Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Write...Edit...Publish...June 2018 : Unravelled Yarn

Image credit
Baluchari sari anchal - traditional handloom silk from Bengal.

Hello WEPers, and welcome to the June Challenge - Unravelled Yarns. Today I have a flash set in 80's Bengal, which is my home state in the eastern part of India, historically and also currently an important handloom centre. Undivided Bengal was where the famous muslin, so prized from Ancient Rome to 19th century Europe, was made. For millennia, Bengal produced a range of exquisite handloom textiles which were prized the world over. The setting therefore was a foregone conclusion! :) 

Many of these weaves were lost between the 19th and 20th centuries because of various reasons. However, revival and recovery efforts after independence has meant a steady restoration of skills and a comeback for these unravelled, and unrivalled, yarns.

The Motif

The road leading into the village washes out every monsoon for miles, but thankfully it is a few weeks before the rains hit and there is still a thin film of tarmac left. And it has been a miracle of connections, the call coming through that morning, the landlady remembering to mention it promptly, the trains and the buses and all the tedious details of travel aligning. Above all, my cluelessness for once taking a holiday and letting me decipher the message for what it was. Please tell him we could do with his help. Grandfather misses him. He must be very sick indeed, he has never let it be said out loud that he misses me ever before.

Even as I rattle the knocker, there seems to be something odd about the atmosphere. I cannot quite place it for a moment. Then Moilu opens the door and I am in the tiny courtyard. I realise what it is – the quality of silence. Already heavy with some nameless foreboding, the reassuring ker-thunk ker-thunk of the looms is missing among the medley of birdsongs and the phut-phut-phut of an autorickshaw on the main road two lanes away. The difference is an aural shock – I have never heard the looms silent during the day before. Even Moilu’s face is quiet, too quiet for a child.

The faded dark green curtain has not changed, the doorsill is the same uneven slash of concrete separating the raised veranda from his room. I lift the fabric and go in. The curtain filters the half-light to a green darkness. He is on his string bed, I realise I have never seen him lying down during daylight hours either.

“I touch your feet, Grandfather.”

He opens his eyes, when did they get so tired? His eyelids look like wrinkled bedsheets around a dark glass marble, his cheekbones sharp as a bamboo holding up the middle of a crumpled marquee.

“Ah, you came? I’m glad. I’ve things to tell you -”

I reach for his hands, they feel cold and dry, the fingertips roughened by the wood and the yarns and the years of working the Baluchari patterns, making the perfectly oblong storyboards meet without gaps or mitres at the silken corners of the anchal.

He has been doing this since childhood, his childhood, not mine. Baluchari is the family livelihood, and I have been initiated into it early too…but he sent me away enthusiastically a couple of years back. “Oh, it will be good for you. And us. Fresh design ideas. Traditions can be kept alive only through the new,” his hands all the while moving briskly on the loom, the copper colour yarn and the navy blue slowly forming into the pattern, spelling out the story of Rai-Kanai. Ker-thunk. Ker-thunk.

“Rest and get well, Grandfather.”

“No time, I’ve an idea…you'll put it down for me…Moilu doesn’t have your gift...You’ll do it, won’t you?”

“Yes, of course.”

But there is no response from the bed. The eyes have closed back again.


Outside, my mother is hovering with a glass.

“It’s not long,” she whispers and her face too is like the silent looms. “I’m glad you came. He’s been asking for you ever since...come and eat something.”

After the meal I go back to him and he opens his eyes, all of a sudden remarkably lucid, takes up the conversation as if there has been no break.

“You know Moilu goes to this school run by the Khristhans? They too have this story of the Flood, a great big Fish and the Tree of Life in a perfect Garden…there too they tell stories of Prophets on high mountains.”

“Really, Grandfather?”

“Yes, they’d make great motifs...Come closer.”

And so I sit next to him with the paper and colour in a beautiful woman with long hair holding out a fruit to a man in a resplendent garden with apple trees. And a snake. He insists on the snake. Who wants to wear a sari with a snake?

