she wasn’t very tall, had a slight figure, hair in a bun, a pleasant expression, nothing remarkable really, yet the two of us were staring at her riveted. next thing i remember, we’d waylaid her and started an animated conversation. i looked at the photograph recalling things.

it was the winter of 1980, i think. no internet, no google, no photoshop; i have to rely on good old memory. nice feeling. in fact, when i found the photograph, and grinned as i always do when i find this photograph, i felt such a relief – no, joy – that between this bromide print and me there was only laughter, friendship, and indestructible memory. the sepia is real, and the girls are happy. and do you notice the way they’re wearing their saree?

my “best friend” from college (this is of course long before bffs took over the planet) and i were traipsing around new market doing nothing in particular; poring over silver jewellery at chamba lama and eating nahoum’s lemon tarts might have been our main agenda. we were also very excited, because we were going to the red cross ball.

i am frowning here and wondering why calcutta had a red cross ball at all and that too at the fine and uppity grand hotel. don’t think they have one these days.

never mind, there was a ball, and we were going. the prince may not be seeking to choose a suitable bride at this gala affair, but oh, we were going to dress up like mad and stun the populace.

i have to pause here, and feel once more the devilish and keen desire, totally minus any modesty or altruism, to slay it with our look. there was a purity in this thing; we were not hoping to attract a handsome dashing rich young rich fellow or get spotted by a modelling agency or a movie mogul. we just wanted to look fabulous, for its own sake. and reaching that objective was paramount, it’s where all the fun lay.

my friend’s mother was one of the organisers and had very kindly asked her daughter and her daughter’s good friend, both hanging about doing nothing much after their graduation, to come along. i think we were supposed to help with something, so strictly speaking we weren’t really on the guest list. but who cares, we were going to the ball.

to get back to the lady in new market and why we were staring at her. she was wearing a saree, which is not unusual of course, but it was the way she had worn it; we’d never seen that before. okay, sometimes, when as kids you take part in dances and things, they twist the saree around and do fanciful stuff, but not in real life. not like this.

the saree looked different; it looked elegant. my friend and i took a decision that very instant. we stepped into the lady’s path.

think she was a little startled, but did we give her a chance? we flashed our smiles, and complimented her. she must have been a bit taken aback. however, those were possibly less tense times and you didn’t see two young and slightly doltish girls as a threat of any sort. she spoke to us. we asked her about that interesting way the saree pallu was pinned and wasn’t hanging the way it usually does, front or back. was this for a show or something? she told us in coorg they wore their sarees like that.

coorg? though we weren’t sure exactly where that was, we weren’t completely without any knowledge either. famous generals came from there. and clearly coorgi women had a sense of style (years later i learnt, you don’t say “coorgi”, it’s simply coorg). we asked her if she’d teach us how to drape the saree like that.

so standing there in the centre of new market, where the cannon sits for some reason and tonnes of people pass by, she told us.

she had a quiet air. she was kind and patient. can’t tell if she was amused, she most probably was.

we went to the ball wearing our sarees in this new and dressy way. very pleased we were with ourselves, of course. someone took a picture. now that i am looking at it and comparing it to images on the net of sarees draped in the coorg manner, well, ours looks a bit different. maybe that’s how the lady had worn her saree. or maybe we messed it up a little and decided this was it.

i seem to remember we grinned a lot that evening and never for a moment felt we were not the most beautiful girls at the ball.

the 75 mm cannon, which was built by krupp in 1897 and used in the boer war before being shipped to india, has left new market a while ago. i wonder where the diminutive lady is. i know the saree i’m wearing (i’m on the right) has frayed; it was a banarasi in emerald green with a black border, zari and meena work on it, one of my mother’s favourite sarees. the memories though seem quite settled in, not leaving or withering.

there are so many things one can do with a saree. six yards (sometimes nine) of unstitched fabric. tuck an end into the waistband of a petticoat, twist it around, do pleats, don’t do pleats, draw it around you, over a shoulder, under another… i think women found different ways to wear it depending on needs and even fancies. seems there are a hundred and seven or nine styles on record. i know about five. and maybe my friend and i did an improvisation of the coorg drape.

in the classic coorg drape, the pleats are tucked in at the back, the free end is brought around the front, slipped under the left arm and drawn up over the right shoulder, then tied in a knot or pinned.


sarees tell sories | emerald green banarasi with black border and pallu with intricate meena work, delhi, 1958; the saree was a part of my mother’s trousseau.

indrani’s index

in january this year, i was in calcutta on a short visit, when i took these pictures at new market.

new market or “market” as it’s often called, looks the same from the outside. just been painted. its official name is hogg market, i’ve never heard anyone call it that. the all under one roof shopping centre was opened in 1874.

the clock tower at one end of the facade.

no cannon at the centre any more, alas. and now it’s all granite tiles and blue and white, these being the current chief minister’s favourite colours. i heard, many have slipped and fallen, and broken bones on these glossy tiles, we’re used to the rough concrete or was it asphalt floor.

the lemon tarts at nahoum’s were the best. not fancy, delightful. you had to go to nahoum’s, the well known jewish bakery, if you were at the market. apart from lemon tarts, there were chocolate eclairs, macaroons, guava cheese, cheese samosas to be devoured. also the best christmas cake came from here. on every visit to new market while i was in college in the late seventies, we would buy a couple of pastries from here, then clamber up the stairs to moonlight cafe opposite, sit there with a coke and the pastries and gaze down at the lane below, trying to spot a handsome man. don’t think we ever found any.

the black carrot seller outside. haven’t ever had this winter specialty. wonder if it’s preserved.

the calcutta rickshaw wallah still carries his passenger on his basic vehicle and pulls it with his bare hands, running along, no pedals or motor.