Wednesday, June 22, 2011

I Miss Trivandrum

Looking out from my apartment in Kochin, my mind travels back to my four year stint in Trivandrum, in the 11th floor of an apartment in that capital city. The feel is different. it was the tops of coconut trees that greeted me there, with a few high rises here and there peeping out apologetically for interrupting the vast stretch of greenery. It’s different here in Kochi. The view is perhaps very good, considering i am in Kochi. Coconut trees are there in plenty, here too, as we look out from the 4 balconies of my apartment near Vytilla. But the difference is something we cannot wish away.

The trees themselves are not as healthy as in Trivandrum. Besides, the high rises are too many – and ominous. They seem to say ‘we’ll take over soon!”.

I long for those visions of undulating stretch of swaying coconut palms visible from my Cliff dale Apartment –that green taking on a Nilgiris blue shade as it stretches towards the periphery of the range of vision, and finally transforming into a bluish green gray misty hue trying to merge into the distant horizon!

No such misty vision from my habitat here in Kochin. The edge of green is concretely frontiered by high rises and whatever promises they hold. But they are concrete – nothing left to the imagination.

That is not all. Trivandrum is a laid back little city, and it suits the temperament of a retired person like me who’d like to hang on to the remnants of a lifetime of academic activity which was cut short rather prematurely by circumstances. Thus i get to attend a seminar, or a conference, a poetry reading session, a music performance, all of which are a plenty there. Not that Kochi is starved of those activities. Among the other huge multi crore happenings, these don’t get the type of media attention which a slight cultural stir gets in TVM.

Interesting things happen in Trivandrum. Socio-cultural-civil activisms mushroom in that little city. A group of youngsters, for instance, meet once a week to plan out how they can contribute their mite to minimise production of degradable waste in the little city. They have no funds, hence no venue which would incur expenditure. So they meet in the museum. I once attended their meeting. It’s a medley group. Students, professionals, unemployed –all young people from different walks of life but who come together to put their resources together to find ways and means of making optimum use of existing infrastructure for minimising waste. Their earnestness was touching.

This is but one instance of social activism that’s part of the character of the city. It is a city with a lot of awareness about social injustice and failure of governance. The enlightened in Trivandrum refuse to settle down to the easy existence of armchair critics. They try to contribute their bit, knowing full well their efforts are not going to move mountains; but they are willing to do whatever they can to make that small difference. The group of youngsters i mentioned earlier went around with dustpans and baskets during a human chain to prevent the littering of the streets of Trivandrum. Their action not only spared the corporation the massive task of clearing the streets after the mega show, but lighted small sparks in the hearts of many a citizen about responsibility of every individual to protect the environment.

Strange that no one asked how, after such a massive turnout of human beings, the streets of Trivandrum were spick and span. These motivated youngsters did not come out to claim the credit either!

And the brain behind this movement is a chit of a girl who created this group through a website.

I know a leading academician in Trivandrum who made a firsthand study of the predicament of adivasis. She presents learned theory heavy papers on the mode of development that causes a large section of humanity to fall by the wayside. But that’s the less important fact. She has inspired a group of students to acquaint themselves with this ‘other India’, with the result that the guru and shikshyas give financial support to deserving people among these neglected Indian citizens in the deep forests of Wyanad.

None knows about this even in the institution where this conscientious lady works. I came by this information by accident.

That’s Trivandrum. It houses such noble people who walk the talk, who don’t take their privileges as their exclusive birthright.

I miss the Trivandrum with its colourful secretariat. The things people go on protest against! The delightful slogans! A mockery of democracy as some people say? Well, not really, i guess. The tents on the footpath of the Secretariat represent the power which rests on the people in a democracy- the right to protest, the right to be heard, the right to be seen by the powers that be.

It was my greatest desire to sit in protest before the secretariat and have my voice heard by the people and their elected representatives about a couple of issues i felt strongly about. My husband laughed each time i told him about it, but never stood in the way, the surest indication that the footpath before the secretariat offered a respectable and accepted platform for protest.

