Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Calcutta Scarf-Seller

I was standing on College Street in Calcutta, looking up and down the street, when he approached me.  Dazed and glutted from a phenomenal Bengali meal at Aaheli, I probably looked even more confused than I was.

"Can I help madam?"

I alway steer clear of offers of help from men alone.  Always.

"I know there's a music store near here, but I can't quite remember where."  It was the food talking.

"I know the place.  It is this way," and he began walking in he direction I had started to take before he approached me. "Come, come."

Now I was in for it.  I had been in the tiny music shop, tucked back off the street and stuffed floor to  ceiling with CDs and cassette tapes, two years previously, but I really wasn't sure that I could find it again.  Bengali CDs of Srikanto Acharya singing bhajans (hymns) can't be had just anywhere.

The street was packed, as streets in Calcutta are, and I knew where to catch the Calcutta subway if I needed to get away, so I headed out, winding between shoppers and students and vendors and the odd pariah dog.

Even though it was December, Calcutta was 90 degrees and humid.  I love Calcutta and don't care about the weather, but it made keeping up with the fast-walking thirty-something a challenge.  Five minutes later, me panting, we got to the music store, tucked deep into a shopping area that I would probably not have found on my own.

"Thanks so much, " I said, waving what I hoped was a cheery goodbye.

I bought my CDs and returned to the street to head towards the closest subway station.
Shiny hats with whistles for sale, Calcutta

"Madam. Madam."

He was one of those guys you see all over the place, oiled hair and small moustache, skinny-hipped and white-shirted.  I had almost forgotten what he looked like in the time I was in the record store.

"Yes?"  I'm afraid I sounded a bit weary.

"Madam, you must come to my shop."

Figures.  I knew there was a catch.

"I'm sorry; I'm not buying today."

"But Madam, looking only.  Not to buy."

Does he think I'm stupid?

"Is it close by?"  It had to be the food talking.

"Next block only."

Gentle reader, I followed him.  One more block of students and workers and shoppers and dogs.  There are no cows in the streets of Calcutta.  I wonder why not?

He turned into another small shopping area, a long hall going into the ground floor of a building.

"New shop," he said.  "Opened last week only."

He stopped at a set of smudged sliding glass doors, unlocking them carefully.  The shop was, perhaps, three feet deep, a Formica counter with shelves behind it.  He flicked on lights, low-wattage bulbs, and went behind the counter.

He started pulling out silk scarves, one after another.

"I am not buying,"  I repeated.  "Looking only."

"Oh, but Madam, you must buy!"  he cried, looking truly tragic.  "You are first customer!"

It was true.  I had heard this belief before, that the first customer of the day determines the business fortune of the day.

Defeated, I picked out one small oblong silk.

He named a price, ridiculously high.  I named another, much lower, but still, I was sure, more than enough for him to make a profit.

"Oh no Madam."

"Fine," I said, really and truly irked.  "I don't want it then."

I turned to leave.

People can always tell when you really aren't going to bargain, you aren't faking it, you are going to walk away.

"Yes Madam," he accepted my offer.  "It is the first sale of day."

He didn't try to sell me more, just wrapped the scarf and I left.  I was burning, shaking mad, feeling manipulated and used.

I stuffed the scarf in my bag, wondering who I would give it to, since I didn't even want the thing.

I climbed on the subway, still steaming. I made the long ride to Tollygunge, where I was staying at the Tollygunge Club, a true throwback to the Raj.

I sat on the bed and pulled out the scarf I hadn't wanted.  It was stunning.  Salmon and teal and new leaf green, intricately hand-woven.

I'd give anything to find that shop again.

The wrong intersection, Calcutta

Monday, June 24, 2013

Tussar Silk

She tapped me on the shoulder.

"Excuse me, could I ask your opinion?"

I looked up from the tussar silk shawls I was examining.  She was tall, taller than I which is rare in India.  She was probably in her forties, dark brown hair pulled low into a bun, subtle, well-done eye makeup, and gold earrings heavy enough to indicate that she was well-off but still suitable for a day of shopping. Her skin had a golden cast to it that set off the jewelry.

I nodded.

"Which do you think is better for me?"  She held up two saris.  They too were tussar silk, for that is all this small stall in Dilli Haat offered.  They were similar, rich, subtle, multicolored silk with narrow purple borders.  One was a bit brighter than the other.

"Where will you wear them?" I asked, curious.  