As it is young women nowadays do not always wear traditional Bengali saris, there is a lot of choice now – lehengas, shararas, anarkalis and even memsahebi gowns. His grip on reality is tenuous. Our traditions themselves are unravelling. I see it every day at the studio where I work. But I do not argue with Grandfather. There is no arguing with him.

“Ivory on green.” He murmurs when it is finished to his satisfaction. “Only the fruits picked out in deep red.”

Those, as it happens, are his last words.


Nothing I’ve told you so far is true. This is how I wish it had happened.

My landlady forgot to mention the call till the next morning. It was monsoons so the telephone back at the village wasn’t working, cables were knee deep in water. I managed to get through only after a couple of days and started off a good week later, there were no tickets to be had, no stars aligned for me. It was all too late. The cremation was over when I reached.

Afterwards Moilu told me about her principal, a nun from the school attached to the orphanage, visiting grandfather to persuade him about Moilu continuing high school.  The visit sparked him off - he talked excitedly of a new motif based on the Khristhani stories. But he fell ill almost immediately.

I did work his idea into a motif. But without the snake, I couldn’t for the life of me get the snake done right, it just looked like a zigzag thread, like a horrible mistake. So in the end I just did the man and woman and the garden with apple trees. I wove one with ivory on pistachio green, the fruits in red.  It sold well. I wove one with green on deep red too, gorgeously bridal. But that was years later. I wove it for Moilu and she wore it at her wedding.

WC - 994

Read the other entries here: 

A few words about the context. Not essential to read this to follow the story, but might be nice to know.

Touching the feet of elders is a traditional Indian greeting and mark of respect.

Anchal, also known as Pallu/Pallav, is the free end of the sari draped over the shoulder. The handloom sari has an unbroken history of 3000+ years in India.

Khristhan - Christian

Lehenga, sharara, anarkali - traditional stitched attires from other parts of India, usually two pieces - a tunic and some kind of trousers, worn by women with a long scarf-like fabric draped over the torso.

Memsahebi - memsaheb refers to a woman of European/foreign origin.

Baluchari is a heritage handloom silk weave from Bengal, originally from a village called Baluchar (meaning sandbank), now woven in villages in the Bishnupur/Bankura district. These are characterised by a heavily worked anchal, and have human/animal narrative motifs from the Hindu epics in the borders, they often had motifs based on life/figures from the royal courts also, the people who patronised the craft. Essentially a story in a sari. These motifs meet seamlessly without disruption at the corners of the central space in the anchal symmetrically. In the past, the weavers/artists would achieve that from memory, there was no template, no documentation, each generation passing on the art to their descendants/disciples. But these skills were lost at the beginning of the 20th century. The Baluchari was revived in the 1950’s when the jacquard looms replaced the traditional old style jala looms. Nowadays there is an attempt to revive the art of the jala looms also. Read more about the Baluchari sari here.

Most Indian brides would traditionally wear red. Red is an auspicious colour in Hinduism, it signifies shakti - the feminine energy principle of the universe. But this is not confined to Hindus, it is a cultural practice, Muslim, Jain and Sikh brides also traditionally wear red in the subcontinent. Most Christian brides get married in white, but some might choose to wear colours from the red/fuchsia/peach spectrum also. 

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Shoulder blade

Tenderness is a parasol
in my father’s hand,
it’s the water he offers me
at the school bus stand;

it’s the large, white handkerchief
with which he wipes my face,
it’s the way he brushes my hair,
ties up a loose shoelace.

Tenderness is a shoulder blade
that takes my bag off me
and carries my books and all my loads
for all eternity.

Eid Mubarak and Happy Father's Day to all those who are celebrating! 

Sunday, 10 June 2018

The carrom men


Like the discs of carrom, we friends too, are
gathered in a circle here, every day;
at the first strike we too are scattered far,
and some fall, while some remain to play.
Sometimes the game is close and passions swift,
and the player might miss a couple of men,
the queen plays hard to get, or drops a gift,
but the one who wins her loses her again.
It’s all shatter and change at every strike
in carrom as in life, it’s just the same
you’ve got to play it, like it or dislike,
you take the board you get in either game.

