Monthly Archives: January 2015

Attention fashion designers….saree blouse speaking

Yesterday, when I tried to wear a saree for a function, I realized the blouse didn’t fit me as well as it used to. Enter the safety pin, and some time-consuming unraveling of stitches to “adjust” the size so that I could get into the blouse again.

Once upon a time, I had a tough time gaining weight. Was always slim, until the years started taking their toll. It used to be that eating more salads, exercising more, and avoiding desserts when I could – could make the pounds go away. But even that is not enough anymore…..if I think of dessert, the weight starts to creep up. Yo yo weight and yo yo dieting….sigh! End result is an hour’s time at least going by in search of the right blouse, or ‘adjusting’ blouses that refuse to fit! And trying to shut out the negative voice and counter-voice in the mind:

You should’ve exercised more.

But I did. 

Not enough.

I ate right too.

Then what is this? (holding up blouse, wagging it insinuatingly)

Well, I’ve been lifting weights and the blouse cannot handle my biceps and triceps anymore!

Waa haa haa! You my friend, are pathetic!

Oh shut up. Let me adjust the blouse! (furiously working with safety pin)

I do not belong to the category of people for whom shopping is a hobby. Am bored, let’s go shopping.…Not my style. I do not simply buy sarees for the sake of collecting them. Living in the US, the sarees get so rarely worn that they are as good as new anyway. Plus people gift you sarees when you visit them in India. You take gifts for them, they give you sarees.

What if the size of the blouse goes past the few stitches that help ‘adjust’ it a little? What if the wearer goes up or down sizes……?The blouse will either lie in some corner of the closet, to be replaced by one that fits better, or be donated away….

What a shame, given that some blouses are cut from the same saree cloth, many sarees coming “with blouse” of late? Or let’s say the saree and blouse are from a sentimental time…This is the saree I wore for my wedding or, this is the saree my family gave for my bangle ceremony when I was pregnant with my first child….or in a more somber turn of events, this is the last saree my husband gifted to me before he passed away?

***

A woman’s blouse hugs her body like second skin, serving as a perfect foil for the free flowing, graceful, breezy, flirty wrap that is the saree. While the saree can hide a woman’s imperfections and her moods – in some cases, literally – by covering her face, a blouse is prized for its fit, and an ill-fitting blouse will make her look worse: folds of skin sticking out under the sleeves, or at the back, begging for air. Her movements become restricted due to thoughts like this – what if I raise my arm, the blouse tears? Shucks, I cannot even breathe in this blouse….unprintable words come to mind every time one tries to move.

This is not so much a problem in youth but in middle age and later, we deal with such predicaments. There are days when one feels like a punching bag for everyone in sight and the only unconditional hug seems to come from a blouse…..feels like the last straw when even the blouse doesn’t fit ;D!!

Makes me wonder…..and like an engineer, I start to think of this like a design problem. What if, a blouse were to be constructed so as to become a woman’s second skin, and stay intact even as she ages, and goes through physical and emotional changes? The eternal unconditional hug at last!! The nice, snug blouse she wore at her wedding, if only could be stretched to accommodate a few pounds as she goes through pregnancy and childbirth, and life’s ups and downs? As she ages, the same blouse should have enough elasticity and tensile strength to expand and contract as she goes through middle age, and into old age  when the pounds start to drop again for many.

Perhaps fabric can be designed to stretch and shrink with the woman, and blouses from significant and sentimental times be made of this material. Or have some special stretchable material in some places, with the rest of the blouse made of regular material? Say, strategic placement of such fabric around the blouse seams, that do away with the need to ‘adjust’ the size with a safety pin…..Even if the blouse is priced a bit more for this material, for special occasions, people may be willing to pay the price for it.

The design problem comes with challenges: if the material can be stretched far more than usual, then it’s got to be thick. Breathability in hot, humid places becomes an issue. The blouse may become heavy, and cumbersome. The fabric will probably need to be made of synthetic materials, so those of the organic cotton school of thought will lose out. The blouse should be designed for comfortable fit and wear – i.e, it cannot be hard to get into and shouldn’t grip one so tightly that it hurts (blouse made of elastic bands, anyone?). All of these are challenges which, with the right fabric designer and/or fashion designer, can be overcome.

