I’m talking of a long time ago, when I was the youngest boy working under Alok Babu in the sari shop he owned at 72, Hatibagan market. If you turn back from the Boys’ School, walk towards the statue on the square, and follow the tram tracks till they turn left into a lane, you will find yourself facing Boyonika Sari Emporium. I remember how, in my first days, I used a dent in the brown tracks, followed by a particular pothole on the street, as a marker for my mind to stop my feet and think ahead to the day’s work. Alok Babu would be sitting on his seat at the counter, checking accounts or writing a postcard, a paan tucked into his teeth, a ribbon of smoke from the incense sticks wafting past his oiled hair to reach the garlanded portrait of his late father from whom he inherited this business. I would greet him with a bowed head, he would nod, and I would fold my jute bag in a faraway corner and go to wash my feet from a pail of water. After this point, any sound of someone’s footsteps would be impossible to hear, for Tutun would spread open those thick rug mattresses that swallowed every sound that fell on them, and only thin strips of cracked cement were all that remained of the original ground. Tutun started half an hour earlier than me, restocking blouses or climbing ladders to find a missing item from the higher ledges. I would move about the shop aimlessly, eyeing the blocks of clothes stored end to end in rigid stacks and always lose count of the soft, almost imperceptible black lines on the shelves which meant, simultaneously, the beginning of a sari and the end of another.
Gradually, with the passing of days, I was made familiar with the kind of clothes Alok Babu sold in Boyonika. He claimed the shop was named after a special kind of silk spun only in certain villages in lakeside forests along the coastline, but I never could find if this was true. Anyways, whatever it may be, Alok Babu kept all kinds of cotton, a healthy range of silk, a wide variety of rather garish chiffon, a selected stock of Sambalpuri saris, and some thick-threaded handloom pieces. Dhiren, the man in charge of all saris, initially moved me around the shop on his whim, sometimes downstairs to fetch some old rows of forgotten cotton, at other times ordering me to ransack some long-unopened, cobwebbed cabinet from whose dark depths I had to rescue a matching blouse. For nearly a year, this went on, a time in which I never knew what my job was, and yet when it seemed that anything at all could be asked of me. Sometimes, just when I thought there was time to sit still, or stare at the streets outside where the sounds still new to me would come, his hand would fling a folded sari across the air, which I had to store in a stack according to its color, type and price. For the longest time, I could not make out why he never mentioned a specific task to me, but one day, suddenly when it dawned on me that there was no stack of saris that I hadn’t run my hands through, no cabinet of clothes I hadn’t opened, no corner of the shop I hadn’t climbed till on the ladder, did I realize with silent respect that my first year of hustling here and there, as if rebounding from wall to wall, was nothing but me being slowly stirred into the air of the shop. We were quiet men, and neither needed to say it to the other. We both knew that I was now a part of Boyonika.
Soon it was time for Dhiren to teach me the first few things about showing a sari. On certain Mondays, when the shop would shut earlier than usual, he would call for Tutun and me, and momentarily make us the women whose gaze we had to guide, step by step, to the clothes we wanted to sell. There were some things on which we had to lose, he said – the kind of cloth, the cut, or maybe even the color of pleats – but all around this illusion of choice, the seller must start erecting, by deft, diplomatic words and some controlled promises, the borders of his kingdom. He would pick at random one of the many saris beyond the glass, their shapes stiffened by time and looked as rigid as bricks to the eyes. Upon the first touch of his fingers the fabric would emit a crisp crackle, and swiftly he would fling out the piece of shabby cardboard plaque that was the spine around which the sari had been wound many times. Keeping most of the sari still asleep in its thick folds, he would pry open a corner with a fingernail, and awaken a square slice of its print to our eyes. He would trace its intricate patterns of embroidery, running an index finger along its fringe in such a way as to call your eyes to the subtle borders that ran thinly till the end, where it died out in a few frail wisps of thread. Tutun and I would stand and glance from one fabric to the other, our little lips sealed, our eyes absorbing the turn of colors, our ears alert to his choice of words. After an hour or so of such demonstration, he would collect the different saris splayed on the tabletop into a mass, give them a slap, and announce with ironic ceremony in his voice, “Today’s training is over. To be continued.”
