January 21, 2005

a stitch in time…

if you have been running away from what your mother wishes for you, one day you will be the one chasing those very wishes. remember this.

i am not usually the kind to let “fate” be the cause or effect of the circumstances in my life. i am a believer in reason and science, and well, okay…maybe there is someone out there (or up there) looking out for me too. but sometimes i think i am cut out to learn things the hard way.

take sewing for instance.

the low rhythmic hum of my mother’s sewing machine has always been one of the sounds i grew up listening to. over the years, the machines changed, old ones got repaired and second-hand-ones came and went, a separate table came in for all the cutting and measuring work, then an entire room was taken over, more machines came in, and a german pfaff-machine was left behind by a dying friend.

when she was not stitching dresses for my sister and me during our adolescent years, my mother was teaching others to do the same for their family. sometimes she taught them all day, two or three batches of three women every morning and afternoon. when they were gone, she called me to check out a new pattern she had made herself, or to hold the ends of a long cloth so she could zip the scissors through and cut it in two. when the years finally caught up and made her ankles swell into shades of green and purple, my father got her a motorised pedal that she just had to rest her foot on lightly. i still remember the mechanic who came in, smelling of machine oils and sweat, his greasy fingermarks on the glass of water that i had offered him to drink.

we never had to ask for new dresses, my sister and i. and i never waited for an occasion when i was handed a new dress ‘to try out’ either. because i had learnt that a new chudidaar or salwar kameez would be stitched as if by magic everytime there was a function at school or college and i had run out of something-new-to-wear. all i had to do was stand in front of the open wardrobes and make a long face (which is very difficult in my case, since my face is round), and all that night the walls would sing that familiar rhythm…

the walls would hum even when there was a celebration at my neighbour’s house, and the tailor had let them down. at short notice, clothes would get mended, sarees would be married to their matching falls and blouses would be stitched, because everyone in our building knew my mother would work something out by the morning.

sometimes when my masi would come home with her embroidered bedspreads and quilting ideas, both the sisters would be at it again, between cups of filter-coffee and stories of their children’s (ours) homework-not-done and exams-to-prepare and lack-of-interest-in-house-work and the new-car-the-husband-was-planning-to-buy. by the end of the day, we were called to admire what they had created, colourful patchwork sheets and cushions and embroidered quilts that left some-more-work-left-but-isn’t-it-nice?-sincere expressions on their faces. so for as long as i can ever remember, the walls in my house have always hummed, and my mother has always been sitting at a sewing machine.

i took it for granted, the stitching and the stitched, and in spite of repeated requests and orders to learn to stitch myself, i pretended i had better things to do. and i did…like setting fire to the kitchen (almost), when my mother appreciated my neighbour- (and my best friend)’s self-made candles.

“see, see,” she poked at me in front of her, “see how she’s made it by herself!” i swallowed my bruised ego and applauded for her sake, and after she left i thought if she can do it so could i! all i had to do was heat the candles and put some crayon in it. after all, i was in the prime of my teens and hurt and wanted my mother to be proud of me, and say that “see, my daughter could do it too” to my neighbour. so while i day-dreamed with the candles in a pan over the gas, a huge cloud of fire scarred our freshly-painted-pale-yellow kitchen ceiling forever. my sister began to wail, she was very good (and exceptionally fast) at that believe me, and all the ladies were in the kitchen in no time. they saw me bravely trying to put out the fire by taking it to the water filter and turning the tap, after which more flames flew upwards and i panicked, until my mother flew in, snatched the hot vessel from my shaking hands and turned it upside down in the sink.

the ladies clucked their tongues and nodded at each other that i indeed was lucky that i didn’t get burnt. i wished otherwise because i could barely hear anyone above my mother’s scoldings that day. i would never make a candle again, i promised myself. nor would i ever learn to stitch like my mother.

years went by and i chose the computer over the sewing machine. she joined pieces of cloth and turned them into beautiful clothes as a seamstress would, i hacked away at words and structure and made them presentable as a copy editor would. then i got married, learnt other things and made my parents happy and came to a country that loved plain shades and pastels, and labelled bright colours and motifs as ‘indian’ and sold them at over �45 and �60 a piece.

