A few moments before death

by Srividhya Suresh

I have always wondered about the last seven minutes of a person’s life. It is believed that their entire life’s memories dance before their eyes in transient glimpses. All memories from their childhood until their final breath. Every breath of human life seems like a tiny, insignificant blip in the Universe’s time. That is what I thought too until I saw my grandfather battling for the same, insignificant breath as his lungs were befriending the Oxygen cylinders which were also sinking with every second. I held his hand and watched him struggle when I realized that those were the last seven minutes of his life. In an attempt to immortalize his Eighty-Five years of life in seven minutes, I wrote “A few moments before Death”. It’s a brief account of his complete life in transitory moments, from age to age and from memories to memories. Writing even a word about his life is akin to tampering with the freshest of my wounds but his existence stays eternalized through these very words. 

It was 1952. I was 14 years old. My classroom had a long wooden bench for the mathematics teacher to keep his briefcase on while my friends and I sat down, gaping at the blackboard. I was exceptionally good at Mathematics. Halfway through looking at an equation, I would solve it in my head and raise my hand to answer the question. My teacher’s name was Devarajan; he wore a loose beige cotton shirt with a dhoti to class and he adored me so much that he used to wait for me to solve all problems in class alongside him. I often heard my family say I was their Einstein. My friends, Ranga and Anand, were bailed out of answering questions because of my spontaneity. After school, we would take out time to go around our town’s biggest park where stray dogs were always looming around in crowds. Ranga’s father soon transferred to Madras and he left. But, I heard Ranga died of old age 4 years ago. I’m as old as him, in fact, I’m four years older than him now. I guess it’s just the way it is. Ranga’s father was directly involved in many events pre-independence. I had barely seen him six times since he was always working in Bombay. Ranga would have stories about how his father had seen Mahatma Gandhi render his speeches to warm hundreds of people’s lives with purpose. 

I was only 9 years old when India got independence but my father recalled that he took me to a public speech in Kakinada on his bullock cart when I was 5. Naturally, I had seen Gandhi but I don’t remember it. When I told you for the first time that I had seen Gandhi when I was your age, you were baffled. As you grew up, you told me you were reading about him in your history classes and that it shocked you that I met a man so old that he was being taught to you about. 

On bright days full of various delicacies and relatives jamming into the house, I would lay gently on my mother’s lap. Even if her leg hurt, she would caress my hair, graze her calloused fingers from the heat through my hair. It felt like the safest place to be on Earth, when she would slowly rub my ear lobe with her index and thumb, I was induced into the softest sleep. She slowly moved my head from her lap to a pile of her sarees near the steel cupboard. When I woke up, I would find her outside the house blowing into a pipe to heat the sticky brass cooking pot. Pattamal, Amma. 

It feels like my life is an ocean now; with every wave, there’s a new memory but it disappears before I can live through it. Some waves are so big, some so small. Every wave takes me to a different age and to different people. 

The year is 1968. My wife, Saranya, is the most beautiful woman on the planet for me. People tend to never know if their partners truly love them, but my wife, she loved me. She loved me more than anything or anybody she had ever laid eyes on. I would come home late at night, sometimes drunk and she would sit me down, not to feed me her food that our neighbors swooned over but to pour buckets of the coldest water straight from the borewell onto my head. I loved her, sometimes out of fear, but I truly loved her. She would wait for me to return home at night, however late it took. On certain days, she would fight with me and not cook or eat for a day and a half in a row. Those days meant she needed me to stay with her, talk to her, give her the attention that she deserved. What more of a connection could two people share? She’s loved me now for fifty years and not once has she eaten without me by her. She could die right in my arms and I know she would be happy. 

Back when I was 35 years old, I wasn’t a happy man, I had terrible debts that I could never clear and two children to fend for by now. I brought two girls unto the face of the earth while I had meager money to raise them at all and very meager money to raise them happily. There were small-time loan sharks by the end of the streets and I borrowed money from all of them. It would feel as though bitterness flowed through my veins every time I borrowed money, tripling the amount I had to repay. At the end of the street we were living in, there lived a few small-time loan sharks, and I borrowed money from all of them. Every time I borrowed money and had to repay thrice the amount, it felt as if bitterness coursed through my veins. 

