Indrani opened the folds of the cotton saree, carefully spreading it on the bed for the umpteenth time. With a slight frown she inspected the saree, taking in the details of its border, the body and the pallu. Undoubtedly, it was an exquisite piece, pristine white, with a black thread border and multi-color bands forming the rest of the attractive skirt border. The same pattern of black and multi-colour bands were repeated in the pallu, this time vertically. The bands in hues of peach orange, sea green, salmon pink, cornflower blue and lilac only served to accentuate the snowy white body. However, the thought further deepened her frown. As she gently caressed the material, moving her hand across its body, it felt slightly textured but she knew it would drape beautifully. But Indrani didn’t want to wear white sarees anymore; and not because she was a widow. It was her firm conviction that a white saree looked like a shroud on her.
Considered to be a great beauty in her youth Indrani had grown to resent her haggard appearance. A glance at the mirror while holding the folded saree to her chest, reminded her of what she had lost. Unfortunately, she had not aged like wine and instead of laugh lines and crow’s feet around her eyes she found them sunken with dark circles under them and along with her hollowed cheeks these simply accentuated her hawk like nose. Taking care of a terminally ill husband for three years had reduced Indrani to a shriveling shadow of her former self. She had lost considerable weight, her skin turned saggy and lost its glow.
The marriage of her nephew at Bangalore was such a wonderful break from her monotonous, lonely life. After years she had laughed aloud without feeling guilty. Her children took good care of her but losing your partner of 35 years was tough on your soul. The saree had come as a gift from the bride’s side. Indrani fumed at her younger sister. Shrabani should have briefed the bride’s family better so that they could choose appropriate sarees, at least, for the aunts. She had done the same when her son Tana had got married last year. Shrabani was well aware that her elder sister eschewed white and went for hues like ivory, beige, gray, pale yellow like the champa flowers or even mauve but never baby pink. Shades like pink are meant for young women and not an old haggard like her. Should she get it dyed in some other shade? She dismissed it as soon as it crossed her mind. It was too beautiful to mess it up with dyes or block prints. With a deep sigh she got up and carefully folded away the saree. No, Indrani had made up her mind. She must get rid of the saree before Ena discovers it. Indrani’s daughter was a great fan of handloom cotton sarees and loved anything white. Indrani wanted Ena to drape colorful, bright and age appropriate sarees and not those washed up shades she usually preferred. The saree was too good to be given away to the maid. Indrani remained thoughtful for the rest of the day, selecting and rejecting possible candidates for re-gifting the saree.
The perfect opportunity presented itself, a few days later. Ria, Indrani’s new daughter-in-law sat with parcels and packages strewn all around after a marathon shopping expedition. Ria and Tana aka Tanaji had come down from UK for a few weeks intending to spend the Durga Puja with friends and families. They planned to spend a few days in Delhi with Indrani and Ena before leaving for Kolkata where Ria’s family was based. Ria had just returned home after a tiring but fulfilling day and was now showing her purchases to mom-in-law.
“What did you buy for your mother?” Indrani asked while fingering the pale yellow border of the grey tussar, Ria had bought for her.
“Maa does not want any more sarees. She told me there are plenty of new sarees in her wardrobe which she has never even worn for a day. So, I picked up a few other things, a soft sweater and a wrapper for her from UK,” said Ria.
“No, no, this will look very odd. This is your first puja after marriage. You must gift her a saree. Wait a minute!”
Indrani went to her room and returned with the white saree. “How about this? I think this will suit Shukladi very well.” Indrani desperately hoped that Ria would not ask too many question. She felt a little ill about the deceit but tamped it down quickly as Ria smiled and agreed. Indrani was confident that since Shrabani and Shukladi were in two different cities and didn’t move in the same circles any chance meeting of her sister and Ria’s mother while draped in this particular saree could be safely ruled out. She mentally patted herself for finding the perfect solution. Shukladi has been a widow for a long time and preferred starched white cotton sarees with borders. This was indeed an ideal gift for her. What’s the point of tucking away a saree in your wardrobe when you are never going to wear it? Ena would not have liked the idea and Indrani would be up for a long lecture if she ever found out but that was quite unlikely.
But it turned out that Indrani was wrong.
Shukla complained to her daughter, “What was your mother-in-law thinking while buying this saree for me? Has she ever seen me wearing such colorful sarees?”
“But the saree is white and beautiful, Maa.”
“Look at the border, it is so broad and almost half way through. And the colours – widows don’t wear orange or pink either. Have you turned her into a memsaheb like you?” Shukla continued to grumble.
An exasperated Ria finally said, “If you don’t want to wear just leave it in your wardrobe. My mother-in-law is hardly going to ask you to drape the saree and pose for her.” Shukla dismissed the idea as soon as she heard it. There was no point in accumulating sarees in her wardrobe. She was going to give this saree away. And she had the perfect candidate in her mind – Mohua, her niece.