This was not all. Dhiren kept us close when the women waded in, parting the plastic curtains on the doorstep with their bangled arms, already eyeing the shelves. From the very first, Dhiren would have the task of gathering their gazes together and bringing them to the table. Then, feigning anger on me and Tutun, he would raise his voice to a rasp and tell us to fetch this or that batch of saris in sharp phrases. Sometimes, even Tutun would join in and add orders of his own to Dhiren’s original lines, and being the youngest, I would have no choice but to absorb these commands all by myself, with no one after me to continue the transfer of tempers and vent my heart out. As a result, towards the end of the busiest of days, I could be seen working with puffed-up cheeks, and would move through the shop with downcast eyes, as if within me lay all of Boyonika’s discontent. I was always a thin boy with rickety legs, and arms that knew no ambition, and this was the impression that many women would have carried after their humid haunts spent in the summer evenings on the streets of Hatibagan. Now that I think of it, I wonder how many slices of that single boy still live on in some unplumbed attic of their memories, and if my bony shoulders and lanky frame are forever doomed to fringe their treasured recollections of the time when the saris they wear so fondly, own so proudly, were first unfurled for their eyes, under those dim brown bulbs on the white tabletops of Boyonika Sari Emporium.
Day by day, I started to see how Dhiren was slowly handing me the reins of the sari department. After spotting a naive customer, who would sooner or later settle into a choice, he would cajole her through a play of colors, make her consider a few glazy designs, and then cloth by cloth withdraw back towards the blurring row of saris, making me suddenly become the only person between her and the blinding delight of so many saris on offer.
At first, I only showed cotton. I would proceed from where Dhiren had left, spreading the surface of those colorful pieces, outlining the frills with my fingers before moving to milder, more subdued designs. I would show floral prints first, then the ones with dotted artwork, followed by the filigreed embroidery that made subtle patterns, and finally saris that came embossed with abstract shapes and inexplicable signs, and at which I would inevitably become tongue-tied and thus, completely at the mercy of the woman’s taste. In the initial days, I had my share of insistent ladies whose whims I could not cope with. Boyonika was bustling enough to keep Dhiren and Tutun simultaneously busy with other customers, so that my stumbling failures could not even be muffled by their experience. I would have to endure the disheartening sight of those women pass through the shelves, slip into their sandals while leaning on the shoe-stand, and leave the steps of Boyonika, perhaps never to return. After ten at night, behind closed shutters, while we folded back the unchosen saris and swept bits and pieces of paper along with the day’s dust, I would confess in a low tone the chances I missed, and fear the worst from Dhiren. But invariably, by the time we opened our steel tiffin boxes, he would never get angry on me, but only string together a few sentences of advice one after another, we would all have a good laugh about the day, and I would be sent to sleep, my weary mind soothed by the thought that in all of time to come I’ll always remain the youngest boy working in Boyonika.
It never occurred to me how young Dhiren also was till one evening Tutun whispered to me that there was talk of his marriage. Alok Babu announced that very night that Boyonika would close for four days on account of Dhiren’s wedding preparations, in which Tutun and I were told to lend a hand. A Calcutta wedding was too expensive for the groom and bride alike. So we went, the three of us, to the girl’s place in Asansol in an all seater, intercity, foul-smelling night train, and in between two small town stations whose name I had not heard, he told us he would be leaving Boyonika soon after the marriage. It was part of an unsaid understanding, he said. His in-laws owned two wholesale godowns there in the countryside, and had promised him the job of storekeeper in one of those as dowry. It was a place that paid twice the money Boyonika did in a town in which everything cost half as much as in Calcutta; indeed the whole affair had been planned around this promise that the father of the bride had made. We alighted in Asansol with heavy hearts, and the three days that Tutun and I spent there – pitching tents, lugging bags, carrying drum-full of water and fruit-laden plates from everywhere to everywhere, neither could coax out of our hearts a cheerfulness proper to the scenes leading up to a marriage. On that night it was very windy, the girl sobbed endlessly. Me and Tutun slept under the half-unwinded tarpaulin tents, and when some cleaner with a broom woke us up the next morning, we realized we had only an hour to make it to the station.
