shadowy figures from my earliest memories. a word said in a matter of fact way. the great aunt who always cackled like a witch. my grandmother.

some women always wore white. no, they weren’t brides. they were widows. bidhoba. that’s the word for widow in bengali. but that wasn’t the word which felt so flat and cold, like a dismissal of a whole human being. that word was “thaan.” the “th” is soft like in “thought,” the “a” is long as in “laugh,” the “n” is exactly like the “n” of “no.”

the word led you through a gentle path to its dead end. thaahn. widows wear thaan, they said. you were too young to ask why. that’s how things were. brides wore red banarasi. young girls wore bright pretty colours, older women wore lighter shades, married women had to have a border on their sarees. widows wore thaan.

the widow’s saree, a sheet of plain white, no border, no motif, no colour, was even deprived of the word saree. thaan is bale, really, “kapoder thaan”… a bale of cloth. if you had lost your husband, you had almost lost the right to even the most basic things… you had to be shorn of all, including the name of what you wore. no sarees for you… just thaan.

i always thought of it as white sarees.

some were crisp and airy. some, greying and crumpled. some were wrapped about women with very short hair, like a crew cut. no, they weren’t the fashionable ones. their locks had been cut off because they’d lost their husbands. what use could they possibly have for beautiful tresses…

that cackling great aunt with her short short hair, stuffing a sweet in your mouth, eyes sharp and seeing, hiding a laugh. where did they manufacture this kind of laughter? she was a bidhoba. she was very young when her husband passed away, never wore a saree with colour again, never ate meat or fish or onion or garlic ever again. she used to laugh a lot.

my father’s mother donned her thaan after my grandfather’s death. you’d have thought in a family where there were foreign educated phd scholars, and women with post graduate degrees, things would be a bit different. someone would say, there’s no need for her to block out colour because her husband was no more. that they could perfectly gauge why this negating of a human being was done, that it was discriminatory and cruel. that it was simply a way to cut off resources to a person who was not “needed,” who was no longer “useful.” that she had to be made to look as unattractive as possible so that men wouldn’t “stray.” that for far too long this unjust tradition had been adhered to, it was time to let it go.

i wonder if anyone told my grandmother she could eat whatever she liked when my grandfather passed away. i was sixteen at the time. i wasn’t as close to her as i was to my maternal grandmother. but still, everything in me reacted to that sight of her in a plain white saree. perhaps i identified with her at that moment, i am not sure. i never told anyone.

my grandmother grew up in the smaller towns of bihar. when she was twelve years old, she was married to my grandfather and came to live in calcutta. she was considered a beauty, and a bit of a simpleton. my grandfather was eight years older, with a larger than life personality. he was given to sudden bouts of rage. my grandmother was quiet, her face looked placid, quite expressionless often, i remember seeing a slightly helpless gaze in her eyes at times. you never heard my grandmother raise her voice. she was a splendid cook. an expert at making interesting food, delicacies, mishtis, pickles, boris, tea time treats like shingara and kochuri. the pungent oil from her aam tel (a delightful mango pickle) mixed with rice, i can never forget the taste, nor the sticky syrup of her aamer morabba dripping down my chin, my teeth sinking into the sweet succulent mango with a hint of tang. she was rarely consulted on important matters, and if she gave an opinion on anything, no one paid any heed.

my grandmother – her name was indira, we called her nani – used to love reading the mahabharata. lying in her bed, or on the red oxide floor during summers, in her simple white cotton tangail saree with a border, she’d read her book; it lay flat on her chest when she dozed off. she believed everything that was there in this world, all the drama, the stories, fantasies, romances, tragedies, everything… “natok, nobhel” as she called it, drama and novel… it was all here in this book, the mahabharata.

i never thought of her as a particularly strong woman, till my father died. he was her eldest child. she had lost her other son, her youngest, several years ago when he was just sixteen. my father died in assam. i was in calcutta, studying in college, my parents and brothers lived in assam. mourners filled our family home in calcutta. my grandmother was around seventy-one years old at the time. she lay quietly as people milled around, some crying and wailing. she hardly spoke.

assam was in turmoil then. travel was restricted. my mother reached calcutta three days later with my brothers. there were hundreds of people in the house that day. the floors had been covered with mattresses for people to sit. my grandmother sat on the mattress facing the main door.

when my mother walked in, she happened to be in a white saree. not a thaan, but a white saree with a beautifully embroidered border.

the first thing my grandmother said to my mother was, you shall not wear white. then, almost as if startled by her own temerity, she mumbled, well you don’t look that good in white.

my mother sat down next to her and just smiled, there was a funny connection between these two women. they were unlike each other in many ways, yet there was always a regard for each other.

then my grandmother did the next unthinkable thing. she said, you must eat everything you’ve always eaten, you mustn’t give up meat or fish or anything else.

in my father’s family home, meat was never cooked, nor garlic and onion, or eggs. since my great-grandfather’s time, certain dietary laws had been followed in keeping with the traditions of his guru. my grandmother simply stated everything would be cooked from now on in her side of the family home, for she wanted her son’s family, his wife, his children, to be comfortable, they had enough to deal with as it was.

she sat there in her white thaan and said what many would never dare to.

no one opposed her i noticed. we moved in with her and lived the way we were used to. my mother never wore the thaan, nor gave up any kind of food. okay, i have a feeling she wouldn’t have anyway, but still, my grandmother’s words signalled something more fundamental. it was profound really. in front of hundreds of people, a quiet assertion by one whose wisdom or courage was never spoken of, never known.

i wish i’d told her some day, no, not everything is there in your mahabharata.

the white thaan still lingers. once in a way, a movie, or a tv serial takes it on, portrays the hypocrisy and heartlessness of our world.

a great aunt comes to mind, or a grandmother, a line of frail old women on the steps of nishat bagh in srinagar led by two boisterous young men loudly discussing their mutton curry and rice sunday lunch plans in bengali, quietly keening white, all those shadowy figures.

sarees tell stories | a series on sarees as a part of our lives

indrani’s index