This is the second story from my book, ‘steps’. I have always looked at clothes drying on various roofs and balconies and wondered about the people ‘behind’ those clothes. I still do ….
I sat quietly, lost in my own world as the bus slowed down and then stopped. It seemed that the driver had taken some route inside the town rather than the usual bypass, probably to pick up more passengers and was now stuck in one of the lanes. There was a discussion going on between two passengers. One who was sitting on the bonnet next to the driver and another on the seat behind the driver, with me. They seemed to be of the opinion that the driver had taken an incorrect decision and now we all would suffer for it. The conductor, a scrawny chap with rotting teeth, defended the driver, speaking from past experience. The driver sat unconcerned, he shut down the engine and unwound the multi coloured scarf from his head. Ignoring the ‘No Smoking’ sign above, he shook out a beedi (local cigarette) from the pack in his pocket and lit up.
I looked out of the window. It was a local bus, with torn uncomfortable straight rexine seats and I had no illusions about being listened to or rules like ‘No Smoking’ adhered to, for that matter. I no longer had the energy to fight for principles either.
There was a house opposite me, across the window. I could see the terrace from the window where the clothes had been washed and were now fluttering in the mild wind and sunshine. It was a cold winter morning and no doubt some housewife had taken the chance of a Sunday morning to wash the week’s clothes and dry them in the sun.
Clothes tell us so much about the person or the home for that matter, I remember the pride my mother had in our clean school uniforms. We were four sisters, all named for Goddess Saraswati, the elder two were Vani and Pavaki, I was named Medha and the youngest was Bharati. We usually wore hand-me-downs, the shirts would be white and clean with a neat invisible stitch here and there. My mother would soak the whites overnight and scrub them with a blue plastic brush, sitting in the courtyard. Washing clothes was not the simple thing it is nowadays, no automatic washing machines and dryers. Mother would sit with the soaked clothes in one bucket, coloured clothes, not soaked, lying in a pile in the corner. She would sit on a small wooden stool with her sari tucked in beneath her knees and bend down to scrub clothes using the blue brush and a brown coloured soap cake. Water would flow from the tap in the courtyard into the iron tub.
She would scrub the collars and cuffs especially hard, the suds flying through the air to nestle in the corners, sulking. In those days a frayed collar was not enough reason to give away a shirt, collars were actually turned over and stitched again. After thorough washing, clothes were rinsed in heavy iron buckets. The whites would have a last rinse of the ‘blue’ cloth whitener. Mother would twist the clothes to squeeze the water from them, then hand them over to whichever of her daughters’ was assisting that day. We would flap them loudly with a snap and stretch them tightly across the wire before fastening them in place with the iron clips. Coloured clothes would be turned inside out before drying; I would often stand and stare at the clothes, flapping in the wind seemingly with a life of their own. It was a whole process to be followed, which ended in the clothes being taken down, folded carefully, and sorted accordingly. Those days we used to iron our clothes, only my father’s office clothes used to be sent out for ironing.
I looked at the clothes fluttering in the wind now, there was a small child in the house. A row of multicoloured small pyajamas were drying in one corner of the wire strung across the length of the terrace. Small cute vests, white, swung from the wire teamed up with two sweaters of the same size . The clothes had been dried lovingly it seemed, all in a line with equal length, pinned up at the edges very precisely. I smiled, I had bought a special sweet-smelling detergent to wash my baby’s nappies, and would fold and iron them lovingly trying to trap the sunshine in the small folds for my poor son. These sweaters were hand knit, and multicoloured, some kind of brick type design, the woman whose sari was drying on the wire was industrious it seemed, she had collected and knitted sweaters from a collection of left over wool.
I have memories of my grandmother clicking away as she made scarves, hair-bands and socks from all kinds of leftover wool in the house. Her arthritic fingers could no longer manage a sweater but she loved knitting. Actually she loved the idea of knitting, sitting in the sun, sorting the assorted wool balls, clicking away and poring over old faded magazines. A Hindi monthly magazine ‘ Sarita’ was a particular favourite for designs and patterns. Every alternate winter the four of us, sisters, would get a pair of socks and one multi coloured scarf/ hair-band from our grandmother. Our brother, Mahadev, would get socks too but never made of assorted wool. Grandma would make brown or black socks and cap from new wool for him and our father. We never questioned why, just accepted it as part of our existence along with eating food after feeding our father and brother and so many things that were the norm. However fond Grandma was of knitting she never made anything for my mother, probably went against her ‘mother-in-law principles’, though she cared for my mother and always supported her.
