I'd like to give a special thanks to Nancy Sommers and all fellows and peers of T210M, HGSE for giving me inspiration, tools, and deadlines to ponder life through essay. This essay is dedicated to my Lalla Mausi, whom I love very much.
By Rina Deshpande
I’m not sure how or why it began – maybe we were looking to pass the time while the power was out, or maybe I just happened to ask what was behind her metal armoire doors. One by one, my great aunt Lalla shared the meaning behind each of her many saris, so abundant in number that she admitted in giggles she may never be able to wear them all. Her words and movements flowed like a dance: pulling out one sari from the brilliant stack of hundreds, narrating the story as she unfolded and revealed its unique pattern, then refolding and replacing it before moving onto the next. Like I was being walked through an album of textiles and colors. Thin silks. Thick silks. Rayons. Cottons. Polyesters. Peacock blues. Hot pinks. Forest greens. Mustard yellows. Chocolate browns. Light golds. Dark golds. Daisy prints. Paisleys. Solids. Stripes. Stars. Each sari was a gift. Each sari, an unchanging memory from her life.
I can’t help but wonder if my great aunt made these stories up, but the details of each sari giver, occasion, time of day, and location all wove together so seamlessly for yards and yards that it’s quite possible every thread she said was true. Perhaps, to her, it was not accuracy that mattered.
I am thinking of her now after just hanging up with my unnervingly calm mother, wondering why I did not call my Lalla Mausi when my mind had told me to.
Two years ago, I am sitting on the edge of my great aunt’s cot like I’ve done on every visit to her Bangalore bungalow for the last thirty years. Un-poised and relaxed in my Gap jeans and t-shirt, my legs dangle off of the wire frame like a teenager’s. Herds of cars honk and packs of stray dogs bark on the dusty road outside. The hollow sound of the ticking clock echoes on the bare walls – the “current” has stopped as it frequently does with no warning. We patiently wait around for the electric buzz to return and revive the tube lights.
Every five to seven years that I have visited my great aunt Lalitha - my Lalla Mausi - I’ve seen snapshots of a rapidly changing India. Where her cement bungalow once rested quietly on a hill of red earth and bowing trees, now swarm bustling students to IT school and Tata cars ramming horns to fight for parking. The population in the city of Bangalore has tripled from 3 million in 1982 to nearly 9 million people in 2013. Lalla’s peach and red bungalow once seemed so tall and rooted on that dirt hill. Over time, it has shrunken away from the main road, nearly forgotten in all of the change.
For now, we are inside of her home. And on the inside, Lalla’s bungalow feels almost exactly the same. Red tinted cement floors cool my bare feet in the summer heat. Two humble ground level bedrooms each offer a cozy cot and armoire. Framed photos of my mother, sister, father and me from Disney World 1988 to high school and college graduations line the old wooden shelves. I wince at the sight my bushy eyebrows in my blue graduation cap and gown. Perhaps getting older comes with some benefits, I laugh to myself, like learning to have your eyebrows threaded. Multiple horns bleep outside the window like angry sheep, sending the dogs into a fit.
“Seems like it is even more chaotic out there than last time,” I am surprised by the grown-up nature of my own comment.
“Mm,” my great aunt affirms with a glum nod from side to side. “Happening so fast, no? What to do?” she laments, lifting her hands and eyes toward the sky. I share her frown. She immediately looks to console my concern like a grandmother to her grandchild, gently grasping her wrinkled brown fingers under my chin and smiling. I close my eyes and hold onto the feeling of her cradle.
I do not want to forget her. I do not want to be forgotten.
My eyes magnetize to the emerald green silk with a hot pink band nestled in the colorful collection of her armoire. I ask for her to please, pretty please pull that one out next. We are two hours without power, and she has gone through nearly twenty saris. I am enjoying her performance and too comfortable squeezing my adult bottom into my booster seat in the audience. Lalla Mausi giggles at my invitation for encore, and brimming with memories she reaches for the sari of my choice and starts to unfold.
“Ah, this was gifted to me by Shreshta at her daughter’s engagement in Delhi in May 1993 – do you recollect meeting Shreshta, Rina? Vahini’s sister’s husband’s cousin. You don’t remember?” I smirk, having no idea to whom she refers. I let her continue. Right now there is no current. Right now, we are right here.
With every name she assigns to each sari, she weaves her loom aloud. Saris from neighbors, casual acquaintances, brides and grooms, best friends, sisters, brothers, and one collectively from my mother, father, sister, and me. I see a softness and security in her eyes as she narrates the latter.
“You only selected this sari for me,” she laughs as I ask who gave it to her. “You were small.” I admit that I do not remember, but I joke that I have pretty good taste. Each strand in the nine yards of burgundy dyed silk is as sturdy and thick as wire. As she opens the pallu tail end that drapes over the shoulder, she reveals an intricate pattern of elephants woven from what looks like pure golden thread. I tell her I like this sari the best. She touches my cheek and says that it is her favorite, too.
Twenty-five years prior, I would draw my great aunt’s portrait on a wrinkled notebook page with markers: black braid, wire spectacles, sari pallu draped over her shoulder, and red bindi on her wide-ruled forehead. I would present my wobbly artwork to her, and she would immediately hang it up on her metal armoire. On this day - twenty-five years later - as we close the armoire doors to her sari album, I chuckle to see the portrait still remains displayed under the same round magnet. To me, she still looks just the same. I touch the dimming paper and try hard to remember my little hands gripping the marker in artist’s concentration. My memory of myself as a child is dimmer than before. Perhaps my Lalla Mausi still sees it clearly. Perhaps it is through one another that we remain unchanging.
The sound of buzzing zips through the walls of the room. The lights flicker back on.
“Current,” she says.
The lights in my Cambridge apartment seem to buzz louder than usual. I pick up my cell phone and dial the 800 number my mother gave me, entering India country code, Karnataka state code, and phone number for my Lalla’s Mausi’s room at the hospital. She picks up.
For this moment, the current is paused.