On this length of Cashmere silk, my fingers halt and my mind scurries out with a scrap of recognition. The spell of threads weave their way to a grand allure at the pallu, knotting into flowery aplomb a woman would love to reserve, all by herself. The hues are subdued but. Bright enough to retain the exotic yet dulled to suit the Western palate. Zenith caters only to the classy. It serves the Orient on a platter, cinnamon-scented, to the resonance of an Indian raga floating through the gallery-store at any runic hour.
Not that I wish to be critical of this place, so now I can finally afford it. In fact, I enjoy going through the useless baubles – antique flotsam from some eastern wave washing upon the western shores – the customers pay through their noses to own. The garden café at the back with its wind chimers and the second-hand bookstand is my favourite haunt, where I sit and sip herbal tea in the summer and chat with someone worth talking to; some one as old as I am, I mean – with enough reminiscence and patience for coffee-talk. Possibly, that is what I like about Zenith most: it keeps the young and memory-less at bay; by the way, the world is obsessed with youth I notice, as if being smooth-skinned and craved by all is the best life could ever get. I remember it differently though – the frenzy, the insecurity and the disoriented farce to fit in. What anguish we harboured beneath our flawless faces!
Indeed, it is better to have that ‘future’ finally behind me. There’s ample time to amuse myself with Zenith’s scarlet embroidery silk, florid jade snuff boxes, limestone Buddhas and bronze Taras; ivory stemmed opium pipes, jasmine oil in miniature majolica pots, palm-leaf fans, kapok cushions, Tibetan lampshades, paschmina shawls and oh, the prodigious array of saris – all gingerly priced!
Though I finger this sari – a beautiful pastel of grey-blue Cashmere shot with dull gold thread – like a connoisseur, I know I am not. I wouldn’t know a Benaris from a Manipuri. My only consolation is that I can afford it as a gift to a loved one: my daughter from a late marriage entering a late marriage. In the blonde existence of this land, I have not passed her my wayward baggage of rampant colours; believing that one need not relate to two worlds, unless one chose to. Yet, here I am playing with this sari, with this pallu that speaks of the uncertain lilt in patterns predictable – a lusty symbol of my daughter’s feminine provenance. I hope she could wear it like a discrete trinket, without betraying she had never worn one: something to complement the ink in her eyes, the silk of her hair and the dusk of her skin.
Zenith’s personnel are patient with me. They mistake me for a nostalgic Indian who visits the store for its music and spicy ambience, in an effort to clinch a fading snap of ‘home’. In truth, nothing about Zenith’s paraphernalia echoes the rustics of ‘home’, or that place where I grew up. Indeed, that is what the island should be called. Homes, I found in many lands where, contrary to popular belief, I hadn’t felt at exile – lands adopted like children in my childless years. So the word ‘home’ no longer conjures a singular authentic place in my mind. That place where I grew up, feels more like the island remembered in the droplet motif of this pallu – a shape that reminds me a pearl, a tear, a drop of blood and the dew of a childhood morn.
The pallu of a sari is an achievement of sorts. It requires a flare for detail and dexterity; and a nubile mind to animate design. As something that holds much colour and chaos in its threads I am surprised that a sari could amount to its six yards of simplicity, as wearable as a fetching smile. Since I am no cognoscente I cannot tell you where exactly and how they are made – myths of origin, I am convinced, that are sagas by themselves. A sense of loss ruffles me for my ignorance what my mother would have known by sheer womanly instinct. Her name was Malathi and she was a great beauty… (At least by local standards, but then, beauty is always locally defined, isn’t it?)
Malathi, my mother, could feel the fabric and tell you what it is, smell it and say where it is from, (unlike me: I know I hold Cashmere Silk simply because it is labelled so). She had never laid her finger on a Cashmere Silk though, let alone owning one. She had stepped out of our village-in-disguise-of-a-small-town, only a few times. She taught eastern music in secondary school, which is how I keep recognizing Bhairavi whenever Zenith plays it.
When her husband returned home without a gift on their first wedding anniversary, my mother felt it was time to sort out miffed feelings. She was a woman of compulsion. After serving him the special dinner she had prepared (tender jackfruit, I smell), and sitting on the other edge of the bed, she broached the subject gently, as gently as she combed her hair. Her face turned away from him, she said in the coyest possible cadence of Sinhala, difficult to pin in English:
“They say there are beautiful saris in the Pettah market…all colours you can ever think of…”
My father stared at my mother; how she inspected the split ends of her hair with disapproval. After what seemed an eternity to him, she said, quite casually and abruptly, as if starting a song in a different scale:
“Was it a busy day for you? You forgot that it was our anniversary…”
At that, my dear uxorious father – the gentle and naive soul he was – piously noted down all anniversaries – wedding, birthday, New Year, Vesak – and brought my mother a sari or two at each occasion. For the next ten good years! He brought her every colour she could ever think of, though of course, restricted to the modesty of a public servant’s salary. They were mostly Nylex and Georgette. Some Crêpe and Cottons with colourful borders, and Chiffon. Nothing as glamorous as Cashmere Silk.
During that period my parent’s home acquired a diaphanous ambience. Mother had an almirah full, from which a couple of sleek saris would tumble out every time you opened its screechy door. Old ones she no longer considered fit to wear smiled from the windows as curtains, transformed into tablecloth or materialized as kitchen rags. I too owned two discarded saris which I wore alternately to my imaginary playschool where – devoid of my mother’s musical talent – I taught ghost pupils Geography of my own invention.
