social distancing. what a funny sounding coinage. no music in it, no vibe, almost cloddish. yet, it will perhaps save the human race.

it’s strange to write that last sentence without there being a trace of exaggeration in it.

anyway, what do you do when it’s all about social undistancing? when it’s time to gather, to celebrate, to come close? time to bring to mind again events and forces that in fact helped create human societies, established the need for bonding, for being together, for trusting each other? time for apple jam?

this year rosh hashanah, the jewish new year, fell on 18th to 20th of september, and we were eight months and more deep in the covid world.

there would be no rosh hashanah gatherings of family and friends around large tables with extra chairs crushing against each other to accommodate everyone, platters of festive food spilling over, and blessings being said with much gusto and joy over dates, long beans, chives, pumpkin, apple jam, pomegranates, and more.

the sweet challah bread of new year that would be dipped in honey instead of salt, would not be passed around to the twenty, thirty, fifty people in the room.

this year, in singapore, we are allowed to have only five guests.

we had a quiet rosh hashanah at home, just the four of us. i am not too good with crowds and big parties, so a part of me must have been quite happy, and yet, i missed the voices and the feeling of people around me.

so and so would have shouted out that word during the saying of this prayer. such and such would have guffawed loudly when that was said. the children would rush and queue up for the food, the adults would feign patience. for the nth time the same tale would be told and we’d laugh.

laugh we did even this year, and tried to bridge the distance in our minds. the apple jam turned out perfect, a beautiful recipe from a lady i’ll never forget. the honey cake was a bit dry but tasty, our first try. i decided i had to make something new and truly iraqi jewish, so kubbah was attempted. the dumplings of semolina and rice flour with chicken mince stuffing were a little hard, but the three other people at the table seemed not to care.

like every year, i spent a lot of time pondering the sarees i’d wear on the first and second nights of rosh hashanah.

i chose a filmy and buoyant lime green chanderi for the first night, which i’d found thanks to social media (another strange coinage), namely whatsapp, at ayaz bhai’s shop in the town of chanderi in madhya pradesh.

chanderi, with that zingy happy sound, was an important town in the trade routes spreading across india and beyond in the 11th century, and so wealth grew here, and weaving flourished, this typical gauzy fine fabric… now you see it now you don’t. beauty.

on the second night, i’d wear a heavily embroidered black saree made by sarbari dutta, the well known designer, a dear friend of my aunt and uncle’s. starting out in her late forties, she brought life and colour and artistry and fun to men’s dressing. particularly to the traditional indian look for men which hadn’t changed in centuries. embroidered peacocks strutted about dhotis, kurtas were embellished with chain stitched egyptians, minute kañtha work made a staid jacket striking. the black dhoti made an entry. who said dhotis had to be white?

black, she had said, when i requested her to make another saree for me. she had still not started doing women’s fashion commercially, an exception for her friends and their saree mad nieces.

for all the embroidery work, she drew the motifs and stories by hand, each one, right onto the fabric. skilled artisnas would then do the needle work on the drawings. sarbari dutta passed away suddenly a couple of days before rosh hashanah. i wanted to remember her. the saree fell svelte and confident as i wore it.

an ancient unstitched garment and time honoured traditions, they both wrap memories in their fold… and surely even the secrets of making society, of living as humans on this planet, of surviving.

strange i should think so, for i’ve never been a great one for traditions, always a little impatient with rituals and customs. the new, what’s to come, beckon me.

but as i took a bite of the syrup-coated apple and the aroma of cardamom got really socially undistanced with my nose, as i felt the lightness of a flippant lime chanderi about me, as we said may our enemies be decimated and may our good deeds be as plentiful as the seeds of a pomegranate, maybe i felt we’ll get through this, cloddish coinage notwithstanding.

sarees tell stories | lime green chanderi from ayaz ansari, facebook page: handlooms karigar, 2020. black bishnupuri silk by sarbari, around 2009.

indrani’s index