Dhiren was there briefly at the gate where a rickshaw was waiting. He had to give us a set of keys to the basement that he had kept close to him all this while. “Before I forget”, he said, and kept pointing to each key while telling us what all it unlocked. “This here is for the September set of cotton ones, and this one has Ray Babu’s wholesale maal, this is for that old stock of white chiffon, got it? And well, the rest you know”, he trailed off, as I climbed the rickshaw’s foot-pedal.
“Take good care of the shop, okay, and both stay good-good!” he said, his hand neither waving nor still, but just gently rising and falling, as if blessing the air around him, and I watched till his body was borne away by the distance between us.
I returned to Boyonika as the man in charge of all saris, and found that the days did not slow down for my sake. I made many mistakes in that time of my life, staying silent too long to questions, losing my attention, confusing clothes of one kind with another. The women kept coming and going, flinging sharp questions at my silence, a malignant twist in their faces, the last of their words laced often with insult. All of Hatibagan’s shopkeepers would know of me as the inept showman of saris from Boyonika whom Dhiren trusted foolishly. I found, however, that there was no one to turn to. I was an orphan from a faraway village from across the border, thrust into this city years ago, and for our kind only our work can save us. So I buried myself into my duties in Boyonika. In six months, I could handle all the cotton stock by myself. At the end of the year, knowing no one there, I travelled to Jorhat, through countless rain-soaked paddy fields, to collect our batch of Assamese silk saris, all on my own. By the second year, I could tell by the touch of a single thread if the stack of red and white Korial saris were from Bengal or faked elsewhere. And a few days before it would be three years to Dhiren’s marriage, I managed the shop alone on the busiest Sunday in the history of Boyonika, seeing to more than a hundred women, selling a total of hundred twenty two garments, including ten Sambalpuri saris. This is all a man’s life is, I thought – smile through the pain and feign a greatness.
Soon, my marriage was also decided. My father’s elder brother, who I met once every two years and on whom had fallen the responsibility of ensuring that I further the family line, came to Calcutta one day, and told me over food how a family that a neighboring village had been asking around if there were any young men for marriage in our house.
“‘So I told them about you. Works in Calcutta’, I said. They are ready”.
One has no choice in these things. I’d known this since a long time, I’d seen too many men and women leave their houses in white and red, to think that anyone does these things willingly, so I said yes.
The bride wore red – a Benarasi brocade sari with intricate, antique designs gilded in golden thread. That was the first time I saw her, guided by a web of women towards the fire. I remember thinking that her face was only eyes, with brows dotted in white sandalwood paste beaming past all other colors and jewelry so large and so many that they almost eclipsed her face under the harsh, moth-crossed lights. I think we have some photographs. Brides and grooms are the worst ones to ask about their own wedding, they barely know what is going on themselves, but one thing I do remember was how ruthlessly I was teased for being the groom who sold saris for a living. The slightest talk of clothes that would happen around me would arouse a fit of laughter in the groups of girls that escorted the bride. “Do you know something about Henna too?’, they’d ask, flashing their palms after hours of inking designs on them, “or is it just saris you have advice for?” Or sometimes, pausing for a moment in their frolic, they’d taunt with a knowing smile that comes to those who know the torture of the words they are about to speak, “What’s this? No saris for us or the bride? Here we were sat thinking, ‘here comes the groom, from his big shop in Calcutta’, and no new clothes! Is such the life after marriage, tell?” Just a couple of hours before the ceremony, they were particularly excruciating, surrounding me from all sides and pinning me to my seat, saying they won’t let me go to the pandal till I agreed to their conditions. They shook out a few promises from me, one among them being that within the first month of marriage, I have to present a brand new Boyonika sari to my wife-to-be. Although then I said yes to everything they asked, for some reason, this promise did not leave my memory. Even as I returned from my marriage, watching the plains pass beyond the windows in the night-train, I was already thinking of what colors and patterns will be on the sari that I should gift my wife.
