• Under the Raintree Festival

'Getting Ready' by Asmita Mukerji

'Factory halli', a settlement of factory workers, was the by-product of many chemical and cloth industries in its vicinity.Residing here was a particularly resourceful grandmother- hailed as Ajji by all.

A parcel had just got delivered to Ajji’s home. She immediately sent out news to all awaiting its arrival. Then, too excited to do anything else, she begun reminiscing the events that lead up to this moment.

The opening of an office next to their settlement. The employees roaming dejectedly around their halli at noon. The discovery that the fancy office was lacking a canteen.

While her fellow inhabitants ogled and giggled at trendy attires and unfamiliar accents, Ajji promptly spotted the opportunity hungry stomachs with stuffed money bags presented. Mobilising her half-a-century of experience and her papad making group, she set to work.

In a week, the office crowd was thronging the rickety table (wo)manned by ladies serving appetising meals outside Ajji’s home. In a month, the ladies were offered salaried jobs to form the in-house office catering squad. Ajji was to be supervisor.

The 'getting permission to work' dramas had begun and ended favourably. A major hurdle crossed, the team was now looking forward to the next milestone of their journey, the work uniforms. That is what the parcel contained.

The women arrived in a hurry. The flaps of the cardboard box were lifted. Transparent plastics, shielding glorious rich blues, lay within. Someone picked up a pack and pushed out the content. A shirt and trouser pair proudly presented themselves.

If you could open the door and walk in at that instant, you would have witnessed a rare event- pin drop silence in a room packed with seven adult women. Women,who had worn only sarees since marriage. Even the salwar-kurta had edged its way into their community very apologetically. This was the environment into which these masculine clothes audaciously stepped.

The office administration head received an emergency visit the next day. Despite vehement objections, the man flatly refused to change the uniform. “Not possible”, was his extensive explanation.

Knives of criticism from family, friends and relatives started ripping through the women’s already vexed minds. The result was unexpected. The blades shredded all inhibitions and dilemmas, shaping in its place a cliff of determination to defy all, come what may.

“They outline the shape of your legs so clearly. Thhuu”, said an enraged mother-in-law.

“These baggy trousers outline nothing. This apparel covers much more skin than a saree”, retorted the daughter-in-law.

Many such exchanges followed. They key was to find one supporter each, just one link on disconnecting which the iron chain would break. A co-operative husband, a doting son, perhaps an understanding father-in-law. They were found, gradually.

For Ajji, the scenario was different. In her case, it was not about defying authority. It was about risking the authority she commanded.

Ajji’s sarees had always kept her healthy, pear-shaped body reverently wrapped. While shirts and trousers sit primly on Western women with apple shaped physiques, they find it a bit challenging to deal with Indian shapes. When Ajji wriggled into her uniform for the first time, even in the confines of her deserted home, it took her a while to muster the courage and face her own reflection. The unfamiliar silhouette was daunting. How could she subject to the scrutiny of others an image she herself could not come to terms with?

A few days prior to their slated joining, Ajji decided to visit her native village- a fishing town by the backwaters. War had been waging within her for far too long. Perhaps the serenity of nature could douse some flames.

On the third day of her visit, she quietly sneaked away on her family boat. Two old friends re-united. The water below bubbled with joy, the trees nodded their greetings and the wind ran hither thither spreading the news of the re-union. Her eyes set along the coast, Ajji soaked herself in the sights and sounds of her childhood.

Spotting a fisherwoman, she instinctively slowed down.

Standing in waist high water, muscles tensed, the lady was manoeuvring her fishing net. Ajji knew the amount of concentration, skill and force required to wield that net and catch the few fishes meant to feed waiting mouths back home. She knew, because she had also done it. Before her marriage, before she moved away to follow her labourer husband across towns, before Ajji became Ajji.

The fisherwoman’s saree was rolled up high above her thighs, almost the entirety of her legs, bare and exposed. Ajji did not know why, but that sight unsettled her. Her eyes would keep getting distracted from the lady’s admirable antics to her uncovered wet body. If only she could lower the saree, all would be fine, she felt.

Thus it continued for two days. The third day, Ajji arrived a little late. The net was almost out and hundreds of small silver mermaids were jumping within.

The fisherwoman stooped slightly to take a better look at the outcome of her efforts. The satisfaction and pride on her face at that instant- even if a thousand pairs of eyes were critiquing her naked flesh and clinging wet saree, they would have all been lowered in shame. So were Ajji’s.

A tide of guilt flooding through, Ajji could not fathom how and when her mind became so disfigured. How did it forget to recognise intentions and purpose? When did the secondary become primary and the trivial become critical?

Ajji returned home the very next day. Retrieving her uniform, she gave it a long look and ran her hand over the resilient material. Then, putting it on, she faced the mirror. The image was still scary, but her eyes remained steadfast.

The joining day arrived. The team arrived. The supervisor stepped out of the house. Covered in blue cloth, seven pairs of hands and legs set forth to feed two hundred and fifty people.

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