And then those beautiful old buildings reminiscent of the days when the rulers of Travancore tried to accommodate the best of the western culture within the time tested traditional frames of indigenous way of life. The drive from the LMS junction to Statue always gave me goose bumps from a sense of history stirring in some remote regions of my consciousness - - -.

The LMS church in grey rubble is an artefact frozen in time. The avenue from Kowdyar to Vellayambalam remains almost unchanged - as it was years ago, is now – and most probably shall ever be.

The Paliam junction with the church, mosque and the temple in a triangle belies the artificially whipped up image of India as a country breaking up along communal lines. The university behind these with the lackadaisical movements of the people on its campus enforce the image of Trivandrum as a thinking state but laid back in deeds.

It is easy to belong to that city.

Trivandrum, I miss you!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Kochin Flashback-The Paris Tailor

“Where do you stitch your blouse?”

This is a query which is bound to pop up where ever two or three women gather for whatever purpose. I have lived in five states in India - Kerala, Tamilnadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra, and i have found that all sari wearing Indian women, regardless of the circles they belong to, can relate to each other on this issue. It’s a common ground for the housewife and the working women, the metrosophistcate and the rural innocent, the mallu and the bong to meet and discuss, all differences forgotten, and find a camaraderie comprising birds of the strangest feathers. Provided, of course, they all resort to the sari on some occasion.

Stitching the sari blouse is an art. And that too, a rare art which requires a skill of the highest order.

Here are a few excerpts from a sari blouse conversation. The M in the scripts is me. The other characters are real, but with names and relationships changed.
Period: 1970
Venue: Ernakulum
Nilu: M, where do you get you blouse stitched?
M: AT Menon’s.
Nilu: He does an excellent job. The neckline is very low (please reader, it’s BACK neckline, ok?), yet the fit s perfect. The shoulder doesn’t slip down.
M said nothing but smiled to herself.
Nilu: why are you smiling, M?
M: i just remembered what my father said as i was leaving for college this morning. He called me back just as i was about to open the gate, and asked –
‘M, who stitches your blouses? ‘
‘Menon’. It was my mother who replied
‘Next time you go there, you take take all my neck ties. I don’t use them anymore. You can stitch one blouse with each tie’.
Nilu: Was he angry?
M. No way. He was amused. After all it is only the back neck that’s low.

The plunging back neckline was becoming trendy, and M soon came to know that her blouses were becoming very popular in the college.

Now Tinkle, M’s classmate, was that jealous type, and for some reason, she hated M. So she spread the news that M. got her blouses stitched at the Paris Tailors.

Now, now don’t let your jaws hang like that or your eyes pop out like Jim Carrey’s. She didn’t mean that M flew out to Paris to get her blouses stitched, like Jacqueline Kennedy who flew out there to get her apparel designed. Paris Tailor was an elderly man who had a shabby shop on the road leading from the college to the MG road. Stylish women, including those from the ‘conservative, ancient Syrian Christian’ families went to him to get their blouses stitched.

It fits like the second skin, someone said during a typical conversation revolving around this much sought after tailor.
Yes, it fits perfect, yet it has excellent wearing comfort. You can lift your hands as much as you want. It’ll not pinch.
The thing about him is, there is consistency in his work. And if there is the slightest suspicion of tiny fold, he’ll alter it for you.
In fact, he’ll not give it to you unless it is a perfect fit.
You mean to say you have to show him after you try it out?
Of course. He insists on it.
He must be a pervert. That was M.
If you want to get your blouse done perfectly, you’ll have to put up with such perversions. Anyway, he’s very professional about his perversions.
Ha, ha, ha. That was M.
What ha ha ha. A skilled workman is very finicky about the details.
M remained silent.
Why don’t you tell her about the way her takes measurements.
You don’t have to go into that. I’ve heard enough about it. replied M.

M’s cousin had once told her about how the Paris Tailor guy took measurements. He’d ask his customer to step in behind the screen. If the customer was a young girl, the mother would usually follow the daughter behind the screen. Then the tailor himself would take the pallu down and tuck it around the waist of the customer. He’d then start measuring. To stitch a blouse like it is second skin yet enabling you to raise your hand as much as possible, or swing it in all directions without feeling the pinch, the measurement has to be correct to the hundredth of a millimetre.
It is said that this guy even suggests to his customers about the brand of inner wear she should wear so that his tailoring skill will be shown to the best advantage. Regarding taking the measurements, well, I leave it to your imagination. Was it Keats who said that what is left to the imagination is infinitely superior to explicit descriptions?