A few hateful nights, these men from whom I borrowed hundreds would walk fiercely towards our house demanding a return. When we spotted them from across the street through our small broken window, we switched our lights off and pretended like nobody was home. I couldn’t repay the baleful debt that I had plundered myself into when I had no money for next month’s survival. But even on these nights, Saranya never complained. We would just occasionally laugh at how we named our second daughter after our favorite character from a soap back in the day. Those felt like the days of my lives, the days I had some purpose to live for. What purpose do I have now? Your parents take care of me, they feed me medicines every morning, afternoon, and night and spend extensive amounts of money to keep me sound. My mind is in complete turmoil now; I’m budged around so many different parts of my life and although I never stay in the memory long enough to relish it completely, it feels peaceful.

I wasn’t rich enough to provide for my family, I wasn’t capable of giving them the best of their lives but the days I felt I hit rock-bottom were also the happiest days of my life. Do you remember how I said I worked at the theatre? As a manager. Devi Theatre. A simpleton like me, from a small town, fled all the way to Madras and led a life as a manager at the most pristine cinemas of the day then. I had immense pride and was respected by everyone. I worked there for so many years, it was always bustling with an excited crowd, regardless of day or night. I’ve seen all of your favorite actors there; they would stop by on the first day of their releases and sign tissues and t-shirts of men cheering. 

I turned 45 even before I knew it. I realized as a 38-year-old man with threatening debts that if I could survive a week without losing anything, I could survive the next week too. I grew old taking one week at a time like that, never realizing I had lost so many years of my life. I lived the same day for almost ten years. I paid for your mom’s and aunt’s school and college. Sometimes, one of them would want to watch a film with their friends and it would make me the happiest man on Earth to be able to book seats for as many ever and give them everything they needed for those three hours inside the cinema. Before I saw it, they had to get married and they did. You know the rest. Your mom has kept me with her all her life. 

Half of my life seemed to be over at the sight of your mom and aunt growing up. When your children grow up, you’re so engrossed with their compelling adulting and growing that you overlook how old you’re turning yourself. Nights were harder to stay up and you started to feel the strain your body was undertaking to get you through a few days. 

I know this is all a dream, fragments of my imagination weaving a story out of my life. I can hear you outside these dreams, calling me out loud but I don’t seem to be able to move. I’m really trying to. I want to see your faces pat you on the head once more but I cannot move. I always thought dying would be painful, but this feels comfortable. 

When I’ve been with your mom, I don’t think I ever had to work for myself. That’s why I always jokingly said I was going to help you get ready for school so I could pay your mom back for everything she’s done for me. 

I turned 60 and then I turned 70 and then I turned 80. I lived all my years loving only your brothers and you. I lived all these years wanting to wrap your school notebooks with brown sheets, make you cereal when you returned from school, walk you to your music classes, and occasionally buy you a packet of chips secretly. Sometimes, I would forget my purpose too, but then you would come in the room and ask me what 753 subtracted from 1921 is. That was my purpose; coffees, brown sheets, and stories. Sometimes, a little mathematics. 

I have been standing at the shore of the sea all my life, watching my life and its reminiscences roll over in waves to gently moisten my legs ephemerally. I’m inside the vast, blue Sea now; I’m not drowning, I’m not suffocating but I’m living under the waters of my own life – my own memories.

What awaits me after these few moments is not non-existence but a sea that is calm; a sea that is astoundingly still. 

Author: Srividhya Suresh (she/her) is a young writer based out of Chennai. As of 2021, she is pursuing her Bachelors in English Literature and Communications from Stella Maris College. Her passion has always been abundant in Fiction, Films, and music. She grew up in a household always filled with people and an overwhelming number of memories to save. Although her taste and proficiency have improved with time, she believes she is still more of a reader than a writer. Srividhya is especially attached to simplistic stories that reveal the every day unnoticed rather than unfold different dimensions. She had a blog for herself as an early teenager and desisted from writing there as she stepped into adolescence for reasons she thinks are obvious. She doesn’t have her entire life mapped yet, but she is wholly sure that it will always revolve around books, writing, and literature. Also, maybe dogs.

Of Memory, History, and Itinerant Museums

By Shruti Lakhtakia

“There’s no escape from the shadows that mount, inexorably, in this darkening season. Nor can we escape the shadows our families cast. That said, there are times I miss the pleasant shade a companion might provide.”

We live our lives in the shades and shadows of personal histories. Histories constructed by memories.

Sipping the chai that I’d become accustomed to over the past eleven months of moving back home, I turned the last page of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts in July. I remember being left with an unsettled feeling and lingering remnants of the lyrical, descriptive prose that she excels at. In a year marked by fear and difficult decisions regarding health, livelihood, and border limitations, the free-flowing movements of migrants’ lives prior to the pandemic seemed to be an entirely different world. 

