My Mother's Saree
by Riya Ghosh
3 March, XXXX
I still wake up to the image of you draping your saree in front of the mirror; your wet locks from early morning bath falling on your milky white skin; and the crimson that you put across the line of your parted hair. You carried the fragrance of incense burnt at the altar. Chanting prayers you spread the light from the ritual fire, waking up the whole house to the bell chimes. “Kamla… Get the tea ready. And heat the fish for breakfast.” Fish… You had turned the whole house to the taste of your cooked fish. Kamla, though being a good cook herself, never could create the same magic as yours. Haven’t had the Hilsa in spicy mustard gravy since you last cooked them for us.
I did not realize how watching you perform from under my crumpled sheets became the life goal for a five year old. Perhaps it was to know that the wait will eventually end in waking up to an aromatic hug and a smiling face reassuring of all the goodness waiting to surprise my day. I still search for the aroma in the incense that you used to burn at the altar. But it lacks the feel that you brought with your touch. A feel which I had tried to find in the many copies of The Telegraph that now remain bundled on what was once your study table. Sitting beside the bundle is your favourite pair of hazelnut Fiskars from which you used to carefully cut out articles on literature, cinema, politics, and anything that had picked your interest. The Rabindranath bookmarked with my creative imprints open to the lines:
"The days we have had, have they all gone? Is there nothing left of those?"
It is from your favourite poem "Hathat Dekha." “We are travellers in time. With a windy heart, unsure of our destination, we are all lost on our uncarved paths of life. That is the purpose – to take the journey.” You always used to say that.
When I think about your journey, I am taken back to the patterned stitches of your saree. Matching the blouse with the colour of your bindi, you would sit at the porch owning the spread leg armchair that you bought from the Kolkata Auction House; accompanied by the typed scripts from your unfinished book and the voice of Mukesh. And the little antiques that you would occasionally pick up on your way back from the neighbourhood. Some unsent postcards, smudged ink in my handmade diary, a dried beetle leaf, and the many cut-uncut poems continue to grow the collection. I sit for long hours facing the summer sun perched on the armchair. I can smell with my eyes the sweetness of the Bougainvillea outgrowth at the wall separating our craftsman house from the dirt road and the thicket. Draped in your red bordered Bengal Buti cotton saree, the tea running cold in the golden-rimmed porcelain cup – another from your collection, I sit accompanied by the handwritten scripts from my unfinished notes and the voice of your absence. Do you feel my absence… when you re-read Rabindranath in the comfort of your new family?
Comfort… to a five-year-old was draping her mother’s saree after coming home from school; putting on her mother’s green bindi; role-playing mother with Kamla in her new doll house; and listening to mother reading poetry as lullaby to the night. To a twenty-seven-year-old it is to own her mother’s saree in a space confined to trousers; wearing her mother’s green
bindi as her voice against the oppression of silence; becoming the daughter she was born to be, in the body of a son; and reading lectures on “philosophy and modern languages”. Defining comfort for own self is an inheritance that you left behind along with your tastes and habits to me – the biggest gift that any parent could possible give to their children. Constantly navigating the nine years of your marriage to a man of not your choice, you created your own pockets of comfort in the silences. The language of your suffering, then unknown to the five-year-old, is not hard to read by the twenty-seven-year-old daughter anymore. There were no patterns in the stitches of your saree. They were just randomly woven dots. The stories were created by you all along; weaving your experiences to the fabric, breathing a new life of your choices. It is we all along, creating our own stories with our choices. Seeing you I knew making a choice which would otherwise not be given to us is not easy but necessary. It is not just for us, but for many more mothers, fathers, daughters and sons who are denied the choice to their identity.
You left the house to be with the woman of your dreams. You left not just questions to a five-year-old but a flame that is now translated in the choices of many more men and women, heralding the onset of a dream for a justified society. And along with it, you left her your name – Arundhati. Couldn’t thank you more; but carrying the heaviness of your absence in my heart, I could only write. Believe me when I tell you the extraordinary number of drafts I have been through, before you could read this final letter (but all in my head). And as I allowed the ink to flow, the shapes have taken no known form. Perhaps, that is the beauty of ink-and-paper; unparalleled to the cutting-edge technology of our time. Scribbling fast, for it is restless; abrupt pauses on being lost; cutting words with a lack of confidence; and neat curves to show off excellence.
My smudged fingertips close the letter here to go back to my whistling kettle. I prefer black tea sharp at 4 o’clock, just like you, with honey to sweeten it. Until you write back in a shaky font…
1. Maa : Mother
2. Saree : A traditional garment.
3. Hilsa : A fish favourite to people from Bengal.
4. The Telegraph : A daily in the Indian Subcontinent.
5. Rabindranath : Referring to his work “Shyamoli” written in 1936. Shyamoli is the female version of Shyamol, meaning colour green. The work is a compilation of poems which were written to catch the mood of monsoon; each poem capturing a different mood. Shyamoli is also the name of his mud house in Shantiniketan. Some favourite poems from Shyamoli are – Aami (I); Banshiwala (Flute Player); and Hathat Dekha (An Unexpected Meeting).
6. Hathat Dekha : A poem noted in Shyamoli. It speaks of two people meeting unexpectedly in a train after years of separation. Things have changed between them; only memories of past days remain. They cross paths for a brief moment in time as they head back on their different journeys, each wondering if they could go back to the lost days.
7. Mukesh : An Indian playback singer. Some of his all-time favourite songs are – Kahin Door Jab Din Dhal Jaye;
and Maine Tere Liye He Saath Rang K Sapne Chuney. ***