The Changing Face of My Wardrobe

My mother was my first fashion designer. Pictures from my childhood show me in clothes designed and stitched by her, which meant readymade clothes were a rarity. As someone extremely passionate about stitching, my mother tailored frocks to skirts to fancy looking tops in a wide variety of colours and fabrics on her black-coloured Merritt sewing machine first and later, the more sophisticated motor-enabled, white-coloured Singer ‘Fashion Designer’, on which she would do some great machine embroidery too. I still remember she experimented and came up with one of her first machine embroideries on a purple-coloured kameez of a salwar-kameez set she designed for me for Deepavali when I was a child. She would do some fabulous hand-embroidery too back then – from chain stitch to back stitch to cross stitch to satin stitch. Her books on tailoring and embroidery (published by Readers Digest) which were probably her very first purchases after she got married, still sit proudly and prettily on the bookshelf at my parents’ home.

Over the years though, especially after I moved out of home to do my graduation, the approach to doing my clothes changed. My mother and I would trip down to some popular stores located in Pondy Bazaar and Ranganathan Street, the shopping hubs of Madras. We would buy dress materials and get them stitched from a tailor. This was also the time we learnt what it is to chase down the tailor to deliver your stitched clothes on time –  a tailor delivering clothes on the promised date was by and large, a myth! Given my lean frame, it was quite hard to find the perfect-fitting readymade clothes, making stitched salwar kameez the only viable alternative. Every time I would come down home for vacation, I would return to college with a set of three to five new stitched clothes, doing my best not to repeat colours and choosing interesting shades from the available variety. College also meant getting into the sari mode for various occasions. That of course meant picking the best of my mother’s saris and getting blouses stitched to my size.

When I began working, earning power bestowed buying power. If there were two things I really spent my stipends or salaries on, they were books and clothes plus accessories. I had (and still have) a big weakness for finely designed handbags and jewellery. As a student interning in a chip-designing company in Pune, weekends meant heading unfailingly to the ever-bustling Lakshmi market, shopping for salwar-kameez materials and tops from small shops that would entice a prospective customer by displaying their fare on mannequins placed near the entrance of the shop. It also meant shopping for handbags from roadside shops that always made me wonder how the sellers managed to stock up so much material within such small spaces!

When I began working full-time, I was lucky to have worked in two cities that are quite the hubs of fashion. Bangalore and Bombay. When in Bangalore, shopping meant heading to Brigade Road, MG Road or Jayanagar. Malls weren’t still an in-thing back then. In Bombay, it meant heading to Colaba or Bandra for proper roadside shopping! This was also the time my fashion sense expanded. Jeans, formal and casual trousers, tops and skirts began making their way into my wardrobe. I could afford shopping for designer labels now and then, and it was around this time I turned a Fabindia loyalist.

A lot has changed about my sense of fashion and dressing over the years. If I have something to thank for this, it’s the fashion industry that has opened up tremendously and the thriving e-commerce scene that has thrown the doors open to a whole lot of possibilities. I now experiment more with colours too, not always sticking to the traditional greens, reds, blues and browns. Clothes these days come in such exciting colours, a wide range of sizes and the designs are demonstrative of highly-evolved creativity. I am a die-hard online shopper for clothes now and I love keeping track of trends in fashion. The fashion that defines me still tends to be largely Indian and traditional. I love flamboyant anarkalis paired with leggings or churidhar and plain kurtis paired with printed Patiala pants and dupattas. I match up jeans with kurtas or kurtis that spell minimalism and spruce up the look with an ethnic stole. I love wearing long cotton skirts with a lot of flare. I stick to cotton for everyday wear and for special occasions, switch to the rustic look that only a Tussar silk or silk cotton fabric can bring to your attire.

My love for saris remains unabated and in fact, continues to grow exponentially. Cotton sarees are my favourite for the simplicity, sophistication and elegance they bring to my everyday wardrobe.  For the special moments, there are the all-time favourite silks and silk cottons. Among my picks for cotton, I am head over heels in love with the Chettinad Cotton. The colour palette on offer when it comes to Chettinad Cotton saris is mind blowing. The motifs that range from flowers, to annapakshi to peacocks to elephants to swastiks to rudraksha to temple design to the archaic mayilkann is a true sari lover’s delight! Their affordable pricing plus the ease of shopping for them online are a bonus! What’s more, the fact that there’s the creative space to experiment on the pairing blouse, usually a printed one, makes engaging with the sari an exciting affair. Choose between the Ajrakh or Kalamkari or Ikkat fabric to stitch up a high-neck, long sleeved blouse or go for a Chinese collared variant or do up a crop top and drape the six-yard elegance around you to make heads turn! Match it up with the ever-elegant Terracotta earrings and neckpieces or black metal jewellery to complete the look. There, I have grown to the point of offering decent fashion tips!