A few days back, I saw an image of four men playing carrom, not this image, a different one - one to which I have no rights and can't digitally sneak in here :) But being rubbish at digital sneaking does not stop me from drawing word-images in my head. Incidentally, the discs are technically called 'carrom men' - which is what sparked off the whole thing. 

Carrom always reminds me of long afternoons and evenings with my mum, playing various board and card games. By the time this posts, I'll hopefully be on my way to her, but there won't be any carrom played when I get there. No games left in that house. But the parental home is always the parental home, carromful or carromless...right? 

Because I'll be travelling off and on next few weeks, it might take me a bit of time to scramble back online, but I'll get here whenever I can. 

Meanwhile, stay well and keep your game on and lively! :) 

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Empty Nester Countdown

There’ll be no live music, no broken strings.
Every light switched off at bedtime, nothing
left on, no nightly raids, no sudden noise,
no extra-late breakfast weekend mornings.

No sprawl of papers and text books, no trails
of missing laces, no urgent emails
on deadlines and sudden requests to pick up,
no fridge surface cluttered with school details.

How clean will the rooms get?! how organised
the cushions on the sofa, harmonised
dining chairs singing as a perfect choir
flush against the table, neat, civilised.

But a bit more lifeless this life, more sterile
without your hands around it, without your smile.

I have been immersed in post-18 pathway possibilities lately. Less than one year to go before I become mum-of-grown-up-child, yay! n yikes! And a sliver more than a year before the fledgling flies...

In more uniformly cheery news, the sign ups at Write...Edit...Publish... are now open for the June Challenge. Sign up now and post on 20th on Unravelled Yarns...Click the link for details. 

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Hometowns and homes

It’s ages since I’ve been to that teashop
and I haven’t gone back down that straight lane
where cobblers used to sit by the bus stop
though I’ve thought often I must go back again,

see myself if the lamppost with the dent
is the same still? wires sagging drunkenly;
if the same old cracks split up the pavement
made wider perhaps by that jamun tree.

We played barefoot, we rarely had shoes on
and had no business with the shoeshine guy.
I wonder if new hopscotch lines get drawn
and if the shop still serves our spiced up chai?

But what if the jamun has been cut down? -
tough that homes don’t always stay in hometowns.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Ordinary trips


All my journeys, even the quick trips
to top up the fridge, to the corner store
were pilgrimages – I just didn’t know it –
sacred without the fuss of unstitched cloth.

Sacred without strong curling incense smoke
without the sound of bells, and sandal paste,
everyday sacred – a flea bitten dog
by the roadside rooting in the vats

raising his head at my scent, to sniff
and drop it back again in the trash,
a sudden war-conch blare in the traffic
inching forward to meet the peak hour rush.

All of them were pilgrimages – each one
on hallowed ground without any milestone.


Each step peels away in moments, yet builds
a spine and shrinks it too, it is deepened
even as it is deeply scooped and stripped.
I walk home with rice and a frozen chicken.

Is the body a cell? It never felt
a prison, the room never like a shrine,
the sacred always outside in a world
of rotting mango peels, feet crumbed with grime

washing at the gobbets of old tube wells.
My heels are cracked with winter, lashes spiked
with discharge, but they can bear witness still
to the small miracles of runway lights

guiding the plane back on land. Every trip
a sacredness – I just didn’t know it.


Yet it knows, deep within its chemical paths
the body knows and responds to sacred -
that’s why it stands barefoot on the earth
turns to the red glow beyond its shut eyelids,

and opens them for dogs on garbage heaps,
thinks the doorsill is its point of conflict. –
There's a degree of sacred in concrete,
if the earth's paved over, nothing's diminished.

And that’s why it walks to the corner store,
onto the four point crossing, and the bus stop
and beyond that, and beyond! goes where it goes
in blind tribute, yanked by its own make up.