If I was a fabric designer, I would not only measure elasticity, tensile strength and porousness (breathability), but will also define ratios, such as “Stretch/Comfort Ratio” (SCR) or “Snugness/Comfort Ratio”. We want something ideally with high snugness and high comfort, but with current fabrics these two factors have an inverse correlation…..Never mind, I went off the deep end there ;)! Suffice to say, even if I don’t have the design expertise I would love to be one of the beta testers of such a blouse. Will gladly write ad jingles and help market the blouse!

If such a fabric were to be developed, the uses will be manifold. Even snug-fitting western dresses could be made from it. Anything of sentimental value that one wants to keep around for a long time…..will now be created with this fabric. Every blouse will have a story to tell from then on, and be around enough to tell it!

Choli mein dil hai mera, chunri mein dil hai mera

Ye dil mein doongi mere yaar ko, pyar ko!

Tulasi in the tundra – love does not grow in cold, dark places

I took the bunch of basil carefully out of the package and started making my pesto – this, along with jam-making and baking, are my “go to” happy activities. Someone must have watered this basil, made sure it got the sunshine and nutrition it needed to grow, and harvested it tenderly so as not to damage the delicate leaves. And here it lies….fragrant in my hands, ready to become pesto for my family, filling my kitchen with its aroma.

I remembered the Tulasi plant of India, also known as holy basil. It has some similarities to the Italian one, though it is more pungent in taste, has a different fragrance, and medicinal properties. Many families in India have the Tulasi in a special raised pot, watering it, ensuring it has good sunshine, and having a prayer ritual built around it. The Tulasi, as per Hindu beliefs, is a special being blessed by Lord Vishnu, who has come down to earth as a plant to heal us. It is offered to Lord Vishnu in prayer, and used in several herbal home remedies.

The Tulasi will probably wither and die in the harsh winters of the US and northern India. When I think of the Tulasi, I remember a distant aunt of mine, who is no longer in this world. Her husband is related to us in a very distant way. She was a very pious lady, so generous and warm of heart. Every person who crossed her threshold was greeted with warmth. We called her “Chitthi” (maternal aunt or wife of father’s brother is called thus in Tamil) and I have never thought of her as anything else. She wore jasmine flowers in her hair, had the most radiant smile, and no matter how busy, a kind word for everyone. Village farmhouses in India were large sprawling affairs, with a large backyard and cowshed, for fresh milk. Along with her family and visitors, Chiththi lovingly tended to the cows in her backyard as well. Her only son had inherited her sunny temperament, and was our childhood playmate. Such sweet human beings, both.

Her husband though, was made of different material. Stern and unsmiling, he would literally shout at us when we entered the house. “What? Why are you here? Who invited you?” etc., and as children, each word would send us backwards one step at a time, until we were a safe distance from him, and then we would turn and run.

Chiththi didn’t seem all that bothered by it, and so we did not let him bother us too much. Village streets were open spaces to play, and we had a large ancestral home too where her son could join us. But the son rarely came to our house (perhaps if the dad found out, there would be trouble)?

When we wanted to play with him, one of us would gingerly walk past the house to see if  Mr.Iceberg was there, and if so, the person would pretend they forgot something, and retrace their steps. The days he went out of town were great for us, we could make as much noise as we wanted, and Chiththi would laugh right along with us. Some days she played cards with us, and we really didn’t mind an adult joining us. She was like another mother, and every child in the village and every visiting child loved her. She made the best homemade south Indian filter coffee, with milk from her cows.

We often wondered what made Chiththi so sunny, and how she could live with Mr.Iceberg, day in and day out. Wouldn’t that drive a woman crazy? Maybe Chiththi was so sunny a being that she was immune to his temper and his coldness. Maybe he wasn’t cold to her (but his behavior suggested otherwise). As we grew older, we rationalized that her son must have been the saving grace, his laughter and antics the solace for my beautiful aunt.

The son went to college, completed his education, and moved abroad. I did not get to visit Chithi after I finished college, we rarely went to the village by that time. Few years after the son moved, I heard she passed away from cancer. My vegetarian, pious Chiththi, who lived in a village with clean air and clean habits, full of love in her heart, died of cancer when she was in her late forties/early fifties. Relatively young!