For all the designing talent that my mother possesses, it’s a little unfortunate that I have not inherited the patience and skill to tailor my own clothes. Even today, every now and then, she would fondly admonish me to be in touch with some basic skills – like sewing a button back in its place or doing a bit of hemming. But I continue to be adamantly lazy. I suppose what I have inherited is a taste for picking clothes. So as much as I understand the need to declutter, it remains hard for me to take my eyes off splendidly designed apparel. I wouldn’t mind asking someone who’s willing to buy me a birthday gift, for a new wardrobe. There, I said it. Now that’s some serious internal conflict for someone who has religiously purchased an e-book version of Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”! But what do I do? I seem to be fashion-tied! And looks like I’m going to be, for a while…

Anna & Betty

Anna has been keenly studying the photograph in her hand for about fifteen minutes now. She is surprised at how new it looks inspite of the fifty years that has lapsed between the time it was clicked and now. The photograph had been a chance discovery. It had fallen, quite cinematically, from between the pages of one of the books that Anna inherited from her bookworm mother upon her death.

The books, about five hundred in number, have remained her biggest dilemma in a long time. At fifty five, she had been bogged down by bigger problems in life but she somehow finds this alternating between choosing to keep the books and donating them to a library or discarding them, terribly unsettling. On the one hand she thinks it would be unfair on her part to give away the books on whose every single page lay invisibly, the impressions of her dear mother’s touch. On the other, she often mulls sadly over the futility of holding on to things in the name of memories.

In that moment pregnant with the indecisiveness that periodically haunts her, Anna flips the photograph over and finds her mother’s neat handwriting in green ink. “A moment of childish happiness: Anna and Betty sharing a warm joke. Giggling girls indeed. Dated 20th June 1975”. Betty. Betty, Anna thinks again, as she peers into the face of the little girl beside her own little self. Betty, her first best friend, is all but a vague memory now. Like all things that flow, Betty had moved away too from England to the U.S., and Anna remembers this because the memories of her older years have no trace of Betty. Whatever she can recall of Betty is what her mother had told her as she grew up. You know you and Betty poured an entire bucket of water over poor Rosso, your little brown teddy bear, Anna’s mother told her once, laughing a little. And she told her many more such tales of mischief with her little friend, events that Anna had no memory of.

Anna smiles a little when she thinks of how her mother would scribble little memory notes behind all photographs, in an effort to preserve moments timelessly. After all, photographs were such a rarity back then, unlike now when every damn event, however insignificant, finds a place in a mobile phone’s camera roll – something that Anna finds clearly annoying.

There are many thoughts criss-crossing each other in Anna’s mind. Her forehead creases in interesting patterns reflecting her thought process, following sincerely and meticulously the various emotions raging in her head: Curiosity, Longing, Regret, Realisation. She tries hard to recall what she and her dear friend were laughing about. She wishes deeply that her writer-mother had added a few lines about what the two little girls were talking about. Despite the restlessness that seizes her heart as she tries to demystify a conversation from fifty years back she has no clue about, she can’t help but admire her mother’s artistic eye. The way she has composed the shot, Anna thinks, is so beautiful. She imagines that her mother perhaps decided to not be an intruder and disturb the moment of childish innocence and union but capture its uniqueness, timeliness and essence by staying the non-invasive outsider.

It’s hard for Anna to think of herself as a child that she even wonders if she could have ever been one. Life, with its whole bundle of experiences and challenges, Anna thinks, leads to one feeling like a solid, inert mass of flesh, and wondering helplessly what it would have been like to be a little human being throbbing with life and freshness. She suddenly feels like letting out a huge wail as she yearns to be a child and go back to living life all over again. She would then undo so many, so many things! But wail she doesn’t, for her age forcibly clamps down on her, a reminder to maintain her decorum, and therefore, she weeps, quietly.