The sari drying in the sun is of the usual synthetic material so popular nowadays, easy to wash and wear. It’s a plain yellow sari with a border of bright red flowers and next to it are drying the matching blouse and petticoat. The mother (?) of the child seems to be a small, thin woman. There is something apologetic about her clothes, as if the place on the wire does not belong to them. They overlap and I can see undergarments hidden decorously under the sari. I picture her, standing on tip toe to unpin the clothes and take them down, even then she will roll up the offending scrap of her undergarment in her petticoat to take them inside the house. Our undergarments, four daughters meant quite a lot of them too, were set out to dry in the small balcony , never in the main courtyard.
Two small hand towels, a blue bath towel with a cartoon character in a corner and towel handkerchiefs can be seen. The handkerchiefs are small and seven in number, the child has a cold? Two small sheets, clearly cut and made from a larger sheet dry side by side, their patterns still matching, wishing to join and be one again?
The house in front of me seems to be occupied only by women, there are no shirts, no trousers, no vests, underwear drying jauntily in the sun. Where is the father of this child, the husband of the thin woman? Is he away earning a living, leaving her here, alone? Does he come home on weekends? No, today is Sunday, if he did, then the wire would be full of his weekly clothes, brought home to be washed and ironed before being taken away again.
Or am I projecting my own life? Trying to balance a career and marriage, our marriage has been reduced to a weekend marriage, one weekend he visits and the other, I visit him. What will my balcony and the clothes drying on it, speak of? Male clothes one weekend and none the other?? The gentle weight of a baby’s clothes was felt by the wire in my garden for barely a month. In fact, he did not get a chance to wear all the clothes stitched for him and I did not get to wash and dry them all on my terrace. Packed and kept away by Vani, to be taken out again… again?? Can I go through the pain ?? Can I go through being a mother and then not being one?? My arms felt empty for months afterwards, there was nothing worth holding. If only I knew why? But there were no answers. Answer? I still did not know what to answer if new acquaintances asked me about children. To deny the one month presence of my poor son ? To acknowledge and open my wounds to strangers to scratch and bleed again? I need to concentrate on my new job now, don’t I?
A government job can’t be thrown away, even if it means commuting and staying apart. He does not understand but I do. My father held a government job and when he died unexpectedly of a heart attack, keeling over during his lunch hour in the office, my mother got the job and was able to support us. All my sisters hold government jobs, two are teachers and one is a lecturer, like me. My mother’s pension supports her and my brother’s family. He has not held a steady job till date and if it were not for pension and the little help we sisters give, my poor mother would not be able to manage. Even before marriage we took tuitions and would help with the expenses.
One of the first things we bought collectively for her was a washing machine. I remember the day we got it .Compared to the machines of today it was technically just a drum with a wheel at the bottom which would make the clothes go around in circles. Then they would be taken out, rinsed and dried by hand. The first time, mother carefully put our clothes into the machine, gently, as if she was giving her children away and worriedly watched them going around.
Maybe this one too is living with her mother till her husband gets a steady job. But there is no father or brother here. There is this small child, boy or girl, difficult to say and then the thin woman of the yellow saree and apologetic undergarments. There is an older woman too, a tall healthy woman, somehow the picture in front of me is of an uncompromising matron. Why old? Well, two things point towards her being of a certain age. The clothes drying are a salwar, kameez and a bra. Grey in colour, it is made of spun, winter material with full sleeves and a collared neck, definitely on the large side. The salwar is the kind that my grandmother used to wear, none of this modern belt and pleats salwar, it is the old kind, no belt with the vast waistline. And the bra, uncompromising rough cotton, white, with that typical broad elastic and cotton cups with lines of stitches. Yes, the bra speaks of a strong woman.
I wonder what will my bra speak of? A woman who is scared? Will the designer peach and cream lacy cups speak of a woman is not a mother? Will it speak about the milk that flowed from these breasts in vain, as tears flowed from my eyes? Will the thin elastic tell of the pain that binds me inside? Will my bra speak of my loneliness as I wonder how to break this wall between him and me?
There was some sudden activity and the driver crushed the beedi against the door and started the bus. The bus started with a shudder which shook every door and window before the grating sound of the gear and with a lurch we moved. I craned my neck to see a glimpse of somebody on the terrace as we moved away, but nobody came out and my last glimpse was of the white bra, not fluttering, still, even in the wind.
I made a vow to go home and talk and sort things out. My garden and sunny days would … must… will speak of a family …. together.