I wonder how much the absence of the son may have caused the illness – perhaps she missed her son. All the more, because he was the one saving grace in that cold house with Mr.Iceberg, where all she was, was a being who cooked and kept the house, ironed the clothes and made sure Iceberg got what he wanted when he needed it. She was Tulasi in the Tundra, a thinking feeling smiling vibrant human being – denied the most basic of needs, human affection. She scattered her affection like pearls….and filled people’s lives with joy….until she was left with only the proverbial swine. The stress must have killed her silently.

***

Why would somebody ration this freely available resource, called Love? Why the stinginess with imparting this most basic of emotions?

Some close their hearts after a bitter experience. Perhaps someone broke their heart, and they are fearful of trusting again. So they lock themselves in a loveless prison, and build high walls. Some others ration love, using it to gain control over an unsuspecting person, as a “carrot and stick”: display of love is used as a reward, and withholding this love is punishment for the person. Such rationing makes them feel powerful and smart, yet they do not know this: when the relationship is a close one, and the person is conscientious, love and freedom give better rewards. They think control will get them what they want in life, and for a short while it does. In the longer term, the person they try to control would either wise up and learn not to rely on such conditional love, or they will lose the person to illness.

Some act loving when they need something, but then disappear after they get it. They trade in love, like a commodity: need something, give love; need is done with, no need to be loving anymore. Some even deem this behavior “practical” or “street smart”. As if they are managing a limited resource with care!!! Some deem more loving, caring beings as fools.

On the one hand, we read and hear that God is love. Pure love is indeed a most peaceful and happy emotion if left to itself. It makes the world go round and life worth living. But the lovers, healers, and caregivers of the world are deemed fools and used and abused at will……This is a baffling world indeed!

Then there are the gate-keepers of love – who “own” their loved one and decide whom the loved one can interact with and how. A friend of mine used to exclaim that such people dictate “whom to love, how to love, how much to love and when/how to express this love. F*** this sick love that sucks one’s life breath out of a person!” (his words, not mine)

Granted, exclusivity is the hallmark of some relationships, such as spouse. One cannot, in mainstream society have multiple spouses, or partners. Even with such social norms, there are people who decide to “possess” the loved one, and prevent them from interacting normally with friends and family. The possessive person can be anyone – a best friend, a spouse/partner, a parent, or even a child – a significant relationship in one’s life that one does not want to lose, but that is binding them with these terrible chains. If the loved one acts loving towards anyone else, all hell will break loose, and the person either has a choice of playing by the possessive person’s rules, or lose other significant relationships in life. A choice will be made of course due to the difficult circumstances – but the choice will not be a happy one. “அன்பிற்கும் உண்டோ அடைக்கும் தாழ்?” – is there a door that can block out love? Can the holy Ganga be stemmed by a dam?

Yet, shutting off the free flow of love from/to a significant relationship is bound to adversely affect the person, disturbing their peace and turning them into automatons in some way…..They might become hard as a result…. A living, thriving, vibrant portion of them is forever lost, and the possessor can only possess the rest…..It is a hollow victory!

***

Love is a precious resource, but also a plentiful resource. We can choose to open our hearts to love and laughter, sunshine and soft breezes. Or one can choose to ration the sunshine, allowing small amounts in case they will “be taken for a ride otherwise”; one can be afraid of the sunshine and fresh air, shut oneself in a dark room, possibly lock others in it as well. They can use the sunshine like a resource, putting solar panels on the roof to power the house – yet, never step out in the sun and let the light fill their being, or the breezes blow away the dark, dank air in their shut-in spaces. Their loss.

Sad though, is the Tulasi that is left to grow in the Tundra.

Daily rituals – meaningful, or not?

It maybe something you do absently, or something you make a conscious habit of and do it as part of a routine. It is done the same way each day, and done mechanically and quickly when in a hurry. Perhaps this is what gave rise to the phrase “meaningless ritual”.

When you think about it, no ritual is really meaningless. It could be a greeting you give your spouse each morning. A shared cup of coffee for 10 minutes each day, enjoyed in companionable silence. It could be the shout of “I am home!” when you come home from a long day at work, and that is met with cheers of “yay!!”. Bill Watterson in his comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes” had an extreme form of this greeting where Calvin returns from school, shouting “I AM HOME!” and is met with an instant thunderbolt-like spring of joy, a hug and roll on the floor from his best buddy Hobbes. Calvin sometimes dreads this moment, calling Hobbes a catapult-butt and shivering right after shouting “I AM HOME!”. But he never fails to say that, and this particular theme kept repeating every so often, in different forms, with one never growing tired of the ritual.