Where would be Betty be now, Anna wonders next. What would she be doing this very moment? Would she remember Anna, her first childhood friend? What would life have given Betty in all these intervening years? Would she have lived through a similar set of experiences like Anna had? High school, college, love, marriage, kids, career, divorce in that twisted hell of a thing called life. Would she too have peaked with confidence and fallen to the lowest levels of self-esteem at various times? Would she too have longed for that soul mate of a friend during times of distress? Would she be like those self-confident women who put themselves above everything and everyone else? Or would she have turned out to be a woman who was trampled by the reckless forces of patriarchy? And then Anna wonders how Betty would look now. All grey-haired and wrinkled, ageing gracefully? Or would she be a picture of someone worn down by the brutality of existence? And lastly, with a tinge of fear and anxiety, Anna asks herself the worst question: Would Betty be alive at all?

As Anna, with a head full of thoughts, draws a deep breath and looks back at the picture, a short and round woman turns restlessly about in her petite bed in another part of the world. In her dreams, she sees a woman in a black dress holding a photograph in which there are two little girls giggling. Betty sees herself and the other girl, and in her sleep, her lips part to utter a name. Anna. Anna, she says again, now with her eyes slightly open. A smile punctuates that utterance and Betty falls asleep again. Elsewhere, Anna puts the picture back into its place between the pages again and postpones the decision over her mother’s books to another day. That, she thinks, can wait. For some more time.

My Amma’s Rasam

When I was a school-goer,
after I had stuffed all books
and notebooks into my bag
and pushed the soul-puncturing
inertia to the back of my mind,
getting ready to leave for school,
the aroma of rasam,
my amma’s rasam
would come wafting into
the room, from the kitchen…

Its heavenly fragrance, so enticing,
and uplifting, would soon fill
every corner of our little home,
raising our spirits magically.
A perfect amalgamation of tangy
tamarind water, tomato puree,
salt and asafoetida, and a sprinkling
of fresh green coriander and curry leaves,
bubbling poetically on a medium flame…
(but) that’s not all that makes
amma’s rasam, the magical potion that it is.

It’s the rasa-podi, as we fondly
call, the mustard-coloured powder
that amma would meticulously
Get ground by mixing right amounts
Of Toor dal, Dhaniya and red chillies.
“Amma, you should patent this rasa-podi
recipe,” I often tell her for, amma’s rasam,
with her signature kai-maNam*
Is unmatched in its alluring taste and aroma.
And, from aunts and uncles to cousins,
from appa’s colleagues to Sister’s friends and
mine too, it has had fans far too many!

So much for one rasam, you may think,
but my amma’s rasam is my comfort food
that I’d run back to during college vacations
or when I was working, and still do.
My amma’s rasam is a warm hug,
it’s my tangy connection to my past.
It’s my companion in my journey of growing up,
the epitome of my childhood nostalgia.
It’s my idea of belonging –
Of my feeling and being
At home.

* A Tamil phrase used to describe the unique, personal touch that one brings to food that he/she cooks, giving it a distinct taste

Pic by https://www.flickr.com/photos/glassofhoney/

The Hope Seekers and a Storyteller

They call me the teller of stories, a blessed and extraordinary one in fact. I come from a strong lineage of oral storytellers.  I began telling tales when I was 18. I am 50 now. And I still am going on. I feed hope into people’s minds through personally-crafted stories, tailor-made for every person. I’ll tell you how it works. They, the hope seekers, as I call them, wait in long queues outside my humble hut (that I have fondly christened the Storyteller’s Hut) and sit across me to share their fears and worries. In the pale glow of a candle and among cups of tea, I listen to them with my eyes closed, trying to understand the extent of hope that I should feed them, wrapped like a gift inside my stories.

I am sure you want to ask me: Now, aren’t you actually filling people’s hearts and minds with false hope? You see, that’s the beauty. My words, my stories come true. I am just a point they are meant to cross in their journey to their destiny. I am the agent of hope meant to correct the course of their life. I happen only in the lives of people I am meant to happen.

Once, there was this lady who came over. Pregnant again after three miscarriages, she was filled with fear that the fourth one would meet the same fate. I believe there’s a reason why she came to me only the fourth time.  My story of hope for her came almost immediately to my lips. I told her of a woman and her husband having a beautiful conversation about the dreams for their child once she tells him she is pregnant. That’s the first time and they are full of hope and joy. But then it wasn’t meant to be. Then it happened again. And again. By the fourth time, she didn’t even tell him, this woman in my story. Her heart went dry with fear and hopelessness. She visited the gynaecologist like it was some drab routine. After a check, she asked, her heart pounding loud, “Doctor, heartbeat?” The doctor smiled and uttered the magical words “Yes. All good.” The woman before me wept when I finished the story. A year later, she brought her beautiful little daughter to meet me.