On the first Monday of married life, I took her to Boyonika. On the tram, I felt the slightly shivering thrill of taking someone through the things that made up my life, and how difficult it was to divide my attention between her and keeping one eye open for that twisted electric pole that was my personal signal for getting down. Alok Babu and Tutun met her. I told her about Dhiren in such grand words that she must have thought I was talking of a legend who had passed away but whose spirit hovers here. Tutun took her towards the spot where we sat cross-legged waiting for the women. There was no shine in her eyes when the glass cabinets slid apart to show the saris on all three sides around us, and never did her hand move towards a stack of clothes in spite of herself. Instead, she kept sticking close, her head covered at all times, her eyes rarely raised. When I started shuffling and gathering the mess of saris on the white table, no special sign of appreciation for a particular piece escaped her, but a calm smile smothered just a moment before anyone could notice it would let me know that perhaps her hands had passed through something she liked.
“You can see for yourself. If you would like something…maybe this one, hmm?” I said after a while, keeping a single finger on a khadi piece as green as a betel leaf. “Like these?”
“No, no, not for me”, she shied away, her voice thinning.
I came close to whisper. “Look, Alok Babu, gives us some of the stock at the end of the year, some leftover ones that remain here. If you see something I can try to keep it.”
“You know much more about saris here”, she said while walking back home that afternoon, after hours of my coaxing to pick up something she liked. “Something simple, anything that is not too much. Rest, you know.”
“And color?”, I remembered to ask just before shutting my eyes for the night. “Else you’ll say, ‘don’t like the color’
“Anything…whatever you like best,”, came from the other side of the bed, and there was nothing for some seconds, till some more words spilled over to my side, “white will do…”, followed by nothing but a second silence that I slowly felt blend with the dark of night.
It was indeed Alok Babu’s custom, like most shop-owners, to gift us a few saris that went unsold over the year. Whenever this would happen, me, Tutun, and the whole community of men who worked in Hatibagan and lived on the whimsical, momentary mercies of women, would realize with a shock how clueless we become when left alone with the very things we sell, and how perfectly useless the clothes and colors become to our eyes and hands the minute there is no one to tell them about, as if our entire business was a dream that has just departed our minds, leaving behind things that we can’t make sense of in the real world. Married men would eventually take some for their wives or in-laws, but the others would spend days roaming the streets and markets of Borbazar, hopping shop to shop and slashing the prices in half to get rid of the saris they carried like abandoned babies. Tutun and I had never eyed any sari for ourselves in the year before, but in those days, at the end of the year, something changed. In idle moments in the shop, between folding the clothes and chatting with Tutun, I could sense myself lingering over a line of clothes, and thinking if one of them could indeed stay till the end of the year, untouched and unbought, so I could fulfill my promise. I would remember her words, and my eyes would scour through the shop in search of a simple white one. A few days before X-mas, I finally found it.
It was a jute cotton sari shipped a few days ago from Digha, where we all had heard stories of weavers working. If not for a few crisscrossing lines on its upper body, it would be a piece of absolutely spotless white. It felt at first like paper in my hands, as if with a single crunch it could crumble to dust, and if you held the fabric to the light for a few seconds, it seemed everything beyond the cloth would become beautifully muffled and each fine thread would rise up to the fore, ready to be traced by a keen eye. Only after unfurling it further did I see its exquisite edges bordered in blue, with a thin, dark, long-running indigo thread woven in many circles to create an illusion from afar of chariot wheels. Many times I turned it over and around, inside out, but each time I swept a patch of the cloth around my fingers to check for tears or stains, I found myself newly pleased, as if with every touch a little more of its simple beauty was floating up to its milk white surface. I kept it in the third row in the cabinet of cotton things that stood to my left, knowing well that it did not belong there neither by color or kind, simply because it came within a single swing of my arm, and hoped hard that no woman would want it.
