One fine day, we two sisters find ourselves floating through the busy streets of Madurai for Diwali shopping; we are to each buy a pair of pavadai chattai.
They are everywhere; hanging from the ceiling all the way to the bottom on all the three sides of the makeshift stalls on both sides of the street. Spilling outwards, running amok, piled high and overflowing on the benches inside — are pavadais, chattais, churidars, lehengas, gagras, cholis, dupattas, and salwars. The embedded sequins, the stitched-in gilt, the glued tinsel, the encrusted gemstones, and threads of gold zari on the dresses dazzle and twinkle, blinding us in the unrelenting midday sun.
The artful shopkeepers usher us into their stalls, hawking their bright wares with fierce credulity. Mama’s footsteps hasten, and she hurls us into a dress shop whose door magically opens at the time we are about to run into it. The runner-boy closes the glass door behind us, and we tuck ourselves into the confines of an air-conditioned shop, away from the beating sun outside.
“Come, come,” the man who looks semi-in-charge rushes to seat us on the battered aluminum rounded stools supported by four aluminum legs.
“Cool drinks, you will have?” he grins at us. We look at mama. Mama looks at him, and gives him a couple of affirmative nods.
“Miranda, Cola, Pepsi, which will you have?” he flashes another grin, looking at me and my sister alternatively.
We look at mama, and she nods at us. After a moment’s hesitation, I whisper “Miranda?” and look up to mama. She smiles and nods. Her eyes take on a gleam.
Sister does a twirl, and screeches, “Fanta, I want Fanta,” and mama frowns.
I slap my sister on the shoulder, and she pouts but only for a second.
Mama looks at the man to now deliver the promised goods, but he is already hollering to the runner-boy, who scurries to the back on his stick legs, straight hair, dark brown skin, and faded clothes.
“Madam, who is going to look at the clothes first? The children? Pavadai chattai, or lehenga? We have a first class selection of all dresses,” pipes another man from behind the counter.
“Madam, what drink will you have?” the man who is semi-in-charge turns towards my mother.
“Tea pa,” she says gratefully, keeping an eye on us, as we two prance about, nudging each other to look at mannequins donned resplendent gowns, glowing with gemstones.
“Child, you want to try that?” approaches the man behind the counter.
“No, no, we are not here to get such expensive dresses,” mama raises her voice in alarm.
“Ok, Madam,” the man semi-in-charge nods to her request for tea, and quelling her fears at the same time, yells towards the back door “one tea!”
A few minutes pass and the runner-boy comes out with two plastic cups of Miranda and Fanta, which look like they can be ingested in one gulp. Tea arrives in a small steel tumbler and davara, from the looks of which it has seen better days. My sister and I swish the cool drink in one chug, while mama blows at her tea, parting the heat trapped in the rusty liquid. The man behind the counter is ready.
“What would you like to see, for Diwali?” he asks, now rubbing his hands together. Mama beckons me to sit with her. I climb on the stool. The man has begun unfolding in quick succession, a dozen churidars of vibrant colors and textures, from the stacked shelves behind him, onto the glass countertop between us.
I am blinded. A dizzying array of colors and patterns swirl before my eyes, which is when mama’s urgent pleas tinged with a trace of exasperation reach my ears, “You have to choose quickly. It is maha-paavam to ask him to show you a thousand pieces.” By the time I blink, a thousand pieces have danced before me, and mama getting restless, I stick my hand out and say ‘that one.’ Everything comes to a stand still, I smile at mama, but she is staring at me, shaking her head. I tuck away my smile and look at the man.
The runner boy does a sweep of the discarded clothes towards him, and starts folding.
The man placates mama. “here here now, we are happy if the child is happy with her selection. It is an excellent choice baby,” he says and turns towards me with a beaming smile. “And that is what matters. Would you like another tea?” he turns towards mama, and then towards me again, and says, “some cola for the child?”
Mollified, and sufficiently vindicated, I vacate the seat near mama, and sister jumps and sits on the aluminum stool.
“This child also churidar? the man asks. Mama looks at my sister. My sister nods furiously with a big smile spreading. My sister picks the first one that lands on the countertop, she wants one more, but mom gives a shake of her head and the matter is settled.
My sister’s dresses bought, now the man faces mama, “Madam, let’s go to the saree section, all latest designs have come,” and he starts walking to the other side of the counter when mama says “I already have pa, there is still one from my birthday. Thank you though,” and we head to the billing section.
We step outside the door held by the runner-boy, into blistering heat of the sun, and head towards Arya Bhavan, our staple after shopping expeditions. We find a table with three vacant seats, same aluminium stools. The bus boy comes, and cleans the table with a wet cloth, followed by the waiter in a grey-blue shirt and pants. Mama orders quickly, a nei-dosa for me and, a poori-masala for my sister. The waiter looks at mama for her order, but she shakes her head. The waiter disappears.
My daughters and I crowd around the laptop on the dining table as we get ready to shop for Diwali. My mother is sitting in a recliner by the hearth, and I raise my voice a bit, “amma, we are getting sarees from Tarangini, they ship for free. Would you like to come here and see what you like?”
“No beta, I already have the one that you gave me on my birthday.”
We all order clothes for Diwali, the kids eat, and rush back to their rooms. As I sit down for dinner, I ask mom, “amma did you have your dinner?”
“Yes beta, you eat. I’ve made your special, nei-dosa and coconut chutney. It is in the casserole.”
As I serve myself, the aroma of the nei-dosai from Arya Bhavan wafts in the air, and I look at mom. She used to feed us — from when we got up in the morning a hot glass of milk, to idlis and coconut chutney for breakfast, a hot lunch box for school, coming back to semiya upma for tiffin, and then for dinner, thinly diced potatoes with rasam and curds. I recall that I’ve never seen her eat. I had this vague notion that she was a Goddess, she did not have human functions. All I’ve seen her do is give every bit of her in every way to all of us all the time. Even now.
Next morning, I tiptoe over to the children’s room, and babble in their ears :
‘Matha cha Parvathy Devi, Pitha devo Maheswara,
Bandhava Shiva Bakthamscha, Swadeso Bhuvana thrayam.’
(My mother is the goddess Parvathy, My father is the Lord Shiva,
My friends are the devotees of Shiva, And my native place is all the three worlds.)
A sloka I grew up reciting every day.