"Oh, everyday silks in the winter."  In India, silk is a warm winter fabric, and Delhi can get cold. Tussar silk is made from the cocoons of wild silk moths,  unwound by hand, dyed and woven by hand.  It has small slubs and often many subtle colors of thread in the final product. 

She held them up to her face.  One doesn't try on saris when shopping, because they are all one size. Color, pattern, and quality of fabric become all-important in making a decision.

I hesitated.

"I like this one, " I said finally, pointing to the slightly brighter of the two.  The border was mulberry, the body of the sari silvery-grey with threads of purple, yellow, black and royal blue that were almost invisible to the eye.  The effect was muted and rich, appropriate for a woman of her age and status, yet brighter than the other she was considering.

"Why do you prefer it?"

I tried to explain.  "There is less contrast between the border and the rest of the sari on this other one.  I think when you wear it, the bottom will just look as if you walked through a puddle."

She looked a bit startled.  

"I think I'll take this one," she decided, looking at my preferred one.  

Well, I thought, she asked.  

After she left I kept looking at tussar silk shawls, choosing three to take back for myself and friends.  I wondered what I would wear them with.  I wondered what color choli (sari blouse) the woman would have made to go with her new sari.  I thought of how stately and beautiful she would look in the sari, and hoped I could have a bit of that.

Last weekend, an incredible artist couple made pictures for the store I plan to open.  I sent them some of my favorite things from India to use in the photos, and one of them was a shawl I bought that day.  Somehow they captured the beauty and stateliness of that piece of hand-woven silk and of that day in Delhi. I dream of owning a store that will do for others what that shawl, and that picture, did for me.
Photo by Brennen Reece. www.brennenreece.com

Monday, June 17, 2013

Ushi's Shawls

One day, Ushi showed me her shawls.

Ushi lives in Delhi, in a quiet neighborhood where subzi-wallahs (vegetable vendors) and crows fill the streets with their cries and a troupe of red-faced monkeys clamber over her roof each morning.

One day, we started talking about shawls.  We were sitting in the small dining room that is in the center of the beautiful guest house Ushi runs with her husband Avnish.  I had bought a few pieces that day in Delhi, and was showing them to her.  I was particularly pleased with one piece, a pale aquamarine silk chiffon embroidered with twisting vines, leaves and flowers in shades of turquoise, aqua, and white. The fabric was from an old sari, probably from the 1950s.

Avnish ambled into the room and examined the piece.  "This is nice handwork."  Indian men know about fabric.  They know about shawls.  They wear shawls.  (Amitabh Bachchan, the most famous actor in Bollywood, wears them with panache.)  He ambled out of the room

Amitabh Bachchan wearing a Shawl
Ushi thought it was a good piece too.  "These old pieces, the embroidery is beautiful."  She flipped it over, looking at the back that was exactly the same as the front of the piece.

She told me a story.  Her mother-in-law, originally from part of India that is now in Pakistan, had a beautiful collection of shawls.  She wore them often, and stored them carefully.  Some dated back for several generations.  When her mother-in-law died, to everyone's surprise she left the shawls to Ushi, rather than her daughters, because she understood that Ushi had respect and love for the fine work.

"I think you have respect and love for the handwork, too."

Ushi offered to show me her shawls.  She disappeared into the unseen part of the guesthouse where her family lives, and came out a few minutes later bearing several shawls, carefully wrapped, smelling faintly of mothballs.

The stitches were so tiny that I could barely see them individually.  So carefully were they done, that it was impossible to tell the front of the garment from the back.  They were in subtle colors, combinations I had never seen before.

(I had, however, seen shawls like this once before, in the possession of a shawl-wallah from Kashmir.  He also thought that I had a feel for shawls, so he pulled out suitcases from the back of the store, simply to show me his finest work.  One cost more, even in Delhi, than the average Indian makes in a year. I took a picture of it, grey and cream check, hand-loomed from the finest wool from the throat of the Kashmir goat, with embroidered vines and tiny orange and blue flowers.  My picture didn't do it justice, at all.)
Hand embroidered hand-loomed shawl, Kashmir
Ushi's shawls were as fine as that magic shawl I had seen at the shawl-wallah's store, with a difference.  She wore them, wore them for warmth, wore them for love, wore them for their connection to her beloved mother-in-law, wore them for the joy they brought her, wore them because they were part of her culture, her heritage.  Ushi's shawls bestowed upon her a dignity, a warmness of spirit, that no other garment provides.