It could be reading a bedtime story for a child, one the child will never forego no matter how late it is and how tired the parent. It could be the prayer one offers the divine each morning, adorning the prayer area with flowers, lighting a lamp and incense sticks, and spending a few moments chanting prayers or in deep meditative silence. You may not even know the meaning of the chants, or even if you do, may not really focus on what you are doing. Yet you start the day with fragrant flowers and incense, and meditate – and a calm descends on you. That very calm may permeate in your work, and contribute to your positivity in the mornings. Meaningless? I think not.

Rituals foster connections and cement bonds. They grow relationships, encourage reciprocity and bring peace and joy to a household. How would it be if one comes home, says with relief and joy “I am home!!” and is met with stony silence and indifference……?!! The whole tone of the day changes, doesn’t it? The evening goes downhill, the night extends interminably and one may even lose sleep thinking about the utter lack of reciprocity and kindness. It is a squandered opportunity for a connection, a sullen lack of celebration of anything in life, and an attitude that breeds negativity and sadness in the home. And that grows contagious, with one carrying over that attitude to others and spoiling their day.

Imagine then, if the “I am home!” is met with a smile and a hug from a spouse, or a child running at full speed and throwing his or her body at the parent who just got home, in complete joyous abandon, the way only children can do!! The rest of the evening is spent with the feet hardly touching the ground…..And with the minutes flying by. Oh – it is 10pm already? Where did the time go? With one simple ritual, cloud nine can be had for next to nothing right in our own home.

Small rituals bring so many opportunities for a connection – that starts with the ritual and builds deepening bonds as time goes by. Similarly, the send off with a hug or a kiss, to school or to work, is another ritual that looks insignificant on the surface. The hug maybe quick, even given absent-mindedly…..But let the person be out of town for a day and we start to miss the person, and the warmth. A week with the person gone and the heart aches. The phone lines get busy – “when are you coming home? I miss you”…..You can trace the sentiment to the shared bond, the shared times, and the shared rituals that look so routine and ordinary on the surface.

Even an elaborate prayer that is several hours long, done as per a set procedure and with several long mantras, many of which we may not understand  – is never meaningless. It keeps traditions alive, and makes one feel connected to our ancestors. In how many households do we hear “My father used to do this pooja and now I am continuing it” or “my mother used to draw this particular kOlam and I learned it from her”. The father or mother may be in a different continent, or perhaps not in this world anymore, but that moment connects us to them…..and not just us, our children too. It is a slice of life, of family history. Those of us who like to pray mindfully, might then go and look up the meanings of the mantras, and learn something new in the process.

A friend of mine in the US calls his mother who lives in India everyday. It is a call lasting five minutes or less, with standard questions:

“Hello Amma, how are you?”

“I am fine son, how are you?”

“Amma, have you eaten? What was for dinner?”

The mother would describe her dinner, and ask the son the same questions.

This is the conversation in its entirety. Yet it is done day after day, with the mother awaiting the call, and the son remembering to make it. The son is married, with grown children in college. Yet he has called his mother every day for the last couple of decades and will keep doing so. Priceless love comes wrapped in the mundane…..

Back in my growing years, my father and I had a strange ritual. We were both night owls, with me studying late into the night, and my father coming home late from his travels. The whole house would go silent, and we would sit peacably and work. At one point we would turn off the lights and go to sleep. I would lie down, pull the blanket up to my neck, and wait a few minutes for the question that would invariably follow from the next room:

“Daughter, are you awake?”

“Yes, Appa”

“Can you get me a glass of water?”

*groan* (why does he wait till I comfortably pull the blanket and settle down and then ask this? But I don’t say this)

“Sure, Appa”

The water would be brought, and given. The empty glass taken back.

“Goodnight Appa”

“Goodnight child. Sleep well. Ace your exams!”

And that was our nightly ritual. To this day, long after I left the parental home and went on to study and have my own family, and seven years after my father’s passing, I remember this ritual and smile fondly. That one moment each day, I feel connected to my father. That is the power of a ritual!

Is there an interesting ritual you want to share? Is there a ritual you have with each significant person in your life, that you believe deepens your connection? Is there a significant relationship in your life that has no associated ritual of any form? Would the connection be deepened by adding a ritual?