“We women isolate a herd of cows, cows, mind you, not bulls, raise them on a steady diet of mango leaves and wait to make a puree of the earth they urinate on. We keep building on such mud mounds day after day, week after week and month after month after which we dry out these clods of earth and winnow them to derive a yellow color to dye our fabric for phulkari.”
My young, ignitable mind grew up on many such irregular anecdotes by my mother in her carrying voice.
To my unpracticed ears, my mother’s words, like those of all the women who collectively raised me in the village, sometimes sounded denotative, other times literal.
“Whether it was one or another, I could never say as an ungainly, un-girly child with broken teeth and grazed elbows. And I cannot do so today, on 13 April 2020, when I am touching 40 and telling you this outlandish story that my mother once told me,” I explain to my young daughter Tia.
“More myth, less truth? Or more truth, less myth? The mystery of her stories and of those around her only deepen with each passing year of her death,” I rue.
Though it is a clear, cloudless spring day, our morning progresses with despair, gripped as New Delhi is with the terrible coronavirus disease.
“We have to mark today in some way for it is Baisakhi, the spring festival of harvest, where fields blooming with wheat, barley, peas, gram and mustard would be ready for harvest in our village,” I say to Tia, desperate to overcome our sad hopelessness.
The yearning for my roots is especially deep today because images of food, beating drums and dancing, so threaded to my annual childhood Baisakhi celebrations, have gathered an afterlife in my psyche. And, because today, for some inexplicable reason, I see more clearly, more than the days before. Of how contained Tia is within me as I in her, the same way my mother is within both me and Tia, with death being just an insubstantial barrier.
“Tell me other such stories of phulkari and our village women,” Tia urges. My soul lights up.
I begin with my aunt’s story, one that traced another unrecorded female community experience and remains silted in a similar enigma as my mother’s tales. “We women of Punjab,” she had told me, “who live on land between five rivers, fold in life’s pulsating force within the coarse yet sturdy base cloth that we spin at home and dye into colors like brown madder, yellow, rust red and indigo.”
Tracing our community parables, chipped by repetition, she had continued, “Using the motif of flowers (phul), which stand for life itself, we lend our rough-textured fabric shape or akari to create phulkari patterns and work to collectively to create veils, lenghas, bedspreads and wall hangings so each item gathers a life of their own in homes and on the bodies of women.”
My cousin Jasmeet had contoured the tactile heirloom tale further with the confidence of a woman who knows her mind as well as her stitches. Her words rolled thus, I say to Tia. “We use bright-colored patts, soft untwisted silk floss, for embroidery and through a mishmash of the button-hole, running, darn and cluster stitches we stitch happiness and happiness only. When girls are born, mothers and grandmothers start embroidering phulkari dupattas so that they will swirl languorously like fine silk in this life and beyond. This as the girl will be the life-giver for future generations.”
Why not weave sorrow, I had perversely wanted to know. “After all,” I had argued with her, “even though I am young, I know that when life goes about its business it creates upheavals as much as it does exuberance. And woman’s lives in particular hold all of the trauma of their past, of the past preceding their past, really, of all time.”
Jasmeet had attempted to offer my restive mind clarity of sorts.
“We women believe that we can mold history, which it is in no way innate, and that we can actually bequeath the secret of joy to our daughters through our genes, recipes and stitches. If you look carefully at our phulkaris, you will see that we stitch on the reverse side of the cloth. It is perhaps our quiet way of saying that there are antidotes to dread if one looks beneath the surface. Our way of iterating that joy can be found in happy connections and connectivity’s in our lives…if only we learn to look at things differently,” she had said.
Both my daughter and I fall silent after I recap Jasmeet’s words. It is only today that the true import of her words sink inside of me.
After a while, I softly break into a traditional Punjabi folk song and get Tia to hum along, keeping the mellow mood going.
“Is phulkari meri maan ne kadhi, iss noo ghut ghut japhiyan paawan.” (“My dear mother has embroidered this phulkari, I embrace it again and
again with affection.”)
“We are singing this song,” I point out to Tia, “to honor all the women of our land who knew the deepest suffering of living yet chose to celebrate the transcendent beauty of life. To honor of all the women in our land who have armed both you and me with the knowledge of how to remain calm in the direst of days by teaching us to look at the flip side of life and at the connections that matter. And to honor our inheritance they have left behind for us in the guise of their phulkaris that hang on our walls, grace our beds and are stacked in my cupboard.”
“These are the treasures I pass on to you and you to your children,” I add as an afterthought.
“Our Baiksaki is now complete,” my daughter hugs me. With joy.