A friend had remarked a week before that as a migrant, I would relate to Whereabouts. But after staying at home for so many months, my senses were perhaps not alive to unfamiliarity in the same way that they would be in a new place – a railway platform in a foreign city or an unexplored neighbourhood. I just couldn’t immediately bring myself to appreciate the novel.

Walking through the streets of Oxford

And then a week later, I returned to the UK, where I am deep in the weeds of my PhD research in Public Policy. There, in being attenuated to the smallest of shifts in my surroundings, in conversations with baristas, in airport lounges with strangers, snatches from Whereabouts sneaked up on me. In the London tube journey from Victoria to Charing Cross, observing a young mother and daughter pair lost in the world of their own conversations. At the Old Bodleian Library in Oxford, where the silence felt comforting, the lack of a fan in the heat- overwhelming. On a boat that floated back at dusk into the Cherwell boathouse, gleaming with fairy lights. At the Ashmolean, Britain’s first public museum, founded in 1683, where a special exhibition commemorated the arrival of the Windrush generation, rendering in ceramic the intersections of tea, trade, and transatlantic slavery. 

The chapters in Whereabouts all refer to places. ‘At the Stationer’s. ‘By the Sea’. ‘In My Head,’ a place more real than any other. But more than that, they captured the narrator in those places. They referred to how those places constructed the narrator’s sense of self.

I spent most of the flight from Delhi to London reading Home in the World, Amartya Sen’s memoir, which I picked up after Whereabouts. As a development economist, Sen’s journey resonates and inspires endlessly. But more than that, his recounting of personal history and how it intertwined with India’s freedom struggle and the partition, made me think of how our personal histories interact and intersect with others’ histories. Family histories, to be sure. But also national histories, which somehow being in a foreign land underlines in a way that being at home, surrounded by those stories, similar ones never made salient, somehow did not.

Cherwell Boathouse Oxford

On my second weekend in the UK, I visited a friend from India in Cambridge, doing his own PhD in Law. As we spoke about social science research and its relationship with policymaking back home, I brought up the complicated feelings that Sen’s memoir engendered. I soon found myself in the middle of a rant, and as with rants, it took a life of its own. “If we can’t learn from our history, then what’s the point, even? If in seventy years we’re still fighting about the same stuff, what did we learn? They might as well just shut the History Department and go home.” What, I thought, was the point of all this scholarship in history, if human beings are unwilling, or unable to learn from the mistakes of the generations past? What is the purpose of all those personal and national stories beyond the point of indulgence and narrative? How could such lessons be made more germane to policy?

Four days later, I caught up with a friend from Kashmir in London. A PhD candidate in History, I might have pored over some of my frustrations to her but felt sufficiently mortified by my previous rant to not take the matter further. In a cosy tea room in London, over cups of black tea infused with citrus orange peel, blue cornflower petals, and the scent of lemongrass, we exchanged and repeated stories from our days in Delhi, Oxford, London, and the toils of the previous year. Stories that defined our here and now, and determined whether we would take the flight home next week, or visit a sibling far away in the winter. We made hopeful plans to visit new neighbourhoods and museums together and commiserated about not doing so in the past. As South Asians do, we paid obeisance to our history in British museums. And yet, as we acknowledged the fact that most of those artefacts in the museums should never have been there in the first place, we appreciated the nuance that our record back home in preserving records, archives, and artefacts in national and state museums was less than stellar. Her work in the archives had been enough to establish that.

When I returned to Oxford and mentioned this to the friends I was staying with, an Irish and American couple, they empathized. The Library of Congress in Washington DC was destroyed by British troops in 1814. In 1922, when the British left Ireland, vengeful armed action at the start of the civil war led to the Public Records Office being destroyed, wiping out hundreds of years of Irish history. As per the list of destroyed libraries on Wikipedia, more have been destroyed by human action than by earthquakes, floods or fires. 

As debates about statues and artefacts, colonial power and cancel culture rage on in the UK, and indeed in the rest of the world, it is worth acknowledging that the country has put an immense amount of resources in preserving and displaying objects of history, making them freely accessible to visitors. Free admission to national museums, once a highly contested public issue, is now a fact of British cultural life. About 40 percent of all visitors are foreigners.

