We’ve never seen her sit still. We grew up eating home made sheviyo (fine noodles cooked in multiple ways) and paapad (typical to Indian food, hard to explain but is spicy, made of pulses and eaten as an accompaniment with meals) made by her. We helped her make vaatiyo (baatis or wicker sticks for lamps) from raw cotton. And we swaddled babies and ourselves in godadiyo (quilts) hand stitched by her. Ajjee, my father’s mother, my beautiful grandmother, has been a constant in the lives of all her children and grandchildren and many many more of us.
Made usually of leftover pieces of cloth, Ajjee builds intricate patterns and designs, often a peacock or a cat for kids or a pattern of geometric flowers for older people or even a simple quilt made out of an old sari put together by a complex and even running stitch. Her talent and industry has been the stuff of legends. It wasn’t just family, she would make these precious quilts for anyone who came in to appreciate, ask for help and even those who made a simple, honest request (it’s getting tough for her now to be equally productive, but not for want of trying!).
This morning, the family proudly read her name mentioned in an interview in The Hindu with Patrick J Finn, who has just finished a book on quilt-making in India and I simply had to write this tribute to the most inspirational person in our family. Our very own rockstar- Hirabai Naik! Ajjee for some, Maee Ajjee for others, Ayee for many, a symbol of grit and determination, a beacon of kindness and love and hope. A person who rises above us despite all her human failings.
Always built small, Ajjee has become frailer with time but her spirit is indomitable. Today, even as she complains of feeling fatigue, her mind is still working on the latest designs. Beyond quilting, she is a master of re-use, making hundred of cloth shopping bags and gifting them to everyone. She doesn’t actively advocate their use, simply because she belongs to the generation that never made the switch to the plastic shopping bag! She just assumes everyone still carries their own cloth bags with them and I think it is remarkable that within her lifetime we have moved so far away from cloth bags and are now firmly marching back towards them, aided by supermarkets that charge us extra for carry bags in a bid to encourage some environmental sensitivity.
In small but fantastic examples like this, I increasingly see reasons for Indians to look back at the small things we are losing- skills, recipes, habits and ideas that make for a healthier, more responsible lifestyle that puts community and family first, but is also is eager to learn from others. To me, that (not religion, not ritual, not caste or creed, nor regional identity) is the essence of an Indian culture and I always look at Ajjee with amazement for all these values she taught me, without ever preaching but entirely by example!
Is it real? This pursuit of success, this definition of the success of your day by how much you ‘achieved’?
Is it possible? This idea that a productive worker can be, well, productive for five continuous days and then collapse into rest and recuperation for two days, only to emerge doubly productive on Monday morning?
Is it twisted? When I set out to check off a long to-do list and end up working on something that just crept into my horizon mid-day?
Is it sad? When you have so many things on your mind that you no longer know who you are and how you should prioritize your life?
I have no answers and there are days that I could kill myself with my sense of inadequacy and bemoan my lack of drive till the cows come home. But then, I know we live in a world where standards are created for the ideal and humans are expected to be machines. I should be happy to be inadequate, for am I not more human that way? I should celebrate my lack of drive, for that is the day when the best ideas often take seed in my brain.
There’s so much more to life than failure and success. Let me not waste precious energy and undergo unnecessary heartache trying to define my life using the lens that was built for someone who is… not me!
I don’t like the concept of a gated community, yet I live in one. I believe traveling by public transport is the right thing to do as well as immensely enjoyable and cheaper, yet I admit I do drive to work at least half the time. My action towards conserving electricity is to set my air conditioner’s thermostat to 27 degrees C instead of the preset 24 degrees C. I can no longer live comfortably without air conditioning.
Someone asked me today whether they should invest in a posh apartment somewhere in Noida that would be delivered four years later, or buy a flat in a not-so-upmarket but conveniently located South Delhi neighborhood. I began to tell them about lifestyle choices and how, once they are made, they trap you in their iron grip, dictating your daily choices thereafter!
We should know! We moved to Gurgaon as renters initially. We were about to have a baby a few months down the line and where we lived in South Delhi, we couldn’t envision being able to even take the baby for a walk in a pram! The secure, open, green spaces and childrens’ play areas in Gurgaon’s gated colonies made perfect sense at that time and continue to do so now. Neighboring families were kind of clones of ours- similar age group, life stage, backgrounds, lifestyles, even aspirations at times. And so we bought into this lifestyle. We did not, however, bargain for a car trip for daily shopping and a completely automobile dependent urban environment where crossing a road could lead to a mental breakdown!
Inside the above-mentioned not-so-upmarket South Delhi neighborhood, afternoons are drowsy and evenings lively. Neighbors fight over water supply and often have nothing in common, but it’s possible to get all your household supplies within walking distance. Ice cream can run out at ten in the night in the middle of a dinner party and it would just mean running round the corner to replenish your stock!
I’m comparing the above two scenarios because price-wise, a family would have to make this sort of choice. I made mine for specific reasons, but now I live a life at complete odds with my ideological stance. Is that hypocrisy? Yes, it is. Can I or would I change that? No easy answers to that!