M’s mother refused to get her daughter’s blouse stitched by the Paris Tailor, though she was very particular that M wore well fitting blouses. She always took M to Menon, who too was meticulous about measurements, but he had a lady assistant specially trained to measure. Menon would stand outside the counter and ask his client to get into the counter. At the opposite wall of the counter was a small room at a lower level. The client and the assistant would go down into that portion. The client would face the lady. Menon, standing outside the counter would barely be able to see the customer standing behind the partially drawn curtain . The assistant would take the measurements and call them out to Menon who would note them in his book.
He’s so decent, said M’s mother. Not like Paris tailor. And his blouses are good too. How can any mother allow her daughters to go to Paris tailor?

His work is perfect, amma. It’s like second skin. And very comfortable to wear. You can swing your arms as much as possible and yet feel no catch, said M to her mother. Menon’s blouses have perfect neckline, but there’s always a tiny crease at the arm pits and a small pinch too.
Amma gave M a dirty look. Every blouse should have a tiny fold, or people would think you’re not wearing one. And why do you want to swing your arm? Are you going to play volley ball in a sari blouse? Said amma crossly. Don’t get any ideas into your head, young lady. Menon is good enough.

So M walked up to Tinkle and picked up a quarrel with her for spreading canards about her. Tinkle, Menon stitches my blouse, not Paris tailor. If ever i hear that are going around telling everyone that i get my blouse stitched at Paris Tailor, I’ll sue you for defamation.

Those were the days when i was hooked on to Perry Mason novels and so i could get a little technical which i think scared Tinkle, who, i knew, read only the prescribed texts.

In the year 1973, Paris tailor caused a rather serious discord between my cousin and her husband. One day, my cousin came to my college during lunch interval and took me to a lonely corner in the college compound.

M, can you do me a favour? She asked in hushed tones. I had given four blouses to be stitched at the Paris tailor’s. I had to come to Ernakulum today for an engagement, and was hoping to pick up these blouses. But when i tried them out, there were a few minor problems which he said he’ll correct. He’ll keep them ready tomorrow. I can’t come again to pick them up. Can you please collect them for me?
M was horrified. If someone sees me going into that shop and tells amma, i’ll be slaughtered.
You manage it somehow, M. Be a darling. And keep the blouses with you. DONT SEND THEM THROUGH ANYBODY. I’ll pick them up myself. If my husband or mother in law or sisters in-law comes to know, i’ll be slaughtered. They are as stupid and laid back like you and your mother.

M got her tomboyish friend Beena to pick the blouses. I want to take a look at that lecherous old goon, she said.

M gave the blouses to her cousin when she came down to Ernakulum next.

M saw her next at a common cousin’s wedding. She looked glum.

What’s wrong with you? M asked
My husband was searching my handbag for change and found Paris tailors ‘delivered’ chit. All hell broke loose.Not only is he not talking to me ever since, that spiteful outdated creature who doesn’t deserve to be my husband cut up all the blouses, so that i won’t wear them. That’s why I’m wearing this stupid badly stitched blouse today.
Did you tell him i collected the blouses? M asked alarmed.
You think I’m that stupid? It’ll become a big family feud then. Why did i have to get married into a family which demonises the Paris Tailor?

The legendry old man of the Paris tailor has now been long laid to rest, but his son’s capitalised on his brand name and is now doing roaring business in Kochi. He is equally sought after as his father was, but is not talked about in hushed tones, like his father was.

Times have changed. To be more precise, attitudes have changed. A professional doing his work is treated with equal respect, be it a doctor or a tailor. In the seventies, the Paris tailor represented the vacillation of a conservative puritanical affluent society between the desire for professionalism and the entrenched values of modesty for women.

Today, i wonder how many mothers accompany their daughters when they go to the tailor to get sari blouses stitched.