Another time, a middle-aged man who had lost his wife and son (and his own legs) in an accident visited my hut. I weaved the story of a man who lost his family in a freak accident and who himself went into coma for a period of three months. When the man in my story woke up, his mind and heart exploded with helplessness on realising that his family had passed and he stood all alone, like a lonely tree stump in a scathingly hot desert. The desert called life. He wept for days together consumed by the memories of his wife, son and daughter – their precious faces and their priceless laughter echoing endlessly in the dark chambers of his mind. It took him months of silence and retrospection to understand that his life and recovery were miracles…gifts, not meant to be wasted away brooding. So one evening, as he sat pensively looking at dark clouds gathering outside his window, he decided he would bring a purpose to his life and revived his passion for music. The man who listened to his hope story with his head bent down as I spoke, eventually looked up at me. And when he did, I saw a flicker of hope in his eyes. This hope-seeker now finds peace in teaching music to children.

From young students to lovelorn young men and women to people worn down by age, I have seen them all. To those fearing examinations, I have infused hope and said evaluations aren’t the end of the world. To men and women who were deeply in love, only that it wasn’t reciprocated, I have told them stories of coming together. For old men and women who haven’t seen their children and grandchildren in years, I have told them that an instant recognition and an affectionate hug from a grandchild is a sign of hope. And for all those fearing death, I have told stories giving them the hope that death is not an end, but a journey, an escape from the material world if you want to think of it so.  You know, that’s the thing with stories. Stories make the hardest of truths and realities accessible to a listener. Stories make life more discernible, approachable and relatable. Stories are containers of human hope.

These days there’s so much horror everywhere. Terror. Racism. Caste-driven crimes. Crimes against women. Children’s safety issues. Climate change. Environmental problems. Materialism. Disease. Hunger. Poverty. People have incessantly asked me what world are we leaving for our children. What’s the hope for humans? Are we collectively hurtling towards disaster? Their questions are filled with dread. I do my best to alleviate their pain and fear. I tell them stories of what I believe are the only ways forward in these difficult times: love, solidarity, understanding and right action. And now, more than ever, I hope the stories taking birth inside the storyteller’s hut will come true. For the sake of the world. For the sake of humankind.

You, Me, Love & Questions

Who are you? And where are you?

Are there a million ways to fall in love with you? Or just one? Or none at all?

Would you be the one with expressive brown eyes that flit rhythmically behind that book you hold in your hands?

Would you be the one whose reflection I get a momentary glimpse of, on the window panes of a store?

Would you be the captivating face that I encounter on a street on an ordinary day?

Would my falling in love with you be compressed into one epiphanic moment?

Or would it be an experience that evolves over time?

Would we realise love over conversations? Or would we, over beads of silence strung together delicately over busy days and quiet nights?

Would you love tennis like I do? Or would I love music like you do? Or would we love books like we both do?

Would ours be friendship that distils into love?

Would it take days? Or months? Or years?

Would I say it with flowers? Or would you say it with poems?

Would I express myself over a game of Scrabble? Or would you, by drawing red hearts over a game of tic-tac-toe?

Or would our affection, quite differently, be a silent, unspoken piece of understanding?

Would we be the kind that never finds the need to explicitly express love?

Would we be similar? Or would be starkly different and still be madly in love?

Would I find you in the pink of my youth? Or when my heydays are beyond me? Or, would I find you at all?

(And if and when I do…)

Would love be the stuff of dreams, fairy tale-like? Or would it be rooted in practicality?

Would love be a guiding light? Or would it be a spark of madness?

Would love heal wounds as they say? Or would it inflict pain and leave scars forever on the soul?

Would our love vaporise into thin air over a heated argument and then crystallise into kisses as we cool down?

Would I love you madly enough to let you go, as much as I would want to hold you back? Would you love me that way too?

The questions are boundless. And they don’t cease, my dear.

For now, they float around like restless butterflies, fluttering impatiently.

You’re probably the flower they are looking for. The one I am too.

Who are you? And where are you?

