personal. Scenery is public. Scenery is our responsibility, a debt we owe our planet, a promise we must keep for our children and their children.

Can there be solace without scenery?

Commenting on the idea of heaven, Sadhguru, in one of his videos, asked, "How do you know you're not in Heaven already and you're spoiling it?"

This trip to rural Tamil Nadu couldn't have come at a better time. #RallyforRivers is the wake up call we all need to remind ourselves that if we want our children and their children to listen to birdsong, swing in hammocks in coconut groves or drink coffee made with fresh milk or simply eat fresh food and drink clean water, then we must do what needs to be done--NOW!
video

Back in Doha, I unpack the tangible memories I've brought home with me. The terracotta pot I'd so lovingly carried as cabin baggage has succumbed to the stresses of air travel. A hole gapes back at me from the bottom when I unwrap it.

"Where there's a will, there's a way." my mother used to say:)

It's been given a new role. We may not store water in it (as was planned when I bought it) but its earthy fragrance (saundhi khushboo) will remind me of the beautiful people of Tanjavore and their warmth whenever I water the plant that sits in it.
Have a lovely weekend.
And please support the farmers who feed us.

Friday, August 25, 2017

A Chennai full of stories.

Can you recall the first stories you were told? Did they come from books or from hearts? Were you tucked in bed or sat on a lap? Was it on cold winter nights or on warm summer days?
Almost all of my first stories spring from my grandparents: Beji and Papaji and a couple from my father. A mismatched collection of Krishna's antics, Rama's principles, the  horrors of 1947 partition, the sweetness of the fruit that grew in their garden in Shinkiari in North West Frontier (which is now in Pakistan) mixed with faint memories of Beji when as a little girl, she visited the tall Buddhas of Bamiyan (which are no more) when someone in her family either took her with them or told her stories of the tall Buddhas. She couldn't remember but spoke as if she'd been there herself. Maybe she'd travelled in the descriptions she'd heard.

Stories hold that power: the power to transport you in time and space, in memory and in sense, in smell and in taste, in touch and and in feelings. Stories are like the threads of a tassel that bind us together as a family, a community, a country, a people, a history, a nation, a race and humanity. Stories trickle down traditions, read across pages of epics and race down memories. They escape lips and sound out what we know has always existed within us as carriers of this cosmos, but love to be reminded of our place, our destinies, our heritage and our aspirations anyhow.

The distance between birth and death is as long as a story.

But don't be fooled into thinking that your story is separate from mine or that each one of us can package our own individual story in a neat little box and tuck it away. No, sir. Our stories are all tangled together, entwined and connected. We may be bouncing in our own private orbits and we may think that what we see and experience is unique to us and doesn't effect others, or vice versa, but in the end the trampoline of cosmos we're bouncing on is the same for all of us. Our actions send out ripples that go on and on--so it is important that we pay close attention to how we conduct our lives.

I digress. Sorry. So to Chennai...
Last month, on an early morning walk in Doha, Ambika mentioned that she'd be travelling to Chennai for work. 

She's a friend and a surgeon and she'd been asked to lecture/conduct workshops etc. at Chennai, Madurai and Tanjavore.

"Can I tag along?" I asked shamelessly. The cities she had just mentioned have been on my ever growing bucket list and I couldn't resist this opportunity.

"Of course."

The flights looked okay. That was that. I plunged into research to ensure my Tamil Nadu adventure would be a fruitful one.

Friends who live locally were contacted. Google was put in top gear.

I kept Dr. A informed of  the itinerary that was taking shape. She's a busy surgeon with just enough time to sleep at night. I'm a self professed traveller living off of my husband's salary, who can even take afternoon naps. 

"It sounds like Thelma and Loiuse." texted Ambika one day after I'd found a great home-stay off the beaten track.

"I like Ambika and Arti better." I texted back.

"Besides, I'm not planning to end like Thelma and Louise--not done with my travelling yet." I thought to myself. I didn't type that.

Instead, smiley emojis were exchanged. Bags were packed, flight boarded and we were off.

Thanks to a recommendation sent by Shefalii of Photoconcierge, we started our Chennai adventure with a walking tour conducted by Akila Raman of Story Trails

Trust me, you've got to experience it to know how amazing it is. We started at 4 pm and ended at 7.  I can honestly say that those were the best 3 hours of magic I've ever experienced. Akila's passion for the place, her knowledge and her melodious voice all came together to take us on a journey that started on a hot July afternoon is bustling Mylapore in 2017 and after meandering through stories of Shiva, Parvati and their two sons and the one about the treaty signed by the Muslim kings who own the land on which sits the temple tank as well as the one about the pink saree that Mother Mary is adorned with at Mylapore Church, it ended with a strong cup of filter coffee and dosa. If I ever have a chance to visit Chennai again, any tour by Akila will be the first thing I'll put on my itinerary.

I'll let the story tellers do what they do best, tell stories with words. And I'll do what I like to do-- share pictures of an afternoon bursting with so many wonderful stories told with such skill that I didn't feel like an audience. I felt like I used to when as a little girl I would sit by my Beji on her clean kitchen floor and listen. I used to enter the portal of time and space opened by her and watch Kanha steal butter. As if by magic, I'd become a character in them--albeit a silent one. That's exactly how I felt that afternoon in Chennai. Thank you Akila and thank you Shefalii.
Spiritual pondering inside Kapaleeshwara temple:



Why did the chicken cross the road?
To enter the temple.
 Preparing for a festival. Story telling through dance and drama and all the colourful props.

Shakti worships Shiva. Yes, she's the peacock...it all links back to ancient texts and legends--stories as old as humanity.
Parvati and Shiva temples are adorned with red and white stripes. 
Perhaps, like the lingams, the colours hint at  the feminine and masculine energies of the universe.
Why do people whisper in Nandi's ear? 
Because he has the power to reach Shiva even if the latter is in the deepest meditative state.
And I thought secretaries are a modern invention!
Legends and beliefs aside, I whispered a little prayer of my own. 
If and when it comes true, I will let you know.
Akila with her audience:)
By the time we stepped out of the temple, the hot sun had decided to descend. 
The temple tank
The setting sun lights up the houses opposite the tank.
We had the privilege of entering the temple priest's house with Akila.
The shots that follow are from inside his home.
9 yards of silk and brocade hangs in the courtyard:

Earth can yield--lamps, bricks, pillars and slabs--same source but such different lives.
 Street food: served with love.
 The beautiful church in Mylapore.
It was built on the tomb of Saint Thomas and is known as San Thome Basilica.
It is a Roman Catholic minor basilica
Mary in pink.
I saw this rose on the floor of the temple priest's house and wondered how it got there?
Was it in a garland?
Was a woman wearing it in her hair?
Did someone leave it there on purpose?
And just like that, a story started taking shape.
That's how easy they are--these stories of our lives.
But remember this: we are the authors of our stories--no one else. It's only us. Always us.
And if we choose to play the victim, then it's our choice.
For my part, I choose to be the hero of my story--every time--
no matter what drama is unfolding around me.

What about you?
What's your story looking like this morning?