There were no baby showers in those days. Certainly not in the seventies and eighties, in the Phulkari (embroidery technique unique to Punjab) obsessed town of Patiala in Punjab, where I spent most of my summer and winter holidays, basking in my grandparent’s love. But there was a ritual that made the pregnant waiting for the arrival of any baby in the family, deeply symbolic. It was the way my Nani-ma (maternal grandmother) invested endless hours knitting her magic into bewildering patterns, using pastel coloured Cashmilon (acrylic yarn) balls that she transformed into adorable pieces of infant attire. It was this unconditional act of love that made the arrival of every child in the family a great honour.
I was two years old when I first arrived at my grandparent’s house in Punjab. My family had recently met with a car crash and mum was struggling to deal with its aftermath while also attending to two young children. I’m not exactly sure why as the younger of two siblings, I was chosen to be sent away to Nani-ma’s house, but I guess in hindsight, I’m really grateful for it. I lived with my grandparent’s for the next couple of years till I was old enough to start schooling.
Unsettling as that displacement was for the little ‘me’, it gave me the opportunity to forge a deep and meaningful bond with my grandparents. As I observed my Nani-ma go about her daily routine, knitting, cooking and indulging us, I learnt about the incredible power of love and compassion. Back then, I wasn’t aware that the separation from my mother would create an unconscious program of abandonment in me. This limiting program may never have healed, had it not been for Nani-ma’s endless lessons in love.
|Nani-ma was always so peaceful|
There were times when she would chant hymns from the Rehras Sahib, (the evening prayer of Sikhs), under her breath while she knitted away, and the day turned quietly from daylight to dusk. At other times, she'd regale me with her stories and teachings while her fingers kept busy despite our conversations. Even as we sat immersed in the cinematic drama of movies, in pitch darkness, at dilapidated cinema halls in Sangrur, Rajpura and Patiala, her knitting needles didn’t rest for a moment. They seemed to be racing against time, weaving a legacy for every ‘expected child’ in her family. And thus she kept on knitting, even as the seasons changed and the generations of her family grew up. In time, her shoulders froze with arthritis, but still her love knew no bounds. All she cared about was that enough sets of sweaters, matching caps and booties had to be made ready in time to welcome the new arrivals.
Sometimes Nani-ma would stare emptily into the distance ahead, while her hands worked furiously on. I never knew what went on in her mind during those moments. She always seemed to have such a peaceful demeanour. And yet, there were times when her needles made a peculiar sound, different from the usual clicking, that suggested her peace of mind may have been compromised. Her tranquillity, as I comprehend it now, was a carefully crafted mask which she wore with tremendous dignity and grace. Regardless of whatever anyone said to her, Nani-ma always stayed calm. But if those needles could have spoken, they may have revealed a deeper truth. As I recollect that peculiarly frantic clicking in my mind now, I sense her inner turmoil and I wonder; did she ever feel as loved, in ways that she loved us all?
I guess you don't ask such questions from a reservoir of love. And so it was that the question never arose between us. But I wish it had. I wish it had tamed my selfishness, made me a tad more empathic to her needs, made me hold her hands in mine and treasure them in a way I always wanted to, but never really did. Alas, why wasn't I more conscious of her suffering? Instead, all I ever did was to greedily ask her for more freshly churned white butter on my paranthas (flatbreads), more Gajar-Shalgam-Gobi ka achaar (vegetable pickle), more Panjiri (traditional Punjabi sweet) that she made especially for the pregnant ladies of the family to nourish the fetus and facilitate an easy delivery for the mother, more haldi ki barfi (Tumeric sweatmeat) that I so relished, and more sweaters every winter. All of which she made exquisitely, with a joyful willingness, like no one ever could.
How I wish I had talked to her knitting needles, when she lay them down after a long day’s work, listening to the stories they had to tell. Surely they must have been privy to the secrets of one who had worked with them so deftly. But wisdom usually arrives late in life, filling one's heart with remorse. All one can do then is to gather those memories woven with love, and hold them close to one’s heart, wishing for another chance to love in a more conscious and wholesome way. But since I cannot turn the clock back now, the only thing I can hope to do is to become a weaver of love, by training my hands and heart to knit her magic, by pouring my love generously and selflessly into all. That perhaps is the greatest tribute I can pay her, by simply becoming who she was.
