Mumma would, once in three months, throw open her cupboards and bring out her sarees. All her silks, cottons, georgettes and crepes came out and were displayed on the bed in all their vibrant glory. She’d then unfold a few, and lay them out. If she was in a good mood, she’d tell me her story for that saree. “This is the saree I wore to my ‘dohalejevan’ (baby shower) when you were in my tummy,”. “This one was the first saree gifted to me by your father,” “We went to Chennai to buy sarees for my wedding. This one was your grandmother’s choice, but that one was my choice.”
I loved hearing these stories. If mom wasn’t looking, I’d pick up the folded fabric and hold it to imagine how it would look on me.
“Mumma, will you let me wear this saree when I grow up?” I’d often ask.
“Why? You’ll have your own collection of pretty sarees!” she’d say with a smile.
As my Std. X exams drew closer, it was decided that all the girls would wear a saree to the school farewell. “Which saree will you lend me mom?” I asked over breakfast.
“Are you mad? It is time to buy your first saree!” Mother pronounced.
I couldn’t believe it! Most of my friends were going to wear their mothers’ finest sarees, but I was going to get my own saree! Obviously, I ran over to my grandfather’s room.
“Mom said I can buy my first saree and….”
I stopped. Papa was looking at me with a serene smile. I didn’t understand it then, but it was a smile I’d see very often later (I might have seen it before but I was too young to notice, perhaps). That smile was a cocktail of emotions; emotions that Papa claimed only a grandfather could feel. It was part amusement, part joy, a wee bit of alarm, a lot of love and many, many words that needn’t be said and were understood between him and us — his granddaughters.
“When do we go shopping?” he asked. Now, my heart started to somersault! Mom was letting me buy a saree and Papa was going to come shopping with me!
I danced around the whole house.
The shopping of my first saree became a wholesome family expedition. The shop, a neighbourhood store where our salwar kameez and lehengas were often bought, was informed. Then Papa, Mom and me set out to buy my first saree. My father, amused at this excited trio, decided to make it a foursome and joined us.
We entered the store and climbed up to its saree section. Everyone took a seat. And the shopkeeper asked my mom, kya dekhna passand karengi aap bhabhi? (What would you like to see, maam) My mother pointed to me and said that the saree was for me and asked him to show some light silks.
Papa raised his hand. Not light, my granddaughter will wear the best, softest silk… something in white and gold. Papa always pampered us, and he often showered us with gifts, but the fact that he had thought about what colour and fabric my first saree would be, was the most precious. I still cherish it. The way he smiled as he spoke, the way he rubbed his thumb against his fingertips to describe the kind of silk… or even how he touched the saree and asked to see the pallu.
My mother insisted that a lighter and a slightly cheaper saree should be bought because I was unlikely to wear it often, and I was far too young. Papa again put up his hand. “You can make that decision when you are buying a saree for your granddaughter,” he said with a smile. My mom shook her head like she often did when her parental discipline was overridden by some very adorable grandparental authority.
After that, I found some confidence. Papa, I said, white is boring for my first saree. I want a copper sulphate blue. Everyone except my father gave me a funny look.
“That is a beautiful colour,” Baba chimed in. He knew exactly which color I wanted!
After about an hour of looking through silks of every blue imaginable, a few sarees were shortlisted. Papa liked the material of one, but mom didn’t like it’s pallu. We loved the border of a saree but then the butti wasn’t too pretty. The selection process went on and on.
Finally, we found the perfect blue… The copper sulphate one. It was the softest silk, the daintiest buttis, a superstar pallu and a delicate border.
At that point, my already unique relationship with my grandpa found another common ground. Sarees. Every Ganpati, he’d gift me one silk saree. One year, I was sorting the sarees he had got for someone, and I chanced upon an aqua blue Paithanee. My eyes lit up! I wanted it, but Papa had already gifted me my annual saree that day. I didn’t want to be greedy. When I looked up, I noticed Papa’s watchful gaze over me. He was smiling. “Avadlee?” (Like it?) he asked me with a wink. I had a policy. I never ever lied to Papa. Even if the truth was bitter, I’d always tell it like it was. It was the concrete that held together our relationship through many tough situations that we faced later. I nodded. He clapped his hands together and let out a hearty laugh, the one that boomed through every room in the house and chased away every molecule of gloom. I felt slightly embarrassed.
“It’s yours!” he said.
“No. you already gave me one.”
“Look, I am your grandfather. I can give you a thousand sarees if I want to. Take it.”
With those words the dam burst. I threw the huge pile of sarees aside and hugged him tight.
‘Asa ajoba nahi milnar!’ I uttered the words that were the cornerstone of our — Nani and mine — relationship with Papa. His eyes would light up at those words, Every.Single.Time.
Every time I wore a saree, I would rush over to his room. He’d get surprised and then he’d get emotional. And then he’d say, when me or Nani wore a saree, the realisation that we were growing up quickly struck him. Once he casually told me that it filled his heart with sadness sometimes because he thought the time for us to get married was getting nearer. Well, he was 80 and in his universe, marriage of a daughter meant creating a distance, giving her away and seeing her less often. Today, even a Master’s degree can lead to that distance, but technology eases all that. Anyway, I am digressing.
Why did I start writing this? It’s because a few months his passing away, I bought a new saree. And instinctively, I draped it and started walking towards Papa’s room. And I stopped. It made me tear up, like Papa’s memories almost always do. Draped in this cotton saree, I wanted to tell Manuaai just how right she was! She would give me her silks because she didn’t like them and she’d tell me that once you wear a soft cotton saree, nothing compares. “Jeanpant madhye ti gammat nahi!” (Jeans can never matchup).
Loss. You don’t feel it immediately when you lose someone. As you get back to your routine, and the void left behind by the lost loved one becomes many gaping holes. You struggle to manoeuvre your way around it. Loss hits you hardest when you just want to hug someone and get comforted by the scent of sandalwood oil or the touch of a soft, worn in cotton saree or even that high pitched laughter or the scent of besan ladoos.
Loss is many things, and it is the most painful when it comes in short bursts through the mundane things. Because it is during those mundane moments that you aren’t prepared for it.
For now, I smile. Because when I buy a new saree and wear it for the first time (ghadi modli), I look at Papa and Manuaai’s photo and I know they’re watching me. The only difference is, this time, I have actually grown up a little.
(I had written this a long, long time ago. Took me a while to post it, but here it is.