by Kalyani Ramnath
Every week, my mother and I went shopping for spools of thread. On Thursday evenings, we would pull down the grey-blue shutters of her little tailoring shop, stuff the day’s collections into a purse, hail an autorickshaw and be on our way to Swamy Traders. It was not our only ritual or our only special mother-daughter time. But I looked forward to it – more than I did the other things that we did together. This Thursday was no exception.
The eponymous Swamy sat at the cashier table at the very front of his shop, surrounded by account books and a tumbler of water with a bright lemony lemon sunk into its depths. For good luck and prosperity, Amma had once explained to me. I had trouble connecting lemons and luck then, but later on I would think of Swamy’s lemon-in-the-tumbler when thinking of the English adage about life, lemons and luck. Back then, my mind had sped on to more interesting things. Swamy’s forehead was smeared with bhasmam, some of which dribbled onto the thick black frame of his spectacles. Above his head sat a series of gold-leaf goddesses, gold coins issuing forth from their divine palms, little red and green lights blinking furiously around the frame, announcing their importance. Running a shop was risky, and Swamy needed all the luck he could get, Amma had once told me, perhaps thinking of her own shop as well. I resolved never to become a shopkeeper.
Amma greeted Swamy, who was happy to see his regular customer. “Eppudi irrukireenga? School uniform rush ellam undo?”, he asked Amma, switching between Tamil and Malayalam, confident that Amma could do the same. “Aa, angene pokunnu,” Amma replied in Malayalam. I was always annoyed that he never spoke to me. Now, I think, perhaps I was unfair to him. He could not often see me, because I was half the height of the old wooden desk that functioned as the cashier counter. The shop overflowed with boxes of thread, buttons, sewing needles, decorative laces and so on, hard to spot a small child in the mess. But back then, I was annoyed. I was still in my school uniform, because I had gone to Amma’s shop straight after school. I took my shoes off. My socks stank. Maybe the stink would force him to notice me, I thought spitefully. Amma proceeded to the back of the store, where Swamy’s assistant picked out the different colours of thread that she wanted.
Empty spools had fallen on the floor, courtesy errant customers or the indifferent shop assistant. I picked it up, and imagined it to be a tiny, tiny telescope. I swung my new-found telescope from side to side, and in the process, knocked over a whole box of buttons shaped like sunflowers.
“Can’t still for a minute, this one”, said Amma to no one in particular, laughing nervously. Swamy’s eyes finally descended on me, perched precariously on a chair, clutching an empty spool of thread. More bhasmam fell from his forehead onto his spectacles as he knit his eyebrows. But he said nothing. Amma winked at me, and I proceeded on my voyage, equipped once again with my telescope.
Through my telescope, I saw the posters stuck on the walls of shops, advertising fashionable salwar-kameez sets. The models were fair skinned and looked like mannequins. The telescope shifted to my own skin. Snorting with disgust, I swore never to play police-um kallan-um in the sun again, with my cousins. My telescope then followed the different pieces of thread that lay on the floor, unspooled. I started counting the different shades of red there were.
“Chuvappil vere shade undo?” I could hear my mother asking the assistant. “Yes, Amma, they do! They have seven shades!” I yelled across the shop. Amma looked at me quizzically. I nodded sagely in affirmation. I could see the assistant disappearing into the shadows to retrieve the boxes of red threads. “Are there seven? Ask them if they have seven!”, I insisted. “I will, I will, don’t worry”, Amma told me. I didn’t think she understood that they might be trying to shortchange her. Swamy looked up from his account books, all of a sudden, and said, “Don’t worry, I will make sure she gets to see all seven shades there are.” Aha, I thought, so he does see me. It felt like vindication – for my telescope and I.
Today, a Thursday evening, is two days before my wedding day. Amma insisted on stitching my wedding saree blouse herself, although she had wound up her tailoring shop many years ago. It was almost done, and it was almost perfect. Only tiny decorative golden bells had to be attached to the sleeves of the blouse, but we had run out of thread. We decide, forgoing other stores closer to our home, to make the trip to Swamy Traders.
Swamy Traders still stood wedged in sideways between a jewellery store and a fast food restaurant (“meals ready”) boasting fifty varieties of dosa. Amma and I walk in, clutching a wedding invitation card, so we could invite Swamy. To our surprise and disappointment, there was no Swamy. Instead, we see a young, unspectacled man tapping away at a calculator.
Amma asks, “Where is Swamy? We are old customers.”
The man replies, “Swamy passed away a few years ago, and I bought the business. Don’t you remember me, Amma? Hameed, his old assistant. I remember you very well.”
We are very upset, more so because everything else remains the same – the sunken lemon-in-the-tumbler, the frenetic lights, the gracious goddesses, the sphinx-like models on the posters. Only Swamy is missing.
“Can we get a few spools of red thread?”, asks Amma. “Eluppamala, we need this uncommon shade of red,” she said, gesturing to the wedding blouse we had brought along.
Hameed smiled reassuringly. “Don’t worry, Amma. We have seven different shades of red. We always stock seven different shades. You see, Swamy thought it was lucky for him. And he was right, no? It has brought you back.”
Kalyani Ramnath is a legal historian, completing her dissertation on 1940s Madras at Princeton University. This is her own work.