Fear was the real excuse for putting off Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Somewhere in the course of the novel, a rash of alarming incidents outside his control would invade the idyllic life of an Afghan child, and I would have to face the dreaded words once they arrived. The demon awoke on Page 112 as the boy and his father evacuated Soviet-occupied Kabul and his home as “tapestries still hung on the walls of the living room and my mother’s books still crowded the shelves in Baba’s study.” At two in the morning, with the rest of my New Orleans neighborhood blissfully asleep, a soundless wail scoured its way in and out of my lungs as all of the memories flooded back, threatening to wash away that last cherished spherule of oxygen.
Do the tapestries and carvings still hang in the walls of my living room? Do my books still crowd the shelves of my study? Do the evergreen Dieffenbachias still thrive by my piano? Of course, they don’t. The scoundrels did not leave even the wall-to-wall carpeting. Hundreds of saris. All gone. How she organized them and cared for them as she would her own patients. Loss is horrible enough at the end of a life. Why must we experience it before the time has come? Gorgeous, colorful, expensive, tastefully collected silk saris. Where are they now? How inappropriate it is for something as ugly and damaging as war to prevail, to win over the silken glory of something as constructive as a sari collection. Blasted concrete and gnarled girders over the multicolored, multifaceted beauty of delicate couture that took decades to put together and seconds to rip apart, off and down.
Blasted limbs and gnarled sinews over the multifunctional, multifaceted beauty of complex organic matter that took a lifetime to put together and seconds to rip apart, up and to shreds.
Would I give the entire sari collection to get back one human who was taken away from this world by an act of irrational violence? Yes, yes, for you, a thousand times over.
When that last plea for silence played its final strain over my tear-drenched pillow, I slept.
Every morning, at 6:30 sharp, stepping foot from a hot shower, my mother turned six yards of supple cloth into a vestment fit for royalty, like no other woman could. With every finger gently yet assuredly gripping an aspect of the intricate sari, the many-time winner of “Best Dressed Indian Woman in Kuwait” deftly wielded the material onto her blithe frame, as I unblinkingly took it all in. When I grow up, will you teach me to wear one just like that, ma? Of course, I will, my darling, you’re my only daughter. The saris are a symbol of the dignified and self-disciplined manner with which my mother comported herself at all times, at work, at home, with relatives and friends alike. More than that, they signify the number of years my parents lived in Kuwait, plugging away at each of their jobs, while educating younger siblings, caring for parents, and ensuring better lives for their children. In the face of the things my mother did and endured for other people, her saris and their accessories were the only indulgences she granted herself.
My mother’s saris are what I fail to save in my dreams. I realize it is her dignity and life’s hard work that I cannot bring back on waking. Unlike the protagonist of The Kite Runner, our family had the good fortune not to face monetary hardships on leaving Kuwait in a hurry, thanks to my father’s wise foreign investments. However, a home and a life once built up are now gone, as they did for Hosseini’s Baba and scores of Afghans like him. Left were the sense of violation and helplessness that accompany invasion, theft, hostage crises, humiliation and the myriad other symptoms of war.
Every time such weeds of thought creep into my consciousness, I go at them with this set of shears, a rationalization borrowed from Mom herself: Never mind the stuff, our family is now safe and sound within the lives we were going to enjoy regardless of an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. We have our health, knowledge, most of our wealth and each other. What more do we need? Yet, when I attend desi parties or shop for Indian clothing, be it in this country or in the land of my ancestors, my head plays host to the ghosts of the irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind works of art in silk and gold. What can I do as they barge their way into my judgment like aunties demanding tea, while they scoff at today’s wares? Humph, can these frauds ever come close to those classics your mother commissioned in Kanchipuram and Benares by artistes who are no longer alive?
Praise be to the power of human resilience — each member of my family has found a way to move on. The Iraqi Interruption of 1990 led me to a time of meditation and questioning, an emphatic rejection of medical school and community mores, discovery of the American west and with it the gift of geology, and lately, Wisconsin and New Orleans. What treasure troves of wonderful people and experience these last two finds have been in themselves. My brother is a successful physician with a loving family of his own; there is absolutely no reason for him to look back on his past array of problems with the ups and downs that face him now.