And yet, how many people from the rest of the world can access central London? From visas to the affordability of travel, the barriers run high. Part of creating access means thinking outside these boundaries. Making artefacts available to larger swathes of humanity, especially those who are owed access to their own history. Perhaps museums should no longer be grand buildings in central London, but mobile institutions setting up camps for weeks at a time in the small towns and large cities of Romania, Botswana, and Bangladesh. If such itinerant museums could mean that younger generations of people across the world can see with their own eyes the treasures and lessons of the past, then perhaps larger cultural histories could intersect with personal ones in unimaginable ways. Such access to history would ensure that the lessons of history are not relegated to hardbound volumes in archives and libraries, to inaccessible corners of museums and scholarship, but live on in a way where Sen’s history converges in physical places with the history of the narrator in Whereabouts.

Oral historian Aanchal Malhotra, author of Remnants of a Separation, describes families’ journeys during the partition by encapsulating that time in the material objects that people chose to carry with them, physical reminders of family, home, and soil. Objects of the past embodying personal but also national history. In mobile museums, we could find an entire world, made accessible irrespective of literacy and wealth. 

“We’re enfolded by the wide-open space, enclosed by all that emptiness.”

Personal history is not about finding a home, but constructing it, just as memories over a lifetime are constructed by what we choose to remember and what we choose to omit. It is the alternating forces of push and pulls, centre and periphery, home and world, that define us and our ability for appreciation. Whereabouts grounds the places we visit in the context of places we come from. And it is in this process of meaning-making that it excels. In the personal histories that we carry within ourselves, and in the way these histories choose to link up with those of others, in the way that shared meaning emerges when that connection takes place. In doing so, we find home and community in people we never knew, we never thought we would know, and never imagined knowing. If history can help build that shared meaning with people in countries that your own may have once colonized, or warred against, or just never known, then there is a lot that we can yet learn from it. 

It is an understanding that Lahiri brings to life in an intimate and yet open way, probably given her own experiences of choosing to live in foreign places and own them. Daughter of Indian immigrants to the US, she moved to Italy in 2012 to learn and write in Italian. If you read Whereabouts, prepare to be unmoored and lost, and in that losing, find a new manner of looking at your personal past, and that of those around you.

Shruti Lakhtakia is a PhD candidate in Public Policy at the University of Oxford working on development economics and governance. She loves the magic of words and walks. Instagram: @shruti.lakhtakia 

Of History and Forgetfulness

By Manu Dubey

The year is 2019. In the warm embrace of familial relationships, winters are spent sharing stories under the sun. My father, now in his early sixties, gets exhilarated when he talks of his school days, just as a child would be excited about when talking about a prank. He reminisces about the first time he got to wear slippers in 6th std. ‘Oh, the joy!’, he says, ‘it was incomparable’. ‘And what before that?’, I question. ‘Nothing. Barefoot’, his voice now filled with a sense of pride. A particular scene from my grandfather’s village house flashes in my mind. A big mud house with freezing insides sits beside the Rapti river in Uttar Pradesh, with numerous mango, lychee and mulberry trees on its banks. Effortlessly flowing through Nepal, the river bends south-east to enter Uttar Pradesh and through our backyard. So when like all desi fathers Papa said he crossed a river to attend school, I easily believed him. In hindsight, it’s funny that I played by the same river that was once a struggle for him (which he totally denies, just as fathers do!).  

With nothing but each other’s company, Papa tells me about his surgery. The year is 1975. His first visit to Bombay and the relatives who sent dabbas to the hospital throughout his stay. ‘I would never forget the food, it was tasteless yet delicious’. A scar resembling a giant lizard rests on his arm now; almost like a whitish silicone mould just emptied of ice cream. As a kid, I believed, one day the lizard would crawl through Papa’s arm and slither away into nothing. Instead, it stayed with him, with us as a family and occupied space like any of us. The scar(y) lizard is unhealable. The year is 2020. I imagine the hospital bed; small and dull, comforting my father in pain, trying to map the faces of those relatives I never met but will always have gratitude for. I imagine a young boy with a moustache that my mother would later fall for, roaming on the streets of Bombay having no idea he’ll be back after 3 years and then not for another 42. 

The year is 1981. In the chilly winters of North India, a girls’ choir is singing while the mesmerized onlookers clap to the beats. The moment is captured and later produced to a 4 by 5 inches photo souvenir. The year is 2021. While rummaging through family albums, I find pictures of waterfalls and hilltops. Four small images, precisely 2 by 3 inches, tucked inside cheap plastic pockets of the long red photo album. I try to take them out, struggle with the photos stuck to the plastic, and find another photograph carefully kept behind the black and white sunset. It’s a picture of my mother and her friends (singing) on their Rover Ranger Scout trip to Panchmarhi. Inheriting music and trauma in equal parts, my mother is many things but hugely the most lively person in the room. 