I remember so vividly how all the grandchildren fought over who would sleep with Nani-ma during our vacations, or who had received more sweaters from her each winter. As the styles changed, so did the shapes and designs of her hand-crafted garments. Twin sets, long dresses with belts, half sleeved jackets, caps, scarves, mufflers - anything we children demanded, was magically knit, sometimes even overnight. But it was the warm vests that remained the same through all times. Pure white, sleeveless, round-neck embraces of double-knit compassion, that were designed to keep her beloved family warm, through the coldest winter months.
|Long cable dress with belt knit by Grandma in 1978|
I often wonder if anyone ever asked my Nani ma if she felt loved. Or was everyone else, like me, simply content with just receiving from her, without ever sparing a thought about her needs? Whether it was the comfort of her cosy lap that we snuggled in, the nourishment of the hot Elaichi (cardamom) milk she prepared for us at bedtime, or the gentle thapki (tender patting) that made us drift into blissful sleep, all of us grandchildren were cherished and indulged beyond imagination.
Nani-ma was like the sun, giving off her warmth, every single day for as long as she lived, yet never asking anyone for anything. Except on those two days, when she must have begged for mercy from God. But her prayers were not answered. Not when she lost her younger son, so unexpectedly to heart failure, while his wife was pregnant with child. Not even when she lost her elder one, to a terrible car accident.
And yet, her face continued to wear a brave mask, but her body began to give way. Her shoulders became frozen with pain and her heart lost its fervour to knit. There were days when I stood outside her bathroom door and heard her suppressed wails as she desperately lifted an arm to put on her shirt or when she tried to placate her grieving heart. But Nani-ma never spoke about her pain, nor did she ever complain. She just went on with life, like drudgery. The only difference was that she prayed more fervently, through the rest of her days, as though begging God to take care of her sons. Or perhaps, requesting Him, to take her away.
Slowly, the sweaters became fewer and rarer. Life snatched away her two grown sons prematurely, and with it the rhythm of her knitting lost its colour, design and purpose. The new-borns kept arriving and she did knit for them all, even for some of her great grand-children, but her magic had begun to fade. I saw it in her eyes, that dead stony gaze which told the story of her loss and her slackening will to live. Much as I wanted to, I could do nothing to soothe her pain.
Instead, I began knitting sweaters for my loved ones, just like Nani-ma did. I knit for my husband and for my new-borns. They were nothing compared to grandma’s knits, but I felt reassured when my husband repeatedly chose to wear his camel coloured, double knit, cabled sweater, that I made for him. On many a cold winter night, he warmed my heart by casually mentioning that this was indeed the warmest sweater of all.
|Ribbed sweater I knit for my husband in 1992|
Time passed and the sun rose one morning to announce that Nani-ma had passed on, quietly in her sleep. She left as gently as she had lived, without asking for help or burdening anyone. How I wish I had held my Nani-ma’s hands in reverence, and placed mine on her hurting heart, to comfort it. How I wish, I could somehow have healed the loss of her sons, and disentangled the traumatic knots that silently choked her grieving heart. How I wish, I had held her tightly when she ached for them, like she had held me, when I was fearful and forlorn. How I wish, I could have promised her that she would surely meet her lost sons again, on the other side, in the higher realms. How, oh how I wish, I had woven the same love into her life that she had knit into every child’s life that was ever born to her family.
And because I didn’t do any of those things for her back then, and now I know I never can, surely not on this earthly realm, I give my love to other people, hoping to heal their pain and unshackle their hearts and minds. And I weave this tale with deepest admiration and love, with the pink Cashmilon threads of my heart, to honour her life, to share her legacy with all, and to celebrate the extraordinary woman that my Nani ma was.
Suzy Singh learnt to live life, to sew, stitch, knit, cook, bake and most importantly, to love, from her grandma. After eighteen years in advertising, She relinquished a successful corporate career to pursue her soul’s purpose of healing, loving and giving. She is now a Healer, Spiritual Teacher and Author of the book, ‘7 Karma Codes - Heal the Storm Within’, available online: https://www.amazon.in/7-Karma-Codes-Suzy-Singh/dp/938423821X
Her website is www.suzyheals.com
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‘Personal Threads’ is an endeavour to read our histories (both political and personal) as the interconnected pieces of a quilt – each one’s individual threads sewn together to form a larger picture. Telling our stories is a means to locate ourselves and who we are within the folds of their narrative. And often, who we are and what we do, emerges from the people, things and places that played some role in our past. We may claim different nationalities and religions but the DNA of our lives is complex and far from unconnected.
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