Ushi is a Reiki Master.  I watched her heal a friend once who had massively swollen ankles that had been slowly worsening ever since she landed in India.  It was probably the long flight, heat, salt, and spices, plus the fact that she was a smoker.  Ushi laid her hands several inches over her ankles, never touching her.  My friend could feel warmth radiating from her.  Ushi gave her a mantra to repeat.  The next morning, the swelling was completely gone.  Ushi said to her, "I woke up several times during the night and thought of you and sent you healing light." Which made us smile, because each of those kind and warm thoughts corresponded to my friend running to the communal bathroom during the night as the excess fluid left her.

Ushi's shawls, like Ushi's hands, are warm and healing.  I think all shawls carry a bit of that magic.

Ushi and me

Friday, June 14, 2013

Magic Carpet Ride

If  you stand for any length of time in front of the Palace of the Winds, the massive pink facade in Jaipur that once provided women of the court a way to observe the goings-on of the busy markets of the city, you will see a camel cart roll down the busy street.  The camel, sour-faced and cranky, plods by on his lovely soft platter-like feet, indifferent to his load and often to his driver.  The cart is usually wood, with two gigantic wooden wheels.  The driver sits atop whatever is loaded in the wagon, tie-dye turban jauntily cocked over one eye, a long [mostly unused] whip in one hand.  Cows and pedestrians and old Ambassador cars and new Hyundai cars and wildly-painted lorries pass around the cart, but neither camel nor driver takes notice.

The cart might be filled with any number of items being brought from the outlying villages to the city, but often you will see a rolled carpet or two, looking like remnants of the 1960s with their long, shaggy fibers.  They are likely going into one of the city's rug merchants to be finished for final sale.

Camel cart, Rajasthan (Not one of the elegant wooden ones, I'm afraid!)

Most of the rug merchants in Jaipur are located in the Old City.  One that I particularly like is deep within the twisted lanes of the old city, up a set of stairs.  My first time in the shop was magical. The owner, a killingly handsome man in his thirties, wore cream colored trousers and a long cream kurta, a cream-on-cream embroidered Muslim cap, and lavishly embroidered shoes with curled toes.  He looked as exotic as someone from The Arabian Nights.

He had his staff, young boys in their teens wearing dark pants and neatly pressed shirts, bring out rug after rug, unfurling them with a flourish.  He bought me chai, cup after cup as I stared at the beautiful carpets.  

I hadn't planned on buying a carpet in India, and despite the stupor brought on by half a dozen cups of heavily-sugared chai, I said I would need to think about buying a rug. I handed him my card and took one of his (very important etiquette when you are shopping in India; if they haven't sold you something, they haven't lost hope, either).  He led me from the showroom and offered to show me the rug-making process.

Outside there was a loom, set up to show the weaving process.  It was just for show; the real carpet weaving is done in the villages outside Jaipur.  Small homes, open to the desert heat, can be seen with a loom set up in the main room, a large print of the pattern, computer-generated, hanging on the wall next to the loom.  Entire families produce each carpet, often taking months on a single piece.

Demonstration loom at a Jaipur rug factory
I had looked at several small rugs, and had been drawn especially to one that had a tiny, intricate, complex pattern that seemed to change color with each knot.  I wondered why that rug was not more expensive than simpler patterns.

"A knot is a knot," the merchant shrugged.

After the carpets are completed in the village, they are brought to the city for finishing.  Highly skilled artisans trim the rugs by hand with large iron shears that appear to be from another century.  A missed stroke would ruin the rug, but there are no missed strokes and the nap is perfectly even. These are well-paid, skilled workers and as they work they chatter happily to each other, never taking their eyes off their work.
Shearing the finished carpet.  The artisans in the back are repairing an old carpet.

I decided to go back to the rug merchant's shop and make a purchase the following day.  As my driver and I wound through the old city streets, a red motorcycle zoomed around us.  The driver looked like a Bollywood star, snazzy clothes and confident smile.

As we slowed at the rug factory, the motorcycle slowed as well, and the driver dismounted, doffing his high-fashion aviator sunglasses.  To my astonishment, it was the owner, still killingly handsome but belonging to the 21st century rather than the 17th.

"You look so different!"  I cried.

He stopped, thought.  "Oh," he shrugged.  "Yesterday was Friday.  I went to mosque." 

We went in the showroom to choose my rug.  I signed the back of the rug with a black magic marker, proof when it arrived at my door that it was not a lesser-quality rug substituted for the one of my choice.