The year is 1997. My mother keeps getting ill. Word of mouth, papa took charge of things and shuffled between the office and home. The year is 2021. Outside home, an egalitarian society still exists in only hopes. But inside, we wish papa too on mother’s day for instinctively, and naturally, breaking stereotypes of a patriarchal society. Living with progressive parents, it scares me to think that life could be lived any other way.   

In the digital universe, our social media feeds are structured in a way that the most recent things float to the top and everything is in reverse chronology which conditions us to believe, rather falsely, that the most recent is the most important or that the older events matter less or just exist less. 

We are compelled to believe that things that are not on Google or on the news channels never happened or never existed or just don’t matter, whereas, I think probably 99% of the record of human evolution is off the internet. It suggests, what is urgent right now always holds much more value than what is important in the grand scheme of things.

But do historical events lose sentimental value with time? Will my father’s first slippers and last visit to Bombay ever mean any less to me when I turn 62? Will the details of the first house my parents moved into after marriage ever fade in my imagination? I fear this sort of time bias. My forgetfulness scares me. In the time of screenshots and archived posts, I fear losing the bits of details my parents hold so close to. I have this urge to claim history, of my mother’s wonderful college life and my father’s shoe-less childhood, of the places they inhabited in their early days, of the moments of love fabricated with the time that I can only feel now, like when I hold the photograph which my father made; Mumma getting dressed up in front of the mirror, not knowing of being the subject of his frame. 

I can only play those simpler times in my head by never really being a part of it and trying to leech onto it for some belonging. Just like a cuttlefish can remember every meal it has eaten even in old age, I yearn to never forget some things.

In the past couple of years, I realised my forgetfulness isn’t just a careless habit but something I have unconsciously developed over the years as a defence mechanism. It’s called motivated forgetting. In 1894, it was Friedrich Nietzsche who brought the idea of motivated forgetting. He wrote that man must forget in order to advance and stated that it is an active process, in the sense that we forget specific events as a defence mechanism and Sigmund Freud agreed on the idea of repression of memories as a form of self-preservation. Which is to say, if something reminds my mind of an unpleasant event, my mind may automatically switch to unrelated topics to distract itself. This in turn induces forgetting, unintentionally, making it a motivated action. 

A very simple example being, while writing about these memories, my mind struggled to put the bits and pieces in place. What started with avoiding the unpleasant memories sometimes takes over the pleasant ones too.

In the order of things, archiving and memorialisation always comes last. It is almost always done as an afterthought. So if there was a museum of memories, I would intricately weave a garland of all my happy-sad remembrances into a wreath and exhibit it for the world to see how beautiful life can be. 

The idea of presentism is calming yet a little scary. To say that things once never existed or would not do eternally is to say we would one day lose our existence to nothing, that the universe would go back to where it once began, a mere speck of dust.

Manu Dubey is an independent photographer and writer. Her practice revolves around subjects of art, culture, personal narratives, familial history and relationships. She loves reading books and dislikes artspeak.

Instagram: @kuchtasveers

Sari – Of Memories, Rebellion & Femininity

By Maliha Khan

My mother in a pink Banarasi sari with my father.

The politicization of clothing for women is often observed in the South Asian region, particularly, in my home country Pakistan. As women in Pakistan continue their fight against the deeply-entrenched patriarchy, one of their struggles is to reclaim their right to wear whatever their hearts desire. The Sari is one such item of clothing that has drawn constant criticism being considered by many in Pakistan an “Indian” or “Hindu” garment. By designating shalwar kameez as the national dress of Pakistan, the alienation of sari became a political move in order to cut ties with anything that came from the pre-Partitioned India and forge a new distinct national identity different from that of India and Bangladesh, where sari is still worn by many women on a daily basis.

In 1977, when General Zia seized power in Pakistan in a military coup, his regime launched an extensive campaign to control what women wore which extended to the sari as well, writes Khawar Mumtaz in his book Women of Pakistan: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back (1987). Although the right-wing’s attempts to ban the sari failed as many women in the higher ranks of government continued to wear saris, including women officers on non-combat duty in the Pakistani Army, this certainly created a dichotomy between what was considered national and what was Islamic. 

