sarees tell stories

a thing for khadi

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 muga (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 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, kolkata, bought around 2010.

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  • Reply
    January 12, 2016 at 1:19 am

    The power of memories…

    Zafon said that memories are worse than bullets. Forever piercing, excavating, bringing forth snippets of a past life, happiness found in mixing the grandeur with the ordinary, imagining and being inspired running alongside each other.

    And how uncomplicated children are, one minute overwhelmed by the greatest man and his death, the e next running around and playing filing the memory somewhere for future use.

    That’s why the khadi clothes are so special, shrouded in layers of memory and uniqueness, they became a beautiful thing before being practical.

    And finding the sarees, must have been the cherry on the cake. The collection is complete as is the continuation of the tradition. From a daughter to now a mother taking your own daughter there, replenishing the old memories and discovering new ones.

    Amidst all of it, the khadi fabric reigns supreme. If the great man himself wore it…

    • Reply
      indrani robbins
      January 12, 2016 at 10:43 am

      i hadn’t heard of or read zafon… thanks for bringing that thought here. your comment is beautiful, “mixing the grandeur with the ordinary” yes that is so true. the mind highlights and holds up pictures, grand and everyday meld without fuss, all of it yours, your memories… and the currency (no money can match its power) to keep you connected to your life. as days hurtle past, i’d have been torn asunder long ago with that momentum. every now and then the mind walks around the stored images, places, crevices and dark and light within and says, ah, so i am still here, this is me.
      i was staring at the khadi sarees wanting to write and suddenly i remembered our trip to birla house a couple of years ago. everything just came together like that. khadi is so intricately woven with the great man. a stance in it, a don’t care in it… and courage.
      it was lovely to find those sarees, yes. i hope my daughter gets to fall for khadi like her mad mother. i have been away from a khadi gram udyog for too long, next trip to india must do something about that.
      sorry, rambled… your comment just got me excited, and silly.
      thanks so much for reading. 🙂

      “Forever piercing, excavating, bringing forth snippets of a past life,” beautiful.

  • Reply
    January 12, 2016 at 4:19 am

    I love your writing.
    It makes my mundane day better

    • Reply
      indrani robbins
      January 12, 2016 at 10:28 am

      hey mona, so good to see you here. my little place on the net thanks to a lovely young friend, rhea. she read your comment and was touched, so am i. thank you for enjoying my flaky flights… mundane? no… just cold. i must write about the ossiri one of these days.

  • Reply
    January 12, 2016 at 1:05 pm

    Once again how simple! The theme of your writings is always so simple… yet the impact is a thousand fold… Connections… what a simple thing to connect childhood to youth… youth to adulthood… past to present… a man long gone to the generations yet to come.

    I walked the grounds of Birla House with you, both as a child you and then an adult you… feeling the energy of the child and the calmness of the adult… stood across the pedestal commemorating Gandhi ji… and watched that last scene unfold through your words… a serenity that is so wrong for that moment but so right for that man. And experienced true wonder, true grace of the place by these words… ‘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’. What a simple way to convey so much.

    I touched the Khaddar with you… and remembered my own love for it… completely related to the feeling of it being cool when I was a teenager… Appreciated the associations that defined the different stages of life… An uncle wearing it when you were a child to your own child wearing it now.

    And now absolutely understand how the most ordinary of things can tell the most complex of stories…

    • Reply
      indrani robbins
      January 13, 2016 at 2:17 am

      thank you so much… hi, saman,

      i read this comment a while ago when i was out, i felt so overwhelmed. glad you enjoyed it so much. so you love khadi as well? nice. i feel thrilled when i sense a reader has really got something out of a ramble of mine. having been a copywriter for many years, i guess somewhere the reader is always in my mind when i write… i worry at times that my completely personal takes on this that and the other might be totally meaningless to someone flipping through. then that point comes when the need to write overtakes everything and i get to it. i never really know if there was something for the reader in the thoughts and images and my informal, not too perfect language. then i find a comment like yours and i am grinning and feeling so good… completes the experience of writing. the communication.
      thank you. see you soon.

      “a serenity that is so wrong for that moment but so right for that man.” beautiful words and lovely observation.

  • Reply
    March 6, 2016 at 2:49 am

    indi,I associate Khadi with nationalism,don’t know why,bcos it reminds me of Mahatma sitting on a pristine white rajai,spinning the wheel talking to others in the room at shabarmathi was symbolic of rejecting anything non DESI & embracing our culture/ heritage.satyagraha,ahimsa,dandi march,courage& so on. netas( in my state wear cotton dhoti& kurta).very humble but makes a statement,that is Khaddar& the vibrant colours combined with statement oxidized silver jhumkas& necklaces,are awesome.BTW our state owned khadhi outlet is called Co-0ptex & logo is a butterfly,we get upto 45% discount.this is Lee,yet again,indi,tc

    • Reply
      indrani robbins
      March 6, 2016 at 11:44 am

      hi lee… khadi is gorgeous, isn’t it? if i ever lose weight, swear i’m going back to mey khadi kurtas and shalwars/pyjamas. it looks phenomenal with oxidized silver jewellery… i am nuts about that too… at age 56 almost, i wear mainly oxidized silver, change my ear rings every day yay. so which state are you from? i know co-optex… still get that massive rebate? i was in bombay the other day, had a great khadi bhandar in fort, but apparently now not so hot… we should have urtured khadi… it’s of course about love of nation, of its people, of ideas of freedom, of self reliance and it’s really really cool… a simple white khadi guru kurta with narrow pyjamas… take on any catwalk anywhere.

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