Note: Partly auto-biographical, partly fictional. While Dhanno laughs evilly, at all my claims of my work being anything fictional.
She opened the cupboard after many years.
It is not that she had not given us anything, all this while. Every time I visited, she would stealthily hand over a gift – some bit and piece of fabric, cheap cotton or polyester, usually dark and morose, with an ugly print, soft with keeping, sometimes faded, sometimes with the lines of the folds permanently marked into the cloth. I didn’t think about it then, but I wonder now, what was that apologetic, guilty expression on her face, as if she were handing us contraband goods? The apologies, if any, had to be from my side.
For a while, I took the mostly rubbish pieces of fabric with a quiet awareness of how far away I had gone. But slowly, confident of my reinstatement into the family, the arrogance I displayed with her when I was a teenager, came back. I would reject anything I did not want, that was not to my taste. She became more and more hesitant to give me anything, and the apologetic, guilty expression on her face became even more marked, her handing over a gift, even stealthier. After some time, Mummy stopped opening her cupboard in front of me.
As my own daughter grew up, my arrogance faded like the pieces of cloth in Mummy’s cupboard. I began to see the lines on Mummy’s face, much like the lines on the fabric she hoarded. I saw how vulnerable she was. I did not wish any more to be harsh with her, when every word my daughter said to me, pierced my being.
Then, Mummy opened the cupboard again after many years. She gave me that pale yellow georgette saree, hand-embroidered with real gold zari and pastel blue and white sequins, that she had worn at her wedding, that some of my cousins had worn at their weddings, but that neither my sister and I had worn, when we got married.
Once she had given me that saree, every time my daughter and I went to visit, she would give us some gift or the other from a past that had slipped away, from all our hands. A copper gold ghaghra odhna in Chinese silk, hand-embroidered in red and blue sequins. I had worn it at my brother’s wedding. The yellow ghaghra odhna, hand-embroidered in black and brown sequins, that my sister had worn. A purple and silver brocade ghaghra odhna that was part of my sister’s engagement trousseau. A white ghaghra odhna, hand embroidered with blue sequins that I had worn at her wedding.
Each time, my daughter took back home one exquisite treasure, with an excitement that went beyond the beauty of those clothes. It wouldn’t seem so looking at us, but my sister and I were once, as slim as my daughter is now. Our old blouses fit her, but they were old-fashioned and ugly. The ghaghras were voluminous. Our clever tailor cut the ghaghras for her into tight pencil skirts or sometimes, boldly, into flared trousers. The blouses were reshaped into corsets. She posed in each outfit at some wedding, some party, proudly Instagramming, ‘This is my Nani’s.’ We looked at her selfies with our old clothes, on the family What’s App group.
Every time my daughter reclaimed our old outfits for herself, it was as if a part of the silence that surrounded us was cut up, came undone, ready to be sewn into something new. Every time we met now, we talked about these clothes, Mummy, my sister, my sister-in-law, my daughter and me. What we had worn when, where my mother had bought the fabrics, where she had got the embroidery work done, which pieces we had embroidered ourselves, which tailor had sewn which outfit. We also half-laughed, half grumbled about the fussiness of my sister in choosing her trousseau, the casualness with which my sister-in-law had given her trousseau away, and the lack of any trousseau of mine, that seemed to stem naturally from the brutality with which I used to cut up Mummy’s clothes and sarees to make my own outfits when I was in college.
Mummy would bring out something old from her cupboard each time, and a story would come out with it, a quivering story waiting to be told fully, completely. Then one day, she gave me a grey Chinese silk saree, hand-embroidered with pale yellow, grey and silver sequins. Half the saree had only the stencilled design on it. The embroidery had been left incomplete. I remember us beginning to embroider it, my mother, my sister and I, but I could not remember when and why it had been abandoned. The sharp dots of the pencil marks seemed like pinpricks of unspoken accusations.
I remembered another saree, peacock blue. My sister and I had embroidered it together with big white sequin flowers. But had that saree really existed, or was I imagining it? Why had it not shown up in Mummy’s cupboard all these years? Finally one day, I asked Mummy, “Where is that peacock blue saree which…?” Mummy said, “I gave it away. I gave away so many clothes to the maids, I don’t even remember which ones.” I protested, “But it was so beautiful.”
Mummy said, “All my clothes were beautiful. But I just didn’t want them any more. I lost all interest in them. I stopped working on that grey saree too. I did not feel like looking at it. I thought who will wear these clothes now? You went away just like that. And your sister married into that house, where she was not allowed to wear these clothes”. I could not stop trembling. She was the age I am now, when she gave up her beautiful clothes, her beautiful daughters. I thought I could never say anything to her, ever again. How did I ever imagine I could come back, from where I had gone? But the next morning, instead of saying ‘I’m sorry’, I said, sulking, “Why did you give away those clothes? It is not as if we had died.”