Islamization has a long history in Pakistan since the 1950s, however, it became the “centerpiece” of General Zia’s administration, as Owen Bennet Jones writes in his book Pakistan: Eye of the Storm (2002). Zia introduced Islamic laws leading to the Islamization of the legal system, Islamized the educational curriculums by making teaching of the Quran and Islamiat (Islamic studies) compulsory in schools and generally promoted the observance of Islamic moral standards. Thus, by categorising the sari as “unislamic”, Zia’s regime began to police women’s clothing choices too, in order to ensure they dressed modestly, consistent with the Islamic way of living. 

Growing up in Karachi, watching Indian TV serials and Bollywood films, I noticed that sari was an essential part of Indian women’s wardrobe. I often wondered why most women in Pakistan didn’t wear saris as part of their everyday clothing anymore even though it was very much a part of Pakistani culture up until the 1970s. Recently I learned that during Zia’s regime in1981, female news anchors were barred from wearing the sari, as part of the ‘Islamisation’ campaign. Even though Zia has been long dead, the everyday-sari-wearing culture is almost non-existent in Pakistan.

My first memory of a sari is from the time my nani’s older sister who we call babu-wali nani, owing to the fact that she refers to us kids as babu, came to visit us when I was about five. She is a short, lean woman, about 4 feet and 8 inches. Her cotton saris, soft as mulmul draped her petite lean figure beautifully creating soft waves through the fabric. Even after moving to Pakistan after the partition, she is the only woman in my family who continued to wear a sari every day. 

My mother’s aunt and married cousin both wearing saris on her wedding reception.

Both my mother and father’s families originally hail from a town in India called Bihar and lived in East Pakistan for several years before finally coming to Karachi. While I have seen pictures of my nani wearing a sari, I can’t recall ever seeing her wearing one. I learned from ammi that nani used to wear saris everyday, even after coming to Pakistan up until I was born. I do remember my dadi wearing saris though even after I was born well into my early teens. After that, for some reason she stopped wearing them too and started wearing shalwar-kameez instead. My mother, on the other hand, only wore saris at close family weddings, and that too she stopped once she gained some weight in the past decade or so. When I asked her about it, she told me that it was difficult to carry a sari when my brothers and I were toddlers and shalwar kameez was much more comfortable to wear at weddings after she had us. Despite that, for some reason, we both knew she would wear a sari at my wedding reception and she did. 

Through the women in my family, I came to know about the different types of saris, each with its own unique fabric and design. From babu-wali nani, I learned about the effervescent cotton saris which, when new, can be crisp yet malleable and when washed and worn over time, can soften like pure mulmul. From nani and dadi, I came to appreciate georgette saris – plain cream and gold ones through nani and printed ones through dadi. From ammi, I found out about the ‘fancy’ saris which were worn at weddings and were, as Saba Imtiaz writes, “a customary part of a bride’s trousseau” – both bari as well as jahez. 

My Nani and Nana with my parents on their wedding reception. My nani is wearing a georgette printed sari.

Growing up, I used to look forward to the shopping trips my mother would make with my aunts and/or grown-up cousins to Jama Cloth Market before a wedding in the family. As a woman of style herself, known for her excellent taste in clothes, my mamoos and chachoos had delegated the responsibility of preparing the bari of their soon-to-be bride to my mother. A wholesale fabric market in Karachi established even before Independence, Jama Cloth is famous for ‘fancy’ bridal dresses and saris. Upon reaching the market, we would scour each shop for nice and affordable bridal shararas, one for the wedding and one for the reception along with other items for the trousseau including saris. While ammi’s bari and jahez (from back in 1991 when she got married) had consisted of mostly Banarasi saris and georgette ones with delicate golden threads, the ones we bought for my future aunts were more ‘fancy’ – most of them embroidered with heavy zari and dabka work. Banarasi saris had apparently become a thing of the past in my family, except when they were adorned by some of my extended aunts from Orangi Town (who lived near Banaras Colony – the home of Banarasi fabric in Pakistan) at some family wedding. 

My family was amongst those who had maintained the idea that saris are only appropriate after marriage, although my mother told me that both she and khala-ammi  (her older sister) used to wear them in Bangladesh even before they got married. Surprisingly, this unusual custom crept in our family once they came to Pakistan, despite it being ‘normal’ for unmarried girls to wear saris when they lived in Bangladesh. She did say, though, that girls of upper/middle stratum ‘good’ families (whether Bengali or Bihari) that went to school wore shalwar kameez usually and only wore saris sometimes for example, on school picnics. On the other hand, girls from the lower strata who didn’t go to school wore saris on a daily basis instead of shalwar kameez. Married women, be it from upper or lower stratum, always wore saris there. I found this distinction of wearing saris between social classes in Bangladesh interesting, further contributing to the discussion on the dress code among women in East Pakistan back in the day. 