Ten days remained till the end of the year. Just for ten more days I have to wait and take every woman who comes to me away from the sight of that sari. I recalled Dhiren’s words and ways – how he kept saying that no matter what happened in the center of the shop where choices were made, we three were the ones who made the edges of the shop, we were the frame that makes the picture of Boyonika possible. I kept these thoughts close as these last days began. On the ninth and eighth day before the New Year, my time at the shop was fairly eventless. Most of the day I was made to tally accounts in Alok Babu’s ledger, and at other times I either chatted with Tutun or watched Azharuddin bat through two days of a test match. Till lunchtime on the seventh day so little had happened that I asked Alok Babu if I could quickly go to eat with my wife and come back. Over a day-old pot of rice I talked to her about all that was happening in the shop but not my plan. She asked me to bring Tutun over for lunch on Sunday, or send fried fish to Alok Babu’s home. I kept blindly nodding, thinking to myself how good it will be if the next six days were kind to me. So badly had I begun wanting the future to be exactly how I wished it, that while walking back to the shop I started to think of the ways in which I can escape the shop with a sari in my hand. My thoughts began splitting into many paths I could take. Maybe I can open the shutters this Sunday with the spare key, I thought, but the sight of Tutun waiting with his chin on his hands, and the way his eyes brightened for a moment as he said, ‘even Jadeja has hit 100’, made me shrink in shame that such thoughts had ever crossed my heart. Visions of me and my wife being paraded through the streets with all kinds of names being shouted towards us, or begging on busy footpaths chilled me to the bone. Could I ask Alok Babu for the piece, risking a slap and maybe even a months’ pay, depending on his temper? Or do I do my job and watch six days pass?
The next day, a flock of a few ladies, belonging certainly to some big family, descended on Boyonika and just in a matter of a few footsteps, stood facing me with intention in their eyes. They needed both cotton and silk, for they were buying a batch of saris to gift the groom’s family before the marriage. Tutun and I started by offering some usual choices, we threw on the table some gauzy greens, reds and yellows, knowing well that none would make a mark, for this was a custom so crude that even buyers do not bother. After this, I showcased some khadi material, some standard tasar silks, and a few specimen of red and black Sambalpuris, hoping to end the game right then. They lingered long over the clothes, went back and forth amongst themselves, but whenever I felt the threat of their gaze going towards the simple thing I valued most, I’d fling under their eyes this or that cloth, hoping that either the price or the patterns on it would lure them astray. To this end, I never spoke of jute cotton either, fearing they’d force me to show every last piece of that variety we have.
But time solves everything. It’s mysterious how a piece you whisked away supposing it would never suit you begins to grow wings in your mind. Maybe you hear something good from the person you came with, and now all of a sudden your friends are pasting it to your body like a sheet, measuring shoulders, and turning you around. Who knows what god sees over things like these, but I was lucky that day. As me and Tutun gradually started showing different styles, and moved up towards the higher ranges and subtle colors, they grew fond of certain designs. Whenever they became unsure I tried to calm the group by alternating between saying ‘pure cotton’, and ‘pure silk’, as the case may be. The fact that they wanted the groom’s family to not think of them as mean misers played in my favor – they picked many gilded, glitzy ones and feared that giving bland things of a single color could make them look like people who think too much before spending. It’s a strange thing to say, but sometimes the cost of being rich ends up helping us poor.
But if there’s anyone worse for us than the rich, it’s the rich with taste; it’s a lethal combination. After dealing with simply the rich for the next day, just as I was beginning to think that I could swat away anyone, in came a young woman.
She was dressed in a baffling mix of all things – a chunni thrown over shoulders in abandon, brown glasses paired with a nose ring, shoes that were half-sandals, half slippers – she seemed the wrong halves of two people fused together. She was silent for as long as two minutes, but her eyes were hopping from stack to stack, studying and rejecting saris, it seemed, simply from the look of their spines. At last, with god knows what in her mind, she approached the table and stated. “What all do you have in cotton…..show simple, not too flashy”
Hearing these words, I silently turned back to face the same shelves that I had seen a thousand times, but never with an anxiety I was now feeling. Taking a few seconds to steel myself, I squatted down to bring out in three multicolored pieces – red, purple and sandalwood shades and all without any designs on them. Just as I was beginning to talk about the first one, how pure its cotton was, how it had travelled through the hands of many weavers in Benares, she stopped me with a shake of her head –
“No, no, not all this. Don’t you have any light colors?”
“You mean, well, in silk we have…”
“No, no, in cotton only…don’t have?”