Are there a million ways to fall in love with you? Or just one? Or none at all?

I Can and I Must

Everyone, well, ok, almost everyone makes resolutions at the start of a new year. I have taken some myself but they have almost always lost steam due to lack of resolve to see the so-called resolutions through to success. Despite the repeated failures, I have nonetheless gone ahead and optimistically listed down a few things I want to work on this year. I am hoping things will be different this time because I have tried to be realistic in what I wish to do.

One. Slowly and steadily, the art of writing has grown to be an indispensable part of my life. The joy that one derives from creating any form of art is priceless. And I say that very, very sincerely because I truly understand the meaning of that statement. I used to write as a teenager but the process of completing a piece never really invoked any emotion in me. I used to write as a college student and put those out as blog posts which would receive comments from readers. The comments would give me joy and I have felt great about being able to make a difference to someone’s day. But as the years passed, I have come to realise that sometimes you also need to write for yourself. Writing that makes YOU feel good, feel a sense of wondrous “release”. And that’s important. You don’t have to show the world what you have written and hear what they have to say in order to feel the joy of having written something. It’s the kind of writing that you indulge in without being aware of time floating by, the kind of writing that opens up that pressure lid atop your head and fills you with an exhilarating sense of relief and a remarkable sense of achievement. This year, I wish to do more of such writing, for my own sake. I can and I must.

Two. I learnt classical vocal music from my own grandmother as a child. But to be honest, I never evinced deep interest in the art. Now years later, closely watching my son’s music learning curve, I have begun to see music with new eyes, hearing and interpreting it in a whole new way. Music now reveals itself to me in incredibly beautiful dimensions, ones in which I never perceived it before. Hearing my son play the violin or the piano, or just sing, with utmost sincerity and love for the art, and discuss musical concepts intensely and with remarkable clarity, I have felt moved. The things children can do to your misplaced perceptions! A few days ago, when I heard him sing and play on the violin a lovely composition by Muthuswami Dikshitar on Lord Ganesha set to Eshamanohari raga, I had tears of joy in my eyes. I enjoyed it so much from deep within me that I understood what a beautiful art classical music is and wondered why I had shied away from it so much (and still do, in some ways.) This year, I wish to learn music intently without inhibiting myself, explore many ragas and boldly answer his incessant quizzing on “guess this raga”. I can and I must.

Three. Pisceans are usually known to be good listeners. I wouldn’t disagree. I have always liked to be more on the listening side than on the talking one. But time, I guess, changes you in ways you never thought you would. My biggest bane now is my impatience. I am never quite willing to stop by and listen. I realise I have grown dismissive and often tend to presume things. For some reason, listening tires me. This year, I wish to listen more, to everyone who wants me to lend an ear, but particularly, children and older people, the former who are full of interesting and thought-provoking ideas and the latter, to whom, your listening can make all the difference in this world. I can and I must.

Four. Ninety nine percent of the time, it’s so easy to get carried away by motherhood. Being a mother, especially to young children, takes up a whole lot of your time and this hardly leaves space or energy to dwell upon anything or anyone else, including your own self. It really has taken time for me to understand that it is not at all necessary to not love yourself in order to be a good mother. It is quite unfortunate that the “sacrifice” tag gets attached to a mother the moment her child enters this world. So much so that a woman begins to think (not to mention, with an overload of guilt) that it is selfish of her to love herself. As much as I understand what I am putting down here in words, I know this is going to probably be the toughest resolution to work on practically. This year, I wish to consciously pay attention to myself and make time for things I love to do. That would mean reviewing my eating habits to taking brisk solitary walks to indulging myself with things I love to have and do. I can and I must.

Five. What on earth am I doing with so many books? It’s been so hard to focus on reading in the recent past for various reasons. In our new home that we moved into a month back, I have finally realised my dream of many years – having a nice little reading zone with wonderful books (and the Kindle, of course) stacked into a gorgeous-looking open bookshelf! A piece of self-designed motivation. Now, if that isn’t enough inspiration to soak myself in pages and pages of creative expression, I wonder what else is! This year, I wish to pick up on my reading and being back to what I once was – an avid reader. I can and I must.

“That’s a great start”, I would love to say and puff up in pride but then there’s something of a truth to keep me grounded: Resolution making and keeping up is tricky business.

But then isn’t life also about hope and determination especially when your heart is in the right place?

Oh well, I can and I must. Bring it on, 2017!