By Suranjana Choudhury
Written words quite often elude meaning, but these same words also interpret meanings for us in varied, random ways. Moments which have been washed away by the invisible tides of time are received back through these written words. Memory is a curious thing – it buries deep into the unconscious some crucial moments of the past and, in a similar fashion, some lived fragments are disinterred from its winding alleys.
I grew up in Silchar and most of my memories are shaped through its embodied collaboration. As a small town in the southern periphery of Assam, Silchar offers its own intimate contours of lives and lived experiences. There are layers of tales piled one upon another, which define the margins of its history, geography, customs, and its cultural practices. Its history curiously discloses the other tale of displacement, which had been induced by the Sylhet Referendum on the eve of 1947 Partition: it unfolds the extraordinary episode of language movement in the early sixties which gifted the valley its eleven martyrs. Silchar has its tales of annual floods, its orchestra nights, its dilapidated cinema halls of the past, small ice-cream shops, and the narrative of its segregated red light colony. This rich tapestry of stories does not need to wind around the alleyways of metropolis to validate its own existence. It breathes a life of its own. Like many other small towns in India, its changes are subtly balanced by its changelessness.
Winter would set in Silchar every year with its attendant features – nippy winds, long foggy mornings, sun-bathed afternoons, luminous night sky, our much-awaited winter holidays, delectable pithes and pulis, our very indigenous ‘mera meri’* celebrations, Saraswati Puja, and, to top it all, the return of Gandhi Mela. In this organic life, some people, some pictures hold a compelling presence in our own private space of change and changelessness. The quiltmakers of Silchar are one such presence. The winters witnessed the growing activities of these quiltmakers, a group of artisans who would visit our houses and through their dexterous skills would render those chilly nights a little warmer. My memories of the quiltmaker merge the public and the private. He straddles the two worlds, and sometimes multiple worlds.
Most of the households needed to hire their expertise because either the old, tattered quilt had to be replaced or an extra piece had to be made for probable guests arriving during the season. My desultory wanderings in the past bring back these shards of recollections haphazardly. In our long swathes of empty time in winter holidays, we would discover a more meaningful engagement with the arrival of the quilt makers in our neighbourhood. We would sit intently on the lawns or on the long verandas to watch a lively, creative exercise map its own orb of completion. For me, as for others, his image is that of a lungi clad, scraggy looking man carrying a weighty bag in one hand and a long tool on the other, which appeared more like a musical instrument than anything else. From the moment he sat on the ground and unpacked his belongings till the last stitch was sewn, we remained fastened to the sight.
We inhabited a different world then. The device with which he pounded the cotton chunks to expand them and flatten the irregular edges produced a beautiful humming sound. The constant and aligned vibrations of his instrument striking against the cotton spawned cadences of a musical piece. It was different from the everydayness of our songs and rhythms. His task was often interrupted by our curious questions which flurried across our minds or sometimes by an occasional cup of tea we offered him. The musical tempo was quieted by the snippets of narration he would stitch, along with his quilt. His accounts would lay bare before me a montage of familial routines. I would have an access to his world – his kids attending pathsaalas very often resentfully, a small cot placed at one corner of a thatched cottage, a smoky stove lit in the kitchen, a stack of vessels lying on a bamboo shelf, an array of containers filled with spices. I could see his wife’s fingers quivering between those colours and smokes.
I know now it was my unconscious but political act of making his world an exotic sphere, one which belongs to the realm of the other. In our house or in our neighbourhood, when he would finally deliver the vermillion hued, deftly stitched quilt, his world would be closed only to be reopened the next year with some other variations.
I don’t see these quiltmakers very often now. These days we generally prefer the readymade quilts as they are easily accessible. In Silchar or in Shillong, where I stay now, their visibility over a period of years has decreased significantly. A post-globalised universe has fiercely transformed our imagination and cravings. I perceive these lost professionals as parallel recipients and victims of a changed world.
Would they launch a different career? Could there be any other strategy? Would they renew their importance through some other forms of skill? It is difficult to arrive at any answer. In this highly mechanised, automated world, these craftsmen must have been compelled to look for other occupations. Nevertheless, the quilt maker remains locked in my personal universe of memories and I would not let him go.
*A local cultural tradition of feasting and merry-making on the last day of the month of Poush. It is celebrated across various parts of Assam in different forms and manners with vigour and enthusiasm.
Suranjana Choudhury is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, North Eastern Hill University, Shillong. She has a special interest in areas such as writings on displacement and travel, gender studies, and popular culture. She received her PhD from the University of Calcutta. She grew up in Silchar. Her translation was published in Humanities Underground. Her writing has also been published in The Statesman. Her research articles have been published in various journals and books. She is currently working on women’s travel memoirs.
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