Mohua was Shukla’s elder sister’s daughter. She had dropped out of school, ran off with a loser, got married at Kalighat Temple, only to discover that her husband first love was the bottle. Although Mohua had done a stupid thing she turned out to be smarter in figuring out the rest. She ditched him after her baby was born, got help from an NGO who worked with destitute and abused women, learned to stitch and sew and then fought with her brothers to get entry in her ancestral house and set up her own business of stitching petticoats for a wholesaler and supplemented her income by sewing falls and edgings on sarees. Her daughter was studying in class IV. Shukla was the only one among her family sympathetic towards her and maintained a close relationship. Mohua dropped in almost every week. Since Shukla no longer ventured out due to her age, Mohua got her the materials required for knitting and crochet, two of Shukla’s favourite past time.
Just before Puja this time, Mohua brought a bunch of petticoats and white long sleeve blouses that Shukla preferred. She had sewn them herself. “Mashi, check this out. This time I looked specially for softer fabrics to make your blouses and petticoats, both are pure cotton and comfortable. This should last you the whole year.”
Shukla was pleased. Her heart went out to the girl who was still paying for that one mistake of her youth. “You should have brought Titli today. I want to buy her a nice frock this time.”
“I have to go and get some more orders from the shop. There are only two days left and I have to finish them before the shop closes for Pujas,” said Mohua. Every year Shukla gave some money to Mohua to buy new dresses for her daughter. This time she also handed her the saree. “See this saree was sent by Ria’s mother-in-law. In this age am I going to wear this kind of colorful sarees? Indrani has no sense. You can do some embroidery in the white part and wear it.” Mohua kept quiet. Who was going to spend more money on a cotton saree? She usually thrived on salwar kameez and wore saris on very rare occasions. On those occasions she preferred to wear the more fashionable faux silk or crepe sarees. Cotton sarees require too much maintenance.
Mohua took the saree to a boutique owner at Deshapriya Park. She gave Mohua a lot of work these days, sewing falls, tassels and doing edgings of sarees bought by customers. She had been eyeing a royal blue net saree with faux stones sewn on it for a long time. She was thinking about discussing a payment schedule when luck truly favoured her. “Didi, take a look at this saree. Will you exchange this for the net saree? You can adjust the rest of the amount from my wages.”
One look at the saree and Sahana, the owner, knew she had struck gold. She was tempted to keep the saree for herself but then the hard nosed businesswoman in her surfaced, acknowledging the fact that an exclusive piece of six yards will do wonders to her reputation as an entrepreneur. All her instincts screamed that this saree was going to fly off the shelves immediately. It was one of a kind, not the mass woven stuff of power looms. “No Mohua, there is no need for any more payment. This can be adjusted against the price of the net saree,” Sahana beamed at her. Although her boutique enjoyed massive footfall her reputation was earned through her clients across India and even overseas. Sahana waited for the festive season to get over before putting up the photographs. True to her prediction the white saree was booked within 5 minutes after putting out the FB post.
“Look at this Maa, just take a look at this beauty,”
“What is it? Why are you yelling?” Indrani entered the room and after one look at the bed and felt faint. How did this saree land up on Ena’s bed? Is it the same saree or a similar looking one? No, it must be the same one, Indrani remembered the unevenness of the thread at one spot in the border.
“Where did you get this?”
“It was pure luck, Maa. Just before going off to sleep I checked the FB page of this fantastic boutique I was talking about; they had just posted it and within seconds I booked it. I was so excited and the saree turned out to be exactly the same as the digital photograph and may be even better. It has cost me a bomb but well worth it. See, this is a Kanchi cotton and this black thread border has this series of birds – these are called annapakshis, a motif considered to be traditional and sacred. Remember we have similar birds on that tall brass lamp. But now take a look at these multi-color bands against the white body setting the saree apart from the usual designs we find in the shops. I am going to wear this saree with my black spaghetti top and turn heads. La- la-la. It is a pity that pujas got over but I have to wear this on a suitable occasion, may be my friend Mahika’s engagement ceremony.”
Ena was talking a mile a minute but Indrani had by then tuned out Ena. Lost in her thoughts she even forgot to berate Ena for choosing a white saree for an auspicious occasion.
How did the saree end up at the boutique? As Ena went on and on, singing paeans about the exclusive saree she now faintly recollected Shrabani’s comment that bride’s family had got each saree custom-weaved by an expert weaver. A dull red suffused Indrani’s pale face as she thought more about her folly. “What if…what if Shukladi had worn the saree and Ria had posted it on FB? How embarrassing it would have turned out for me and of course for Shrabani as well!” Indrani could not think any more and collapsed on the bed. And then sent up a prayer. Thanked God for the small mercies. A little detective work might not have been amiss in this case but that might let the cat out of the bag. For once, Indrani was willing to let the sleeping dogs lie.