12 July 2020 – Yesterday was not ‘Mother’s Day’ or ‘Women’s Day’, nor was it my Birthday or Ma’s Birthday, or even her death anniversary – all the days on the calendar that I’m supposed to especially remember her & miss her. And yet, Ma came visiting, in the most powerful way possible, as I chose to wear her saree for a workshop.

Wearing her saree was akin to wrapping a bit of her around me. I do consciously carry a bit of her on me on some (special) occasions – mostly jewellery, ear-rings, bangles, or chain (not that she had a lot!) – but yesterday, the choice had more to do with the weather (very hot) & the time I was supposed to speak in (afternoon, post-lunch). I wanted to wear something light (both in colour and weight) and formal. A much worn ‘taat’, with an off-white base and a rich black-and-gold border, fitted the bill perfectly. I love this saree, love its simple elegance. But most of all, love the “hajar buti” (a thousand dots) spread uniformly across the length and breath of the 9-yard cloth!

I do remember Ma wearing this saree, but while choosing it, I didn’t give any thought to any other associations with it. They came tumbling forth only after I wore it…!

It must have been sometime in 2002… when Ma and I went saree shopping in Gariahat. A rare occasion. (The only two other such occasions that I recall were buying my wedding saree with Ma in 1999 & buying sarees for all three of us – Ma, didi & me – on a wedding anniversary of hers).

I was then a lecturer at Basantidevi College, a couple of tram stops from Gariahat Junction, on Rashbehari Avenue; and I lived in Kasba with my in-laws, with Shekhar away in Chennai. I went to my parents’ every week – to unwind, recoup my energy & get indulged with my favourite food. Sometimes, I would watch the latest Bangla release with Ma, but never really socialised or shopped with her. So, this was special.

We went ro ‘RMGC Basak’, opposite ‘Pantaloons’. We chose it – or rather, Ma insisted on it – because it was reputed to be more “reasonably priced”. I must say here that, by then, I already had my own favourite saree shops in Gariahat — ‘Trader’s Assembly’ for wedding gifts, ‘Kanishka’s’ for tasser, ‘Jamdani Ghar’ for (you guessed it) jamdani, ‘Jaylakshmi’ for pashminas/ silks & chiffons, ‘Asha Brothers’ for south cottons, AND, most importantly, pavement hawkers for taat and printed sarees that could be bargained for. My sister-in-law was a huge fan of these pavement collections, but my mother’s love of them was of a different order. Of all the sarees I gifted her, her most prized possession was a taat bought from a hawker who sat right at the entrance of my college. Reason: it was priced at Rs.130/! It would have been priced at least double, if not treble, in any shop, Ma would never tire of saying.That was probably true; & it’s not that Ma habitually bought sarees from pavements (most of her collection were from a few trusted emporiums in ‘Uttarapan’), but it’s because of the low price of that sari that she loved it so much! She was always trying to save money – first Baba’s, then ours (she had very little of her own after she left her full-time lecturer’s job to bring us up) – that irritated me no end.

So we went to Basak, with me making Ma promise beforehand that she will ignore the price tag while choosing her saree. For once, she did – mostly because the prices were so low, anyway! We both bought a few, this ‘hajar-buti’ being one of them. Ma had at least a dozen sarees of this combination – but in different weaves and styles, thanks to the immense variety of cottons from different states of India. This was a taat, priced somewhere between Rs.350/ and Rs.420/. It was above the range Ma allowed herself to buy cottons, but she relented this one time, after I persuaded that she, too, can gift me a similar one. This exchange offer worked: I gifted her this saree, and she gifted me another ‘hajar buti’, which had white ‘butis’ on a mauve base & a deep purple-and-gold paar/border. It still has pride of place among my taats… so precious, that I have hardly worn it. We bought quite a few sarees that day, unusually so, but I remember only one other among them – a peach ‘dure’ (priced at Rs.230/) which I wore to college often.

Saree was my uniform in college. Back then, that was the norm. It was the only formal that was accepted. Forget western wear, even the wearing of salwar-kameez had to be fought for, or at least, explained. That was the case at least in West Bengal. And it was also the most common gift that adult/married daughters received from their mothers. I got a new saree from Ma every year – on my Birthday, Anniversary, Jamai-shasti, Nabo-borsho & Pujo! They are all wasting now in Godrej almirahs I am finding increasingly difficult to maintain. The silks & chiffons of my collection were amply used in my decade in the Netherlands, for every social & academic occasion I could find an excuse for wearing. But strangely enough, I have no time for them after my return to Kolkata — early working hours, added responsibilities in the mornings & a general growing out of the regular habit of wearing sarees have all contributed to it. I need a lot of motivation to dress up in a saree these days, with the result that events/ formal occasions apart, I usually don’t. When I do, however, they usually turn out to be either Ma’s sarees or ones gifted by her!

She remains with me. Hajar smriti jure…