The display of sarees and salwar kameez stared at me from the shops. Some hung loosely under the eaves while others were draped on mannequins. As they danced to the breeze, they resonated with a nostalgic charm and stirred something dormant within me…
Something girlish and romantic.
Something profoundly Indian.
Something left behind in the alleys of history and tradition.
Like a beautiful silk scarf that had dropped off the shoulders of tradition, only to be trampled upon by the horses of ‘globalization’.
I could no longer see the people on the street. All I could see was fabric.
Deep shades of green, blue and red that contrasted with pastel colors. Bright shades of yellow and orange that contrasted with dusky shades of brown and black. Georgette, chiffon, crepe and silk that gleamed against crisp cottons. Transluscent flowery designs that veiled opaque fabric. Embroidery, sequins, zari and beads that glimmered against the backdrop of plain fabric.
Most of the shops here belonged to Muslims. Some of the embroidery was handcrafted. It was exquisite and reminiscent of traditional Islamic embroidery. The kind of embroidery that I had only seen in salwars designed in North India. The kind of salwars that traditional Punjabi women wear.
I remembered that evening long ago when I had walked the streets of Southall, amidst shops that specialized in zari embroidered lehangas, salwar suits and wedding sarees. Amidst eateries that served North Indian sweets and savouries. Amidst makeshift stalls that sold Bollywood CDs. Amidst signboards in Punjabi script. I remember the disbelief I had felt at what I saw. This was a slice of Punjab, transported to a different continent. A Punjab that was reminiscent of the pre-independence province of Punjab- a province that was as much populated by Sikhs as by Muslims. It was hard to tell the difference. Here, people appeared to live as they had lived for years in their motherland, before the partition. The border did not exist in the minds of the people here.
And that takes me to the serial I have been watching lately. Buniyaad. Who can forget the delicacies that Doordarshan had served us in its early years? That was a different era altogether.
I have always found myself drawn to the Punjab province and to the story of its partition. It may be on account of the numerous Punjabi friends we had when I was a child. Many of these families had their personal tragedies buried in the story of partition. It was as if they had been uprooted from their motherland that contained their most precious memories…as if they had left behind a precious part of their own self on the other side of the border. Films, books and serials that were centered on partition, added to my sentiments.
It is therefore not surprising that Buniyaad resonated with me and with the minds of many Indians, particularly the ones whose past lay buried in the Punjab of pre-partition times.
I watched the first few episodes, and felt a bout of nostalgia and heartache. The Punjab of those times. The houses that were homes. The community life of Indian villages, the open air, the slow paced life, the warmth and intimacy, the raw human beings. Those infinite moments that made one feel alive.
I was drawn to the manner in which love unfolds in the minds of the people in this serial- as a free-flowing emotion that is to be felt.
A gentle, slow awakening. Sublime. Spoken more through the silences than through the words. That irreplaceable feeling awakened for a person that permanently changes something within, never to be reversed.
As I watch the women in this serial, I am reminded of who I used to be. I had never longed for independence. I had only wanted to be a woman- a woman bound to tradition. A woman who was comfortable veiling herself in the garbs of tradition. A woman secure in the companionship of a strong man by her side. I had only wanted to dream; I had nothing to prove to the world. I was happy in the anonymity and privacy of my world. My dreams, I had wanted to keep to myself. They were secrets I did not wish to share with the world. In my moments of solitude, I wished to stroll aimlessly, and feel. I wished to talk to the trees and call out to the birds. I wished to chase the butterflies and the gurgling brooks, and I wished to lay on the soft grass and sleep under the skies. I wished to write poetry and prose, and hide it from the world. I wished to sing and dance, and I wished to soak up the raindrops, reveling in my perceptions. This world within me, was my secret. My only dream was to nurture it.
But life had other plans for me. I had to run away from my traditional garb in order to survive. Nothing feminine can survive in a world barren and devoid of love, and so, I put on a man’s shoes and walked. I adapted to a man’s ways, but deep within, these contrasted and conflicted with the feminine nature of my personality. But the need to survive propelled me in this new role.
It amuses me as much as it saddens me to think of the garbs we wear in order to survive. Anything, just to survive. These garbs of masculine aggression, of insanity, of feigned numbness. These masks that we learn to wear permanently and that eventually become our identity.
All that I am today- the roles that define me and the roles that I have learnt to revel in, is the outcome of the need for survival. The need for rising above the emptiness and loneliness. The passion for physiology, for teaching, for writing, for psychology- they were all born out of the emptiness and loneliness that caused me to find a higher meaning in life.
But beneath all these roles, is a woman. An Indian woman who unseen to the world, appears in the solitary and private moments of my life. Within her are all the soft feminine emotions that can no longer find a place in the world. She lives, somewhere within me. I can feel her at times- in that occasional throb of girlish excitement, in that occasional shimmer of a dream that crosses the eye, in that occasional quietude that fills the heart.
I can see her, somewhere in between the pages of the books I read, in the emotions that unfold on the screen as I watch these old serials and movies…in the words scribbled in my diaries. I am left with a longing to go back to her, but then I realize that there is an infinite distance between us now. And that longing then transforms into a mute helplessness…