Wednesday, December 23, 2015


The other day I went to a shopping mall and was dismayed by the array of clothes on display. What range of colours, textiles and styles! You would just not find two identical pieces, if, for some weird reason, you wanted them.
The experience reminded me of what my mother, nearly ninety now, used to tell me of her childhood. After the schools close for the summer vacation in March every year, her father would start the exercise of 'upgrading the wardrobe' of the family. That, incidentally, was normally the only set of clothes that would be bought during the year. The timing was significant: it was festival time, Vishu being round the corner; and the schools being closed, and there being no occasion to wear them, the clothes would 'remain new' for a few more months than they otherwise would!
It must have been a herculean task for him to mobilise the funds needed to buy enough cloth for the entire extended family. He perhaps had to sell of a chunk of the coconuts harvested or use the proceeds of the cashewnuts or arecanuts or whatever.
Once the resources required for the project were garnered, my grandfather would set off for Tellicherry, which had still not been overtaken by Kannur, the present capital of the district. He would
catch 'the first bus' as was his wont - he believed that if one had to take a bus, it had to be the first. The conductor would offer him his favourite seat - in the front row, next to that of the driver. If that
seat was occupied by some lesser mortal, the conductor would have it vacated for 'Bavunnor' - the corrupt form of his title 'Vazhunnavar' conferred on his forebears by the Pazhassi Raja, meaning 'the one who administers'.
Though he was not expected back until lunchtime, everyone at home would wait, breakfast onwards, with bated breath in anticipation for his return. The ears would perk up for the horn of any vehicle
cruising along the Kannur-Mysore road and, for the next ten minutes - the time it would take for him to walk from the main road, through our private road, to reach the gate of our compound - all eyes would be riveted on the gate.
Finally, he would emerge, by 2 pm, followed by Kittan or Chanthu or Chaatthan carrying two huge rolls of cloth. Each would contain about 30 meters (called a 'kutthu', I think). It was often small checks - white and blue - or white and red; or white and black; or white and grey. That was my first lesson of the economies of scale. Everyone in the family - male, female, young or old - would get an apparel from the same fabric. In an unwitting demonstration of socialism in that feudalistic society, servants too would get clothes from the same roll!
Checks were not de riguer, though: there were, of course, occasions when deviations were permitted. I have an old group photograph at home taken in a year when the theme was possibly the stripe. All men and boys were in striped shirts, all women wore striped blouses and all girls were dressed in striped frocks or skirts. The snap being a sepia print, one cannot tell what colour the stripes were, but my mother distinctly recalls they were blue stripes.
There were no trousers because they were not in vogue among men then: every grown up man wore a white 'mundu' and trousers for boys had by then been 'invented'.
Ananthan was the village tailor. He would make shirts, blouses, frocks and skirts for whoever approached him. Alterations and repairs too were part of his services on offer. It was his practice to pay a visit to the speak-easy on his way home after work. The couple of bottles of the frothy white liquid he would imbibe would loosen his strained muscles and a relaxed Ananthan, now a happier man, would walk back home, a song on his lips.
On the day he returned from Tellicherry, my grandfather would send word for Ananthan. On such days, Ananthan would not visit the toddy shop. Dare he appear before Bavunnor in an inebriated state? He
would come by nightfall and take the measurements for the different garments that needed to be made.
I think there was always the lurking suspicion that the tailor would 'swallow' some of the cloth. Therefore if cloth was enough for, say, eight shirts, order would be placed for nine: 'after all, these are
small boys!' The tailor, who had acquired wisdom from experience, knew this very well, and therefore he would ask for 18 yards where 16 was enough.
One of the greatest applications of averages, I think, was in making shirts for boys. Ananthan would be asked to make a shirt that both the 12-year-old Unni and his 10-year-old cousin Dasan could wear. The
obliging Ananthan would make a shirt that would suit a 11-year-old which would be too tight for Unni and too loose for Dasan! The frock made according to the direction 'Make Vanaja's frock a little longer; she's shooting up!' would tickle her ankles in the first year and her knees in the last year of its life - and fit her exactly for a few months in between!
Shirts being of similar material and more or less the same size used to be the grounds for disputes which were not unusual when a brat, having stained his shirt (cashew fruit being the main culprit) would
stealthily replace it with that of someone who hadn't stained his. The ownership of the shirt was often established by the nature, size and location of the stain: 'That shirt with the small stain of tender
mango on the left pocket is Bhaskaran's.'
Another standing instruction to Ananthan was to make the sleeves of shirts 'a little longer'. The rationale was simple: boys would grow fast.
After all these agonising exercises, the tailor would say that the all the garments would be delivered on 13 April. 'No!' would be the collective scream. That would be too late because Vishu falls on 14 April and we would not be able to wash (How can you wear clothes touched by others?) and dry them before wearing the new clothes on the festive day. 'Give it back at least on 10 April', all would plead. Finally, after. Lot of haggling, he would agree to deliver it on 12 April.
Ananthan's woes would start from the day collects the cloth. Every day we would pass by his shop one by one to see the progress: has he started the job? has he at least cut the cloth? We dared not enter his workplace, peer into the wooden cupboard and find out the status. He might not even have opened the bundle of cloth! As the promised date neared, we would gather more courage and start pestering him. At last, he would open the bundle and cut the cloth for stitching. It did not matter whose shirt - or blouse or frock - he stitched first because my Grandfather had given him strict instructions against piecemeal delivery of the finished product because that would destroy peace at home!

1 comment:

Anilkumar Kurup said...

Reminds me of long ago and little similar accounts.
BTW a wonderful reminiscence that is equally pleasant .