it must have been cold that morning. december is usually chilly in kolkata. i couldn’t have been looking forward to the prospect of water being poured on me, that too after a generous amount of turmeric paste had been rubbed on my face, neck, arms, and feet.
as my eyes fell on a saree on the shelf in the cupboard and i felt that familiar feeling “this is it,” i thought of that morning thirty-five years ago. i was getting married that day. the rituals had started early, the first ceremony was at the break of dawn. i was also not supposed to eat anything the entire day, and perhaps i hadn’t. around 10 or 11am was the gaye holud. literally, “turmeric on the body,” or the turmeric ceremony.
gaye holud is such an inalienable part of the bengali wedding, i’d not wondered about its origins or significance ever. i knew it had something to do with making the bride and the bridegroom look more beautiful on this day. raw turmeric is said to fortify the skin and also make it glow.
the ceremony is one of the main women’s customs or “stree achar” of the wedding. so, only women attend and execute the rituals. as the bride, you wear a simple white cotton saree with red border usually, a thin cotton towel or “gamchha” over your shoulders, and sit on the “pide,” the low wooden platform, on the floor.
cousins and aunts walk around you in a circle first, gleefully ululating; they carry the bowl of turmeric paste and little fat “ghoti” or pitchers of water. the paste consists mainly of ground turmeric and a bit of milk and mustard oil. after going around you a few times, they settle down and apply liberal quantities of the earthy yellow paste on you, especially your face; and finally, the water is poured on your head. it’s a ritual bath, i guess. nobody cares it’s december, you might catch a cold or that you’re shivering. they are too busy smearing turmeric on each other, having fun, and looking forward to the big lunch ahead.
we have many such “stree aachar” associated with weddings, and just as i start smiling about that, i remember it’s only married women that can be part of these customs. not widows, not unmarried women. in this too, our patriarchal mindset is fully honoured. usually, the mother puts the turmeric on the bride first, my mother would not have taken part in the ceremony as my father had passed away six years earlier, i feel a sadness even now when i think of that.
both the bridegroom and the bride have gaye holud. the turmeric paste for the bride comes from the bridegroom’s home. after his gaye holud, a little bit of paste that had been smeared on him is mixed with the paste for the bride, and this is carried along with the “gaye holuder tottwo” or the gaye holud trousseau, to the bride’s home.
the saree i was looking at had come in the tottwo that december morning.
outside, the evening grew darker. i pulled the saree out gingerly, since it was thirty-five years old at least, its yarn might be worn already. i’d chosen the saree, along with everything else, the shoes, bags, sweets, and other things, for the tottwo. my husband is jewish, our marriage was registered under the special marriages act, it was not a religious wedding. however, we had decided to observe all the non-religious customs associated with our weddings on both sides. and so the gaye holuder tottwo.
i’d had fun shopping for the sarees. this one was a south indian silk, in a shot colour, a mix of bronze and a deep blue. the border had stripes of zaree, i must have thought it looked trendy. it was possibly a kanjeevaram, not a very heavy silk though, nor terribly expensive. did i buy it from vashdev at triangular park, i wondered as i caught hold of a part of the saree with both hands and tugged sharply.
i was sure it would tear. rend. but nothing happened.
i tugged again, quite viciously. the fabric stayed intact.
many of my tottwo sarees – and there are two such trousseaus, one from the bridegroom’s side and one from the bride’s – have gone over the years. fallen apart, frayed. each time it has hurt, i’ve felt a rip in some unmappable part of me, a memory lingered: i’d worn the saree there or i’d done this when i was wearing it, or i’d gone with my mother to buy it the day i was…
i looked at the saree in my hands. the bronze glimmered. turmeric stains are hard to wash off… from your hands, from your memory. a quiet happiness came over me. this not too thick, not that costly saree had decided to stay the course. it had not got rattled by time and its demands, the many moves across five cities, two countries, ten homes, and all the mistakes of a not too careful or astute wearer. it still held its sheen and looked ready to take on what came its way. it felt like a part of a promise… one we make without knowing what’s in store for us but believing we can keep it, even if we are not too perfect, nor too strong.
it was diwali evening, i’d been scanning the shelves of my cupboard for a saree to wear and overdress a bit in, light my row of lamps, catch an old happy feeling in the way i like to these days. i’d found the saree, and it was brilliantly lit.
diwali pictures courtesy my daughter @blinkrejects on instagram
sarees tell stories | bronze and deep blue south indian silk, possibly kanjeevaram, bought in kolkata, vashdev tolaram most likely, 1985.