That’s why it leaves, the fridge’s just a pretext,
and why it comes back and plans where to go next.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

In my apron

Poppy field by van Gogh, 1890. Image credit

I will not let this snow cover
of violence deaden my world
into breathless radio silence.
I will not let sandpaper words,
the hard, wind-tossed hearts of vandals,
swamp out the daisies and poppies
when and where it’s spring. I’ll let drifts
of leaves fall wherever they want,
weave against this doorsill in autumn.
I’ll pluck huge bouquets of hope,
keep them massed in my apron
like secret talismans. From the red
wildfires of poppies I’ll pick them,
and from the red, dead leaf banks.
I’ll walk miles of cheerful wildflowers
and the sky’ll sew its own linings
overhead in gold and silvershine.
And the sharp-spiralled razor wires
won’t stop a single leaf. Or stop me
from holding the flaming bunches
in the crook of my torn elbows.


In praise of some violence

Sunday, 6 May 2018

A-Z reflections: At the end of something or other - n still Zetetic, though Zonked...

For some vague reason this song has been bzzzzzing in my head…so I might as well share it here.  

As with the other years, intrepid stranger or close friend, you pays no money, but you gets your choice - take your pick -

Monday, 30 April 2018

Z is for Ze End!

is for

Leonard Karikoga Zhakata (1968 - ) - a Zimbabwean musician and singer with his 1994 smash hit Mugove, from the album Maruva Enyika, which propelled him to national stardom. 

Maiko Zulu is a Zambian musician, reggae artist, and human rights activist, well-known for his activism. Listen to his Reggae Zambia.

Also Zone Fam, a hip hop band from Zambia with Life is Good. Lots of choice today for the last letter of the challenge. Drink, sing and be merry for tomorrow we may diet. 

And an album called Zabalasa by Thandiswa Mazwai, one of South Africa’s award winner musicians, singing in Xhosa. 

This track called Hna (Here) from the album Zarabi by Oum el Ghait Benessahraoui from Morocco singing in the local Arabic dialect. I've talked about her and Here before for my previous A-Z too.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Y is for Yen...and...Yesteryears...and...Yankari

is for
Yegna, an all-girl Ethiopian band, which uses music to raise awareness about women’s rights and social issues among young people. Yegna means ‘ours’ in Amharic. Listen to them in the clip below and read more about them here.

Y’akoto – a musician of Ghanaian-German heritage, born in Hamburg, she spent her childhood in various countries in Africa and is now resident in Europe. Listen to her track Come down to the River.

And since this A-Z is ending and I won’t get the opportunity again, I’m including Yamore, a track composed by Selif Keita and sung by him and Cesaria Evora, two voices from the continent I absolutely adore. Enjoy!

Friday, 27 April 2018

X is....a piece of cake...only in Africa!

is for

Xalam with a track called Xaarit.  Xalam is a Senegalese band formed originally by a group of friends in 1969, called African Khalam Orchestra. Different musicians have joined and played at Xalam. Find out more about them here.

Xalat – a track by Ismael Lo. Ismael is a musician of Senegalase-Nigerian heritage.

And also Silver X, the stage name of Okuta Ceasar Malish Jeremiah, an award winning musician from South Sudan with a track called Duniya Karabu. 

And finally, here is diva Miriam Makeba with Baxabene Oxamu, a Xhosa number. The track has both the transliteration and translation in English. Enjoy!

Thursday, 26 April 2018

W is for WiFi ...and...Wallets... and...Well, just one more sip of Wine

is for

Fadhili Williams (1938-2001) – This is the oldest recorded version of ‘Malaika’ available online, Williams was the first person to record this song with his band ‘The Jambo Boys’ in the early 60’s. The authorship is controversial. Many think it was written by a Tanzanian musician called Adam Salim who was never credited in the recordings and did not make any money off the song. He wrote it for his girlfriend whose parents didn’t approve of the match and forced her to marry someone else. But Williams also claimed the same experience and inspiration, and the song. The authorship was contested legally and settled in favour of Williams in 1986, however many Tanzanians continue to believe that Salim was the rightful owner. Miriam Makeba was taken to court by Williams also for singing it. Read more about the history of the Wrangling over this song, and/or enjoy listening!

Wazimbo – is the stage name of Humberto Carlos Benfica, the most famous singer of a genre called Marrabenta, a fusion of Mozambican traditional dance rhythms with Portuguese folk. Enjoy!

And Wizkid who is huge in Nigerian music, here’s one of his tracks featuring the famous Fela Kuti.