My mother in a beautiful sari with zari work from back in the day when she got married.

Since I had subconsciously accepted that only married women could wear saris, I was surprised to learn about the tradition of wearing saris at school and college ‘farewell’ parties. The idea of me wearing a sari before I was married was a new one, both for me and my mother, albeit more exciting for me. Although my mother didn’t exactly say no to it, I could tell that she was a bit unsettled with the idea. I was, of course, the first one in my family from my generation to wear a sari before marriage. Even cousins older than me who are still unmarried have never worn one simply because they are still single. 

My nani wearing a black sari with gold border on my mother’s mehendi while all the unmarried women beside her are in shalwar kameez.

At the time of my university farewell, I wanted to look sexy in my sari attire. The sexiest sari look in Bollywood around that time was that of Deepika Padukone in the famous song Badtameez Dil from the film, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. Obviously, mine could never be as sexy as hers living in Pakistan, yet I took some inspiration from her look and got a royal blue chiffon sari stitched from one of the tailors in our neighbourhood. Something I can’t quite forget is the discussion with my tailor about the length of my blouse. While I wasn’t particularly too enthusiastic about showing off my midriff, my mother and tailor wanted me to show little to no skin. We negotiated and settled at 15 inches. 

My tryst with unstitched sarees began in India in 2016 when I came to pursue the Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University. We were celebrating Onam – an annual harvest festival from Kerala and all the women in my fellowship were planning on wearing what they were calling Kerala saris – which I later found out were off-white/cream coloured saris with gold zari thread on the borders. Some of the girls were going to Delhi to get one so I tagged along. We went to the INA Market here, famous for cotton saris amongst other things and those amongst the group who were familiar with Delhi and the market helped us get one. I was shocked at the prices of the Kerala saris, starting from 300 Indian Rupees (around PKR 600 at the time). The broader the gold zari border and the better the fabric, the more expensive the sari. My friends and I settled for one which cost us around INR 450 after some bargaining. 

Over the course of my fellowship, I would see women in my university wear saris as a daily affair and carry them so effortlessly. Although I lost my first Kerala sari while moving rooms after the Fellowship ended, I love them so much I bought another one for my first Diwali with my husband, Arman in India – this one with beautiful trees and elephants embroidered with gold thread on a cream coloured silk fabric. In fact, I wore this sari to a wedding in Arman’s family which was effectively my debut as his future wife in front of the entire extended family and even their biradari. I knew it was a bold move at my part which probably screamed that I am not a typical Muslim girl since in most Muslim families here in India as well, women would only wear saris after getting married. 

Saris, in my case, became a symbol for not only a rebellion from accepted customs but also a way to explore my femininity and my own identity. With enough practice, I can now drape a sari without anyone’s help and recently, I even draped one on a friend. Over my last few years living in India, my sari collection has gradually increased although it is nowhere near what I’d like it to be. I was fortunate enough to receive two khadi cotton saris in my bari which my late mother-in-law, Sadia Dehlvi bought for me. I was also gifted a black and white newspaper print Satya Paul original sari with a beautiful pallu – my favourite till date. Another sari I dearly cherish is one gifted to me by Namita Gokhale, who I like to think of as my Indian godmother. I have even thrifted a sari worn by a woman who had been an inspiring figure to me at the time. 

When my mother-in-law, unfortunately, passed on last year, we moved into her home in Delhi. At some point, I had to go through all the clothes she had left behind in a special storage space underneath her bed. I can only imagine her in the beautiful chiffon saris I found amongst many others, as I never got to see her wearing them. I feel blessed to have inherited some of the wardrobes of a woman so loved and celebrated by many.

Although I must admit that I still do not wear saris in my everyday life, the conversations around wearing sari in Pakistan have inspired me to start doing so. It has reminded me of how sexy and confident I feel every time I wear one and I would like to feel that way more on a regular basis. I know that it would probably go unnoticed where I live as compared to in Pakistan, but perhaps when I visit home in Karachi, I could wear a cotton sari in a casual meeting with my relatives and observe their reactions. Maybe it would open up a discussion about wearing saris in my family and perhaps my younger cousins may grow up to wear them, even before they get married. I hope I am around to see that day when it comes.

