then he said “hey ram!” and he died. every time i heard that as a child i was captivated. a funny kind of beauty in that image. a pristine clean thing, nothing could taint it. complications are for adults perhaps.
the back gate of my grandparents’ home in delhi would take us down a narrow lane to the back gate of birla house. this is where gandhi ji used to live, and where he died on a winter evening twelve years before i was born. on our long holidays in delhi, we’d go practically every day to play in the beautiful grounds of birla house, which was open to the public. and i’d walk up each time to the canopy in the middle of the sprawling lawn, where the little pedestal stood with the words “hey ram” written in hindi, and feel an intense sadness. that beauty. i’d make my mother tell me the story of what happened there again and again. nathuram godse was just a name, but gandhi ji was this brave, magnificent man in a simple dhoti who stood there and took the bullet. after which he didn’t scream and yell and shout and no one called an ambulance, there was no noise, no fear.
just a man folding his hands. two words. and he was gone.
perhaps the truth is a bit different, but that never mattered. the picture got etched along with the feeling.
of course, in minutes i’d be ready to run around and play. a sense of freedom in birla house and a moment caught. it felt like history.
can’t say i fell in love with khadi because of that memory though, or maybe it did add something to my fascination. but mainly it was thanks to ravi uncle, a dear friend of my mother’s brother, that i decided khadi was it. especially khadi kurtas. in his “guru” kurtas with high collar, he’d come out of his white beetle, a tallish man in a smallish weird looking car. again a picture that stays; ravi uncle looked particularly handsome in a bright pink kurta.
i started wearing khadi kurtas i think when i was around seventeen. that pink, how i searched for it and i found it too. over time, i fell completely in love with this hand spun, hand woven fabric. every year around gandhi jayanti, 2 october, there’d be a massive 35% (i think that was it) discount offered by the khadi gram udyog, i’d buy tonnes of fabric and kurtas… i started wearing the slim smart aligarhi pyjamas… which of course had to had to be in rugged white.
khadi, or khaddar as the cloth is called, to me was all about the most beautiful shades of colour, the most brilliant whites, the most simple and honest touch of fabric… no nonsense, real, and splendidly cool. perhaps the fact that the whole idea of khadi was one that was about everyone, about india, about self reliance, about independence, also attracted me. there was a sense of revolution in it.
but really, the fabric itself is beautiful, no denying that. and the delightful range of shades and texture… you can never get bored, also perhaps never run out of money. though of course, your neighbourhood khadi bhandar man at the crossing of rash behari avenue and monohar pukur road will try his utmost to make the latter happen.
i wore khadi kurtas, pyjamas, shalwars, jackets, scarves, carried khadi handkerchiefs… however, i never came across a khadi saree. never even thought about it. i was in calcutta a few years ago when i happened to drop in at kanishka, one of the first boutiques that opened in the city back in the seventies. they are well known for their block prints and handloom sarees. an exhibition was on, the owner’s son had designed a series of khadi sarees my cousin told me.
i can’t explain how wonderful it felt to see a saree which was considered to be pure khadi… i bought two. the brown one is made of hand spun cotton and mooga (a wild silk found only in the state of assam and nowhere else in the world if i’m not wrong); while the blue one is in cotton, the yarn not too fine, a raw edgy feel to it. both were naturally hand woven.
on a visit to delhi recently, i took my daughter to birla house. they call it something else now, but the place was just the way i remember it. the lawn was green and vast, not a matter of it looking smaller now that i was no longer a child. that pedestal with the “hey ram” sat where it always had. the air felt unsullied and calm. for the first time, i stepped into the building… the house where gandhi ji spent the last days of his life.
it’s a museum now. there was gandhi ji’s room with its sparse uncluttered look, just a few things. among them, his spinning wheel. his charkha.
to have thought of staking independence through a thread, of asserting self reliance by spinning and weaving… just a piece of cloth, to turn it into a quiet weapon against oppression and injustice… i stood for a long while looking at the small contraption.
on a wall hung a picture of sardar patel and gandhi ji… before going to his prayer session that evening of 30 january 1948, he met sardar patel, a man who i believe was devoted to bapu. that would be gandhi ji’s last official meeting. i know very little about sardar patel, but there is something arresting, thrilling about him; a man who was strong, straight speaking, who was what he was and whose negotiation skills were formidable to say the least.
there was a small shop outside, selling khadi, got a fine silk in green for my daughter there. hard to describe the happiness i felt watching her walk around the grounds.
sarees tell stories | two khadi cottons from kanishka, hindustan road, calcutta, bought around 2010.