But, what of my parents? What have they accomplished and discovered since that troubling time 15 years ago? Mom writes books from her copious notes on Vedanta and translation work will keep her occupied for the rest of her days. Dad is a realized soul who communes with his plants for hours, days even, turning suburban lawns into temperate paradises. Yet, how have my mother and father truly folded their past into the vagaries and joys of the now and the tomorrow? What do they look forward to in their retirement, when all that remains of their past is a fading hull of memories and a few physical keepsakes snatched from the greedy clutches of time? I would give a lot and much more to go back in time and give my parents what they earned. And what they deserved was the right to close the chapter of Kuwait, and never, ever to have a pitiless phantom do it for them in so hurtful a manner.
Oh, the anger. The need for retaliation against those who wronged us. Oh, the conscience. Blind vengeance is an empty gesture with no knowledge of the exact culprits. Even if I do know their collective identity, what would revenge effect besides more sadness? Perhaps it is the need to walk up to the thieves to tell them that I forgive and forget. But, they are now a part of the amorphous past, which increasingly blurs the farther we hurtle into the future. How does one forgive such a past? Whom does one forgive? My guess is that my family waits to release ourselves with the epiphany that Hosseini’s hero craved. The moment when the internal messiah arrives bearing a jeweled scepter that banishes all remorse and hindsight. Such an absolution will not arrive without the work and introspection required. The fanfare is unnecessary — it will be more than sufficient for the pain to leave quietly one day, losing all of its immediate meaning, “packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.”
As I get along in adulthood, the longing to acknowledge and appreciate my parents’ past may explain my renewed interest in the culture and ways of my ancestors. My Hinduism, various mother tongues and how to be an Indian have always been second nature to me. Now, I want to be an Indian, albeit in my own Maitri-like, heavily Kuwaiti- and American-Midwest-influenced way. I do not want simply to shimmy my way into a sari after fighting it for an hour, to eat Indian food at a restaurant or my family’s homes, to watch Bollywood films and to read from the scriptures during my one odd temple attendance per year. I want to wear a sari well in under five minutes, with the stipulation that my dexterous mother teach me how to do it; to cook South Indian dishes without looking at a book of recipes and to know the difference between Thuvaram Parupu and Ulutham Parupu; to read and understand the Sanskrit texts for myself, much more so than in my current capacity. I want to work harder, take care of my parents, watch out even more for my nieces and evoke a sense of self and pride in my children as my parents did in me. If these tasks bring me joy, where is there room for the oft-blinding pain?
I can’t help but smile at myself. Old enough to realize that one cannot dissipate despondency at the flick of a switch, the loss will continue to affect me as it does people much older and wiser than my years. It is in me. Is it a part of me? What role will it play in my future, how big of one and when? I do not know. Until then, I continue along the path known best, trying to keep in mind that the obstacles are my life. Even the parts where the fingers of my right hand splay to hold properly the frontal folds of that utterly feminine ensemble known as a sari. Whether the bumps make a better person is in the details.
maitri – I don’t even want to add my stupid, commonplace reactions to the very powerful emotions this book has unleashed in you. Again it reminds me of the fact that any book has more than one reading …
Now I know what your comments on the Kanchipuram silk post on my blog really meant.
I feel the same way. Nothing I can say can really capture how perfect this entry is. Thank you.
That was very, very intense. Thank you.
your adoration for your mother is beyond words…
and i completely understand it when you write about the symbolism of a sari and how it is this royal cloth that our mothers hold on to. each has a story. each has a life. i’m always amazed at the fact that my mom still remembers what sari she wore to my 6th birthday party…or my arangethrum…each a memory. and now, i am slowly taking on her tradition of wearing a sari, being proud of wearing my ethnic clothes, and assisting my friends with theirs.
i am so touched by the last line…so true and real.
loved the comment you left at ammania’s. and your blog. truly impressive. cheers.
In another context, but also one somewhat similar, Vikram Seth writes..
“But freedom?” the notes would sing…
Parole is enough. Tonight
Below the fire-crossed sky
Of the Festival of Light.
Give your soul leave to feel
What distilled peace it can;
In lieu of joy, at least
This lapsing anodyne.
This was beautiful.
Ohh, this was so gorgeous. I’m so glad I stumbled upon this gem while perusing:) I felt a stab in my heart at the mention of the loss of those saris, because I too understand how each six feet of beautiful, unique cloth creates a story and a sense memory. I hope you’re building your own collection and wearing it proudly each time it’s draped on you. Maybe the magic isn’t in the actual lost fabric, but in the appreciation and reverance for the memory of it all. You’ve built a shrine to the honor of those lost saris in this post and it was just mesmerizing to read.
Lastly, how breathtakingly beautiful is your mother in these photographs?!