“Let me see again, madam,” I said, and sat down cross legged, motioning her to sit as well. I shouted for Tutun and told him to look for the kind of thing madam wanted in the basement. We both stood in two minutes of silence, nervous for me and awkward for her, till Tutun ran back up and unfolded a handful of saris on the tabletop. They were all very mellow – light brown, pale peach, a soft sky blue – all such colors passed under her fingers one after one and yet her face showed not a sliver of interest. As if out of mercy she pressed her palms upon the last of such saris, a soft piece the color of turmeric, and said that this was, at least, “a certain kind of sari”. God knows what she meant by that. I showed her some variations of that color and print which held her eyes for some time, but I was fearing that soon she would want something simpler. I made an attempt, through a mention of discounts, to guide her towards silk, but she did not even hear my words. Instead, she pointed to my left, where it felt I had hid my very heart. I turned and placed one finger, weak with fear, according to her gaze on the stained-glass.
“No, even more down, the grey one, with those blue-blue designs”
I breathed in relief. My white jute sari was merely four fingers away. I took my time spreading the piece around, thinking to myself how to sway her away. I could see two ways before me – either to taker so far away from that stack of saris that there was little chance of her returning, or to convince her so well of the brilliance of the grey piece that she buys it then and there. Perhaps I could talk her towards a few black and red sambalpuri pieces? Meanwhile, her hands had clutched one of the sari’s corners, the opposite end of the edge I was holding, and in a few moments I had lost the cloth to her hands.
“Hmm…this is quite good, this color is nice.” She drew a long breath of admiration as she ran her fingers over the cloth turning its borders inside and out. “What price?”
I named a price much lesser than what that piece deserved, and what it would have doubtlessly fetched if not for my dilemma. It was hard to tell whether I was getting more nervous or angry. “Just take it”, I could yell with my eyes, “what more do you want, it has a good print, it doesn’t shine in the light, it is simple, and just take it.”
“Well, lets see what more you have like this….move to this side a bit! I want to look what other things there are..”
“Over here, we have good..”
“Let’s look at that white one..”
“Yes, this is a good piece, you’d like this…”
“No, no, not that row, over here…”
“This one, you said?”
“Arey no baba, this , this, look at where I’m pointing.”
“The one below”
“More below, yes near that….under that pink one”
“Oh, this one?”
“Yes”. I see that it has come to this.
Nowadays, I think about that moment a lot. Every now and then, on her behalf, I imagine entirely different lives for that girl, which would have led her to thoughts different from the ones she had when she made her choice. Maybe in this way I can make her not pick this piece. In another story I told to myself, I had convinced her that this sari is too plain to be worth her, showing its widow-white pallor and its cheap borders in blue thread, till her tone blended with mine, saying, yes indeed, it is. Since when had they started to like simple things too, weren’t the simple things meant for us? And of the rest, what to tell. My insisting on her not having the sari, her surprise and taking offense at my words, Alok Babu rushing from his chair upon hearing her raised voice, her leaving the sari and the shop in a fit of anger and self-esteem, Tutun, over whom these things passed like a cyclone, standing speechless beside, Alok Babu landing an ear splitting slap on me, my leaving Boyonika, my not telling my wife what the matter was till three days, and after telling, her not talking with me for four, all these are rather long-long stories that should be cut short. But best as I might try, my mind wanders back to the image of that sari sleeping in a stack, and I begin to wonder what fate has befallen that piece, which stack it lies in now, and how unaware that woman is whose body it is destined to drape, of the history of the hands and eyes that have passed over its prints.
Here I am on the platform with my wife, and again we wait for a train. Soon we will board the intercity to Digha, where I plan to meet someone who might need a salesman of saris. Now and then I think of writing a letter of apology to Alok Babu but one day over food, her face melting in anger and tears, crying only like a woman like her could, she said we will never spread our hands for what that man throws. “And if you do, do so alone, because I’m leaving everything and run away that very moment…you listening?”, she said. I am. I have written a letter to Dhiren, telling him everything and asking if he knows someone who might hire someone like me. Maybe he will write back in a few days. It is tough, but I think everything will go fine, maybe I’ll soon have a sari shop like Boyonika to my own name. I know one thing for certain. Every month, a thousand saris are shipped from Calcutta to the coast, who knows, maybe it will be one among them, hiding between blues and greens and one day, wherever I’m working, I will open a carton to find that it has returned to me.
Uday Kanungo has completed his post graduate studies in English Literature and currently works as a writing tutor at Ashoka University. He writes fiction in English while translating prose and poetry from Odia to English. His writing has been published in Pif Magazine, City Journal, Eleventh Column, and The Assam Tribune