for a year or two i lived with it; i lived with the dull t-shirts and trousers, and tried to forget the bright new clothes i would get without even asking. i lived with the dull curtains and spent more time in the kitchen learning to cook instead. what could i do, i wasn’t like my mother i thought. over the phone i told my aunt and my mother how they could make millions if they even displayed any of their work here, and i told them their work was far better than any i had seen in all of europe. in my mind i had felt that they stitched with their hearts and the sewing machines were just a medium…

my mother must have wished the same for me, and she must have wished very hard at some point in her life. for i was to walk into a needlecraft store one day at hemel (just because it was the only local shop i had not checked out in the two-plus-years that i have lived here), and i would recognise all the sewing apparatus and what-is-used-for-what. i would compare all the women there to the women at my mother’s sewing classes, and i would learn how much it all must have meant to her.

soon, instead of pining for colourful duvet-covers and bedspreads and some indianness in my london home, i had begun to think of making them myself. i had begun to gather ideas and put them together for different corners in the house. so what if i didn’t know to work the sewing machine i thought, and i began stitching a patchwork quilt by hand. if i made a mistake i had to re-do the entire thing, but i didn’t give up, and i could see where my mother was getting her patience from. the process of change had begun.

months later, when praveen and i were busy renovating our home and scattering ikea all over the place, we thought of making a divan ourselves, and not get it shipped from india. we got two low-coffee-tables (from ikea) and put them together, and then laid a three-inch-foam-layer over it. it required a sturdy cover and i thought of my mother again. and i wished i had listened to her while she stitched. the kitchen needed new curtains too, and getting these things would prove to be too expensive. we had overshot our budget already…what we could afford was a good sewing machine.

today as my mother and i exchange crash-course sewing lessons over the internet with scribbles like these, and i find that i have cut the curtain cloth into equal strips the wrong way, fumble and piece them together and re-join them again, mentally calculating how much cloth i will have left with me eventually…i think with regret of the walls in india that stopped humming years ago, all because a mother failed to get her daughter(s) to learn what she knew.

but with this new machine it’s like i have a second chance. i let my mother scold me again, and humbly listened to her going “see! i told you so!!…” because the circle had to be complete. i am hoping that perhaps if i start stitching, i can convince her to get back to it too. because now, the (canvas) divan covers that i stitched look just like we wanted them to be! when i stitch i feel a quiet confidence inside me, humming like my mother’s sewing machine, asking me to go on, telling me it’s okay if i made a mistake.

i guess, it’s the only way daughters learn.

ps: my mother is coming to visit london this year. finally, i will be her student after all :-)




January 14, 2005

all dressed up and nowhere to go

it all started with the homework.

after regular weekly topics to write 200-words about, nick, my writing class tutor had a maha assignment for the three-week christmas break…write something for a magazine or paper you choose (from the writers’ handbook), get it to class along with your envelopes and send it off.

we all had been writing our homework every week. it was fun reading it out in class and getting the feedback from everybody. but here was a big one. i have always managed to wriggle out of contests and competitions because i hated being there. but this was different and yet a contest in a way. the contest was between me and the writer inside me, and this time i wanted the writer to win.

so i began to research a lot of (non-fiction) topics and shortlisted two. i discovered i couldn’t write both at the same time so i picked one. three thousand words and a preview at class later, i realised i had enjoyed the experience. now i want to start my other article, and start another one, and another…but i can’t begin unless i know the fate of what i have already written.

i guess the first pangs of will-they-accept-it-will-they-not are just hitting me now, and i dont like it one bit. and i haven’t even sent the article out yet. when i set out from the bbfc* today after my movie assignment i was happy. i felt like sewing the kitchen curtains (i have never done it before) and cooking all the pongal dishes and cleaning up the home. when i came home i opened the word document and didn’t do anything else. i called the newspaper to make sure i have the word count right, but i only heard the answering machine.

this is going to be my longest weekend.
and i hate answering machines.

*british board of film classification, where i (am one of many who) interpret/review tamil movies that come into the uk, and get paid for them too. yes, sometimes its funny what you can do in this country.