Bio:
Maliha is a writer and academic from Karachi. She moved to India to pursue the Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University in 2016 and has been living in Delhi since. She writes about South Asian society and culture as well as food. She is currently working on her first book on the diverse food culture of Karachi. 
Instagram Handle:
@malihakhanwrites
Preferred Pronouns:
She/Her

A tryst with partition, objects, and Remnants of a Separation

by Muskaan Grover

Growing up, I heard my paternal great-grandfather time and again reiterate stories from his life pre-partition, during partition, and what followed post-partition tracing our family’s roots to Gujranwala in the Punjab province of what is now Pakistan. We were sahukars (moneylenders) or so I was told, owning acres of land, living in a big haveli. I remember being told about people using the barter system even when money was in rotation, how our family was the first to own a bicycle in the village capturing the attention of all, how even though being Hindu-Punjabi’s, we had the Guru Granth Sahib (the holy Sikh scripture) at home with the daily religious rituals starting as early as 2 am.

When partition struck, the entire family, unbeknownst of what lay ahead for them, set out for Delhi, carrying with them a few clothes huddled in a bundle along with some cash and a lot of strength, willpower, and hope of building back all that was lost from scratch. On reaching the city they captured a flat left abandoned by a Muslim family near Inderlok, surviving mainly by selling Kohlapuri juttis on the sidewalks of Janpath and Connaught Place for years, eventually climbing up the social ladder and emerging to be pioneers in that trade.

It was the urge to make more sense of my family’s history, a hunger for some closure, a need to be a part of a collective, and to source more insights on ‘the other side’ that pushed me to pick up Remnants of a Separation by Aanchal Malhotra a memoir of 21 lives who lived through partition, narrated with the use of material objects. Each memoir transported me into the room where the interview took place as an intruding observer, now privy to not only sweet, beautiful but also the gravest of memories that were perhaps locked in, not thought of, not talked about for the longest of times. These memories of belonging and longing made me feel uncomfortable, then comfortable to uncomfortable again with inexplicable polarised emotions coursing through my being.

Reading the book awakened me to recognize the emotionlessness in my great grandfathers’ narrations as though what he recalled wasn’t a life he once led- but a story, a piece of fiction distant from today’s reality. It made me cognizant of the curtain that was pulled over the gory details in an attempt to protect me, and uncurtaining them was not just an option anymore.

Objects act as catalysts. They are tangible doorways to the past, mirrors reflecting moments long forgotten, uncovering memories that were lost to time. They are like glasses, you think you don’t need them but when you put them on you can see even more clearly, the green dancing blobs are in fact leaves.

The objects in the book were a gateway to the partition era, an opening door to the memories of lives in undivided and then divided India of the individuals interviewed. A particular chapter ‘The Guru Granth Sahib of Sumitra Kapur’ reads of how post-partition Kapur’s family was able to visit their former home in Pakistan and were lucky enough to carry their Granth Sahib across the border to their new home. This chapter evoked in me a spiral of innumerable questions about my family’s Granth Sahib, about the fate it would have met, about what it would have been like only if my family would have been able to carry it with them, would I have valued it as much as I value the idea and the longing for it so on and so forth.

I am a hoarder, from train and museum tickets to anchoring scripts from college I keep them all tucked in my drawer, and naturally so, post this read I was rummaging around, pestering my family for a tangible object to overwhelm myself with. My mother gave a lot of attention and thought to my obsession. She pulled out a notebook from around 22 years back in which she had noted down a prayer her nani (maternal grandmother) used to recite, the same one she grew up reciting. A few days later, someone sent a voice recording of my mothers’ nani reciting the prayer, calling it serendipitous.

A question that kept hammering my head post my reading was to what extent can one rely on memory, the answer to which I found in Amit Verma’s podcast The Seen And The Unseen where Malhotra goes on to say “…sometimes you need to see things to believe in them, sometimes you need to believe in things to see them.”

For years at length, it has been the decisions by a handful of power-holding individuals taken to satiate their own interests that have been the hallmarks of war, clashes, chaotic insanity that affect the common man, uprooting their lives for them to never be the same again.

Raghu Karnad said in his book The Farthest Field“People have two deaths: the first at the end of their lives, when they go away, and the second at the end of the memory of their lives when all who remember them are gone. Then a person quits the world completely.”
It is only through books like Remnants and continuous conversations around history, both personal and political, that we understand how an artificial line ‘the border’ does not make us any different from each other. It is through communal belonging, that answers to questions that loom over us like dark clouds concerning who we were, what makes us, will always be present to overwhelm us and humble us like a bright sunny soulful day.