As a little girl I used to watch my aunt embroider pillow-covers, handkerchiefs,dupattas, baby-dresses, you name it. She seemed tranquil while her hands worked; because there was such a silent peace about her I found being with her very comfortable. She would look up, notice me, smile, and look down once again wordlessly to continue. The smile stayed on her face as she worked for minutes together. I was enchanted and yet I didn't know how something so quiet could appeal to me. On the other hand I was perplexed that she appeared not to need anybody's company to continue being happy. She was a mystery and I found myself gawking at her in admiration. She would keep her legs bent to support the needlework as she sat on the bed with a pillow propping her up from behind. Her fingers wove in and out of the fabric as she sat there creating beauty. I knew she didn't miss the laughter and the quarrels of the family because she chose to return to her room after finishing the kitchen chores on those Thursdays the family congregated at my grandmother's home. She always had one more flower to create, one more bird to complete, one more button to sew. While the flowers, the birds, the paisleys were pretty I was intrigued instead by her face. The expression on her face was more tranquil than that of people visiting a holy place. I stared and tried to comprehend but she was oblivious to my rude stares and continued embroidering.
Finally one day when I could contain myself no longer I blurted my question with the bluntness of a curious seven-year:
'Does embroidery give happiness?'
She looked at my face with kindness and put her embroidery aside after carefully parking the needle in the cloth.
'Do you want to learn it?' she asked. I nodded.
She took me under her charge and taught me embroidery on small discarded rags. I drew blood a couple of times before I saw the significance of a thimble. But it was exciting, my first attempts was a large 'L' for my name on a red rag. I was so proud of my efforts! She ignored my mistakes and focused on the stitches I had got right. Sometimes I'd give up when I'd see the mess created by me but she kept me going with an encouraging, 'See that flower, make your next one like that one, forget the one you didn't get right, look at the one you did.'
As I grew up, I neglected needlework so that I could devote my time sufficiently to more 'important' subjects such as Arithmetic and Geography. Occasionally I would make half-hearted attempts at embroidery but they all began well but never found completion. I'd push the incomplete piece of cloth into the back of my cupboard and then forget about it for months. There was always something more important to do. Needlework seemed so futile and pointless and what's more I was told repeatedly that there was no money in it. My Thursday Aunt continued her needlework while her niggling and difficult mother-in-law got crankier with age. It appeared, however, as if she herself had acquired a unique immunity to invective and insult so long as she could lay her hands on something to stitch.
My cousins and I would come armed with our slightly tight blouses, our out-dated dresses, our ill-fitting readymade salwar-kurtas etc to tuck in or hem up or loosen from the sleeves. The next Thursday they'd be ready. We were too busy to pay attention to the hard-work and complex stitching that must have been involved in the mending. All we were concerned about was that the dress fitted. We'd shout a happy 'thank-you!' to her and leave with the parcel wrapped in an old newspaper and tied with some wool. She'd smile back and return her eyes to her next job. We'd remember her only when we had something that needed alteration.
Like the others I grew up valuing time and its utility. I was growing up to learn that sitting stretched out on a bed with somebody else's mending was really for people who have no ambition and no plans. I started seeing my Thursday Aunt differently. That's what bums do, what a patsy! I, on the other hand, was in no mood to be a fool and was in a hurry to move forward and climb upward.
As soon as I graduated I was offered a job without having made even an application. I felt successful and felt thrilled. As a Lecturer I took pains to share my knowledge with the students but was surprised to read the answer booklets. Their answers certainly proved that most of my students had understood very little. I wrote detailed remarks and called them out individually and explained but it had little impact. They seemed too much in a hurry and they felt it was unimportant what Shakespeare or Keats said through poetry. They were in a hurry to make it, they wanted to be engineers or doctors and poetry had little or no relevance to their goals. One of them was honest enough to tell me that poetry was for losers and the second-graders of life. I turned away. I wonder why my aunt's tranquil face flashed across my eyes at that very moment.
Life has its way of testing all of us through setbacks. I suffered a setback one day when, through a strange misunderstanding, I found myself jobless. Despite my attempts to explain my innocence I failed to clear my name. I felt the pain of being punished for something I hadn't done. As I returned home that dejected morning I remembered my aunt's tranquil face. While I waited to get another job (which I quickly got in two months) I took up embroidery with a passion. What better way to wait it out?
It was only when I sat down every morning to embroider that I realized what I had been missing. As the pattern took shape right before my eyes, I felt a certain fascination at what the act of embroidery was doing to me. I felt calm, non-combative, focused and relaxed. While stitching I recollected how I had got a job without having applied for it and how I had lost it without having deserved to lose it. I felt a warm blanket fall around my shoulders. I felt the pain ease. Of course since I was stitching after so long I drew blood and then I realized that I had forgotten all about the thimble once again.
While I embroidered I forgot everything. If guests dropped in I waited impatiently for them to leave so I could return to my haven. As they rambled on and on my mind wandered away as it tried to figure out how best to make my embroidery a work of art, a sight for sore eyes. I did hankies for somebody's birthday, a cover for our new record-changer. In fact I must admit that when I saw a button missing on anybody's shirt I felt elated. What an opportunity to mend and be happy. It was heaven to be sitting quietly and doing something creative.
There is a healing power to embroidery that I had missed. Embroidery keeps the mind engrossed in creation while simultaneously steering it away from futile and negative thoughts. And because embroidery demands precision it requires sharp focus at all times.
I came across a story involving embroidery that is worth sharing:
'When I was little, my mother used to sew a great deal. I would sit at her knee and look up from the floor and ask her what she was doing. She'd inform me that she was embroidering. As from the underside I watched her work within the boundaries of the little round hoop that she held in her hand, I complained to her that it sure looked messy from where I sat. She would smile at me, look down and gently say, "Son, you go about your playing for a while, and when I am finished with my embroidering, I will put you on my knee and let you see it from my side." I would wonder why she was using some dark threads along with the bright ones and why they seemed so jumbled from my view. A few minutes would pass and then I would hear Mother's voice say, "Son, come and sit on my knee." This I did only to be surprised and thrilled to see a beautiful flower, or a sunset. I could not believe it, because from underneath it looked so messy. Then Mother would say to me, "My son, from underneath it did look messy and jumbled, but you did not realize that there was a plan on the top. It was a design. I was only following it. Now look at it from my side and you will see what I was doing."
When things go wrong we are convinced that they were meant to stunt and deform us if not to destroy us altogether. However as life unfolds we go from opportunity to opportunity and begin to understand that the cruel blow was really a blessing in disguise. Embroidering helps us forget unfortunate events, stop moaning and instead involve ourselves in an act of creation. A thing of beauty stands where only bootless cries would have been. And finally, from the tangled and messy other side we can soon see that ugly things might actually be beautiful if seen right side up.
My Thursday Aunt is still mending and stitching other people's clothes. Her gifts are embroidered pillowcases and initialed hankies. But to me they mean much more.