In case you have not realised by now that this reverie will not amount to anything more than few scraps of childhood, let me assure you so: I am old enough to be indulgent. Nostalgia is my right. And yet, it is a dim acquiescence of patterns and infinite contradictions that come to my mind, a quality common to human existence and sari pallus – distinctly, disagreeably beautiful. There is no grand narrative but that of a most personal kind, which is largely a motley of feelings and small enlightenments nuanced by time.
For instance, I realised as an eight year old that a sari reveals what it hides.
In the years that I accompanied my mother to school, the most glorious bit of the day would be to watch her dress in the morning. She used to send out my father with a lunch packed lovingly into the uncertainty of their times; worrying, like many women of her generation. Then, prohibiting me to open the windows, she would switch the 40 watts on. Filtered further by an orange shade, that light registered in me an aura of secret ritual, which I sadly discovered later to be the sheer cautiousness of the times we lived in. She would take the swathe of the sari and step in front of the mirror. Mystified, I would follow each lithe movement doubled in its fluid reflection. Her hand would move like a flying fish skimming the waves as she gathered pleats and swirled around, with a final cascade of the pallu over her shoulder. Supple adjustments with little tucks and pulls would spruce her nubile shape and suddenly, I realise I watch her with different eyes. The drape hid her figure save a teasing midriff, yet lavished on the accent of breasts, the dignified swell of hips. The flower designs on the sari pallu bloom inside my head. That smile on her face, when she finally inspects herself on the mirror and ties her hair to a bun on her nape…
How impressionable our minds when young! I even recall the glint of dew on hibiscus and cannas groves I pass on our way to school – not always in my uniform. Our schools asked us to attend without uniforms at the time. I believed it was something to do with our new principal till I found out that other schools did the same for a while. Some schools closed down completely. We weren’t so lucky. Mother continued to go though eastern music was no longer taught. Only subjects like maths and science got the school time cut short. I had a pink dress, polka dotted, that I insisted on wearing every other day. I warmed up to the new liberalism of our school, to the sudden interludes of holiday we got without praying for it. I remember occasional visits to school, entangling myself in mother’s pallu as I walked, holding it across my eyes and watching the world through its floral patterns.
What I have seen through gossamer pallus, I never forget. Red hibiscus. Schoolchildren without uniforms. Vacuous policemen at junctions, without traffic to guide. Buses billowing thick fumes past their unsafe eyes. Vacant vegetable stalls. Limp mongrels. Once I saw through a pallu, a man, a naked man, though mother pulled it over my face to hide. But a pallu reveals what it hides, remember?
A man. A naked man. A burning man. The first I have seen in my life by the roadside on a mound of flaring tires – the infamous funeral pyres of those days. The flames rose to a nearby billboard that said Always Coca Cola in a happy lilt. People avoided that side of the road and went past it, to their schools and offices and wherever they were going that morning, as if they were passing a milkman on a bicycle, ringing his bell. That was first time I saw a man naked; the first time I saw a man burning. I saw it through a pallu with a droplet motif – a shape that reminded me a pearl, a tear, a drop of blood and dew I knew as an island child.
People from different places have told me that they lived their childhoods in perpetual fear. Of not growing up. Of being powerless forever. Or not understanding what was going on around them. Not getting the joke, as if it were. I too had to wait until I grew up to sort it out. And it always takes longer than you wish to grow up. And then, there I was, a young woman, anxious of her youth, anxious of the fire I saw in the eyes of my friends at the university, anxious that they were so young and fiery; I used to stare, picking at the hem of my own pallu, knowing the design, knowing what is to come, and amazed why none could smell it in the wind.
Youth burning again;
Youth that somehow crept into to the design, as if to repeat in a flowering of violence.
Holding this length of fabric, I know I am a woman from a different world, different age, somehow marked by what I have seen, known, and fled from. By what is hidden from me and what is revealed in the lapse of time. By what I find out and what I don’t, like who burnt there that day, his name, his face, and why I fled without putting up a fight for him. I get heady by the repetition of a design, the recognition of something from childhood, the inability to pull at the loose end of the thread, to stop.
Hibiscus, Coca Cola billboards, flaring tires, the brackish stench of kerosene that clings to your lungs, school without uniforms, time-tables cut short, overdoses of math and science, the reflection of mother in the mirror, a private smile, uxorious husbands trying to please wives – things that nothing in Zenith evoke, except perhaps this beautiful pallu. I walk in to a honeycomb sun with my bare arms reaching for its tenderness, dangling Zenith’s recycled paper bag with a grey-blue Cashmere in it, for my daughter. For the new life she soon begins. A sari with a pallu that speaks of things she does not know, with a droplet motif she would not recognise. So I can unburden myself without burdening her.
It is a calm Canadian morning; A small-town-heaven on earth. On the square, lovers kiss in the dappled shade of Maples. Children gorge on their ice creams. The mist recedes over the bay waters, revealing clear expanses, as large as life. An east European accordionist wheezes a tune by the cobbled pavement, an upturned hat and a few scattered coins beside him.
Here I am, old, safe, remembering.
You are right, I wasn’t born, I didn’t exist, that moment when mother sat combing her hair, telling father about the saris in Pettah market on their first anniversary. She waited ten long years before she could not stand his lack of imagination a trice longer. Perhaps she tired of washing them at the well, and hanging them on long clotheslines to dry. Perhaps she tired of wearing them and seeing them as curtains and kitchen rags. Ten years of Pettah pallus, I was nine, he had just returned from work and given her the routine gift and she bluntly asked him, snapping viciously, if markets sold anything other than saris.
It must have been her birthday, and I still recall the surprised hurt in his eyes.