i was pretty young, six or seven i think, when i decided i’d wear my mother’s wedding saree when i got married. it was of course a lal benaroshi as bengali brides have worn at their weddings for years perhaps centuries… a red banarasi saree from varanasi where beautiful sarees are made with fine gold and silver and silk thread work, where the ganga flows deep and wide and shining with tales, where bulls charge you in narrow lanes with slippery surfaces, where sadhus and sanyasis and mysticism and mandirs jostle with tourists and trade, where the magai paan is folded in precise pale green triangles ready to dissolve in your mouth, where aurangzeb’s mosque and kashi vishwanath’s abode sit right next to each other even if there were hard feelings once, where the sight of the sarnath stupa envelops you with a silence from far far away… varanasi, benaras, kashi, where my mother was born.
at that age i had no idea that no matter how beautiful a saree, how intricate its brocade weave, how refulgent its gold and red, and how powerful its hold on one’s imagination, one day it would fray and tear. i wore the saree to a dear friend’s wedding, and a friend of mine wore it to her friend’s wedding. but in time the thread lost its suppleness, its strength, or maybe it had seen too much and a sadness made it weak… i don’t know. the saree remained lovely, though no longer could one wear it.
the year after my mother passed away, i felt a strong desire to visit her birth place. she used to laugh and say she was more blessed than mere mortals us, for she was born in kashi, the holiest city, and she would die by the ganga too… go straight to heaven or whatever. knowing her i am certain it was all in jest and yet maybe in some corner of her consciousness was there a memory from a time before everything. i had no idea how ancient benares was till i started finding out a bit more as i prepared to go there. seems it’s been mentioned in the rig veda and goes back three thousand years and more.
i spent four days in benaras in august that year, fifty years after she got married wearing her lal benaroshi. on her birthday i stood before the ganga as i’d wanted to. it’s hard to describe the chaos and yet utter beauty of the ghats and the river. there’s everything there, the hygiene conscious won’t last a second, all thoughts of what’s normal and what’s not will melt away faster than a magai paan; yes you did just see the burning ghat, and that there is, yeah, what you think it is, floating in the river; right next to that a man is indeed brushing his teeth with much concentration; then come the children jumping into the water and playing; and no, boatman, i am fine, i don’t need to put lots of money in the hole under the floorboard so i may be specially blessed.
there’s everything here. time, a sense of the sacred, birth and death of course.
i had carried my mother’s saree with me, a person i barely knew helped me locate a shop that would replicate it. i met zubair ahmad ansari at silk khazana, a sprawling warehouse like shop. he saw the saree. no, he was sure, the zari was not pure silver, then it wouldn’t have this deep golden sheen. i said fine, but could he make me one just like that, with good silver zari. he said he could. while we spoke, a weaver walked in completely drunk. he had made this cotton banarasi with a dhakai motif but who would buy it? the man seemed strangely desperate, his restlessness contagious.
i asked to see the saree. it was stunning, i bought it, of course. i had read of weavers in benares who were killing themselves because cheap chinese knock offs were affecting trade. on my way out i saw an old man stooped over his many reels of thread, sitting on the floor at his loom. there was endless beauty and again that sense of time in that picture.
three or four months later, my new lal benaroshi reached singapore. i was fascinated at the cleverness of the weavers, all unknown, unlettered most likely, who could just look at a piece of fabric and understand its intricate weave and pattern, repeat it without missing a yarn or motif. the red was not exactly the same, the zari had a silvery gold sheen. but it was like ma’s saree. i felt happy, something felt restored.
as i was writing this i realised it’s mother’s day tomorrow… oh, it’s 12.39am, happy mother’s day.
sarees tell stories | red brocade banarasis from 1958 and 2008, replica made by silk khazana, qazi saidullahpura, varanasi.