Weeks later, the rug arrived at my door in California, wrapped in burlap and heavy twine, and smelling ever-so-faintly of camels.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Glimmer

At the end of my first day in India, I was ready to go home.

I loved everything about India, from afar.  Up close, in Delhi in early October, it was hot and disorganized and I was tired and cranky and I hated it all.  There is a legend in India that hell exists far under a city in Bihar which, as far as I can reckon, is just about opposite on the globe from California.  But that day I was sure they had it backwards.

I had met an old friend that day, a man I knew from the Internet, and he'd gone to great lengths to show me around the National Museum.  I verged on rudeness in my anxiety to get back to my little guesthouse, and--what?  Perhaps sit in the rooftop garden until my 4 planned weeks in India were up.  I went back to the guesthouse praying I hadn't lost a friend.

In the guesthouse common area, I overheard an elderly British man say to no one in particular, "I was born here before Independence and I've been coming back ever since.  More than anywhere I've traveled, I notice that how you see India depends on how you feel.  If you're sick, or tired, it's horrible.  If you feel good, it's the best place on earth."  I immediately went to my room and collapsed for fourteen hours.

 The next day I fell in love all over again.

I'm sure that those fourteen hours of sleep helped, but the truth is that something else--or, rather, someone else--made me fall in love again.  Mrs. Sharma.

Mrs. Sharma is actually somewhat famous.  Years after that first trip I read Holy Cow:  Adventures in India by Australian journalist Sarah MacDonald.  I was astonished to see several paragraphs dedicated to the tiny old lady who runs a small business several blocks from Connaught Place.

She had been recommended by another traveler.  Her shop was in the back of an ugly cement building on Mohan Singh Place, across from a line of Government shops representing each state in India.  The squat four story building houses mostly tailoring establishments, with a few places to buy snacks in the basement.  (It became my go-to place to buy Kurkure, the Indian version of Cheetos.)  It was dank and dim, lit only by bare incandescent bulbs.  The shops are arranged around an open central area, which enables it to just miss being frightening.  Mrs. Sharma's shop, number 86, is on the first floor, which means the third floor up (basement, ground floor, first floor).

It's a tiny place, perhaps five feet wide and fifteen deep.  On both sides, floor to ceiling, are stacks of textile products:  fabric, scarves, bags, ready-made clothes, tumbling down from their eight-foot stacks, a bit of a jumble really, a bit intimidating.  At the back of the shop was a cluttered desk, the proprietor peering at me as I walked in through the sliding glass door in front of the shop.

"So, what do you want?" inquired Mrs. Sharma sharply, She was a tiny woman with large bottle cap glasses, henna-dyed hair and two inches of white roots.  She didn't seem to have any teeth, but her English was flawless.



"Best quality."

She started pulling out scarves by the dozen.  After I said no to the more spangled and flamboyant of her offerings, she established my taste to her satisfaction and began to bring out items that were lovely and well-crafted.

Mrs. Sharma told me about herself.  "I only sell to Westerners," she confides.  "Indians never find me."

I could understand that.

"I love Americans.  I was in America."  She pronounced it with four syllables rather than the Indian AM-rik-a.

I thought I must have misunderstood, but she explained.  Broke, illiterate, and in ill-health, she flew to America in 1980 at age fifty.  She didn't speak English, and her large, conservative family thought she was crazy.  (Actually, they already thought she crazy, she laughed, as she left her husband at a time when women just didn't do that kind of thing.  They still don't, for the most part.)  She landed in JFK and with almost no money in her pockets, but a pack of Indian textiles in her suitcase.  When she left six months later, she had $20,000.00 ("Can you believe it?  Twenty thousand American dollars?"), and had had open heart surgery at no cost to her.  She showed me old yellowed letters from the anesthesiologist which backed up her story.

She ordered chai for us, which the "boy" (aged seventy) brought in small foil-covered paper cups.  While we talked I chose three scarves, and she sent them to a tailor to be altered to my request.  The scarves were beautiful and full of handwork.  She showed me saris she had recently acquired, antiques, covered with beautiful handwork and handmade sequins.  Her taste was exquisite.

I was astonished.  I had never imagined such quality handwork.  I had never seen such things in stores in the US.  Indian goods here, in my experience, were mostly crudely made items whose main attraction was their cheapness.

I am a shopper.  More to the point, I am in love with beautiful things, things that are unique, handmade, authentic, and exquisite.  I love to find them, buy them, and share them.  Mrs. Sharma told me her story, and in doing so began my own story.