A stitch in time

TEXT BY SHALINI MUKERJI
PHOTOGRAPHS BY AANCHAL MALHOTRA
New Delhi, India

This very unglamorous sewing needle has been on my mother, Sunanda Mukerji’s dresser for as long as I can remember, lurking midst elfin perfume jars and gleaming lipstick tubes she made friends and relatives bring back from foreign travels. It was an oddness we took for granted.

About 5-inches long, mottled, a little worse for the wear but its tip still faceted where the ironsmith shaved it to not-too-fine a point, now I use it. I have seen mochis, cobblers use such needles to repair shoes. This one probably mended the jute sacks and holdalls we bundled our lives into each time my father was transferred to a boondocks posting for work. But regardless, my sister and I were taught to thread a naada (cord) through its eye, knot it securely, and slip in and run that needle-pulling-thread through the waistband of ghagras, salwars, chooridars and petticoats, so that, secure in a faultless girdling, we may dance our way through the world.

I love this essential, curious toilette item and how it trains us to appreciate mundane yet critical details. Although it’s best described in a series of negatives – not straight, not shiny, not new – I think it speaks for the essential elements of good design – function and form – which make design a way of life.

My Kanchan mami who studied in Shimla and my friend Mandeep in Chandigarh, remember a similar contrivance amongst their grandmothers’ and mothers’ vanity, called ‘nala ponni’ in Punjabi and ‘naada paani’ in Hindi. A slender wooden piece, the naada paani had a wide eyelet at the end that was hooked quite like a shepherd’s crook, a mildly tapered but blunt point completed its opposite end. They tell me that, in hostel, they’d break off the bristly head of old toothbrushes, loop naadas through the hole in the handle and, voila! My dad remembers my thakuma and mummy referring to a ‘krushkaati’ in Bangla, a word he thinks may be derived from ‘crochet hook’.

It doesn’t surprise me at all that my mother decided to use a sewing needle as a naada paani. Not a purist about anything except her winter ritual of gud and malai rolled inside a roti and dipped in hot milk, she was always impatient with propriety and form. She grew up itinerantly between the different barracks my nana lived in, and during non-family postings, between the cantonment towns of Agra and Doon where her grandparents lived. Along the way, she picked up knitting and needlework and a PhD in literature. We still have her needlework album graded ‘A’, and her college thesis on ‘The Grotesque’ in Browning.

Proficiency in needle-and-thread was one of the life skills drilled into my brother, my twin and me (along with swimming, polishing shoes, cycling, ironing and ten-finger typing). Uncomfortable with the domesticity of needlework and the image of ‘knitting-aunties’, even though I spend winters snuggled in warm, quirky pullovers knitted by thakuma, my paternal grandmother, Bhakti Mukerji and mummy, and have blown my nose into hankies detailed with delicately embroidered flowers, regrettably, I’ve retained only sewing from the slew of fine skills we were taught. In addition to this sewing needle refashioned as a naada pani, I keep a range of needles and five spools of thread lined up in an old perfume case, armed to face whatever life may throw at me!

See, I come from a family of women who worked needles as persuasively as they did the typewriter, the Winchester and the ladle. As children, we gathered fallen shiuli and periwinkles in didima, my maternal grandmother, Basanti Sanyal’s courtyard in Agra and strung flowers into perfumed gorgeousness for her paper gods (postcards really, unframed, of a leaping hanuman in lurid colours, an austere black-and-white of Sri Aurobindo, Lakshmi in the Raja Ravi Verma style and a radiant black and white of The Mother). Mummy, on the other hand, saddled us with more prosaic tasks – sewing the missing button/ fixing the tear in our socks/ schooling an ungainly hem in our uniform. Over school holidays in Patna, we mastered threading the trickiest eyelets of the various needles my thakuma, and mashu thakuma, Neelima Banerjee would use to stitch the chicken stuffed with spices, cashew and boiled egg, or the ones with which they embroidered blouses and petticoats with the flowers that grew around them. Such attention to petticoats that remain unseen to the outside world always puzzled me until I discovered lingerie and hidden, delicious pleasure.

Even my wheelchair-bound great grandaunt, Parul Banerjee, held onto her needles until the very end, painstakingly embroidering loveliness into our lives. In fact, she actually sewed for me, the first verse from Tagore’s ‘Sahaj Path’ about the striped tiger who lives in a mango forest where the birds sing and fish play in water. My mother could have got this particular needle from any of them.

 

Revisiting children’s classics while reading to my four-year-old niece has set me wondering about the many stories stitched together, in which a single ubiquitous or unremarkable object – a slipper, a needle, a spinning wheel, a bean – can effect marvellous transformations. Cinder to riches, straw to gold, a stairway to another world, even! And these wonder stories, invariably, are about mending what’s been broken or about changing your life and making your luck. I wonder if my mother too read something of this into the sewing needle she held onto? Perhaps keeping faith with how it joins things together?

This heirloom now sits on my dresser, at home with the tarnished sugar bowl and peacock-footed glass I have repurposed as catchalls. The slender body is a little bent, but the eye of the needle – an oval-shaped clear opening – trains my eyes to see as my mother did: a canny regard for old/ throwaway/ disregarded things. It’s my John Berger 101 in the ways of seeing. It’s my U2 song about grace that finds beauty in everything. Useful aesthetics. Function and form. And, in them, connections across time. A lot like love. A lot like a fairy tale.

 About to weave the naadi-paani through a petticot

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