From a 1940s lace saree to a prom dress tailor in New Jersey: Rumpelstiltskin for the rich

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Photos by Poppy Mookerjee.

NEW YORK: Among the many precious possessions my mother-in-law has gifted to me is a dusky pink and white lace saree once worn by her mother in the 1940s. Tiny scallops pinked in white.

It has yellowed at the corners, a little fallen, a little broken by bits of time but still catches the glint of the sun at the occasional garden party.

When I wear it, a vision of yester-years spins by: when womenfolk, mothers, cousins and aunts, straight-backed or hunched, austere or garrulous, came together to knit, weave and embroider in stoic silence.

They were stark figures in antiquity, with nimble fingers, dexterous hands, and nary a moment to waste. A circle of warmth from the cooking stove walled them in their rooms, lit only by the flicker of an oil lamp.

Old patriarchs of the family peered over their shoulders, with bushy eyebrows and formidable moustaches, from up the painted walls, while the women hastily stifled their emotions, spilling their love and enchantment into patterns of unbridled imagination of light, play and magic.

In the meantime, up went the bobbin, down the thread, patterns paired and ribbons emerged.  Gossip was rife but behind the back, for appearances had to be maintained under strict social constraints.

Until it was time for their husbands to come home. A whir on the driveway, and out went the pots and pans, needle and thread along with the squealing babies.

Swiftly to the family piano, the attention shifted. Perched delicately on their seats, with a hurried bouffant and a glistening brooch, the women would run their fingers in liquid deftness onto the instrument, singing in earnest ardor to the window curtains, blowing in the evening breeze.

Such was their hope that their husbands would secretly envision in them: the very image of the goddess of romance.

It was what they had read of aristocratic women in Rabindranath Tagore novels, for the silver screen was still forbidden to them.

Or so, my mother-in-law told me.

But between peeling the potato and putting the baby into the cot, paisleys were stitched on coverlets, birds on quilts and lace on sweaters while zari blouses flew out with effortless grace.

It all sounds cozy and charming unless, of course, you embroidered or stitched for a living.

With dim lighting and poor pay, it was a hard life for dressmakers, lace makers and weavers around the world whether from India or Belgium or New York.

And I do not refer to the eclectic round of fashion designers, who lived their lives under paparazzi flash-bulbs, skilled and talented though they must have been.

Even as I type away today, somewhere in a musty and forgotten attic in a scantily-lit New Jersey apartment, my old, bearded tailor is poring over heaps of pastels and textiles, spinning dreams of sequins, brocades, lace, and taffeta.

One for the wedding, two for the prom, and yet another for a cocktail by the sea.

Rumpelstiltskin for the rich.

But with a difference. He is happy in his monastic enclosure, this reticent guy of few gestures.

Life has ambled along in sequestered seclusion, far from the bustle of the busy markets, inane chatter and gossip. Uninterrupted by the crowds, he quietly and secretly approaches old age with little or few incidents worthy of mention.

Like a hidden rivulet flowing between tall grasses.

All he wonders is about the next grand ball and dance, his sometimes difficult and challenging benefactors will swirl and twirl into.

Contented to have passed on his trade to his son, he says the pay is just about enough to keep the roof over the head while the work is in plenty.

Under his hands, the drapes grow thick and heavy, falling into heaps of exquisite light thread network, beguiling the silent course of time.

The hum of weaving, cutting and stitching draws him into his own violet world of bows and trimmings, drawers and tapes, pins and cushions.

And although it’s a song of thanksgiving to his accustomed ears, he knows only too well that he relies entirely on the patronage of the wealthy.

It sort of reminds me of Charles Dickens’ lesser-known story Mugby Junction, published in the magazine edition of All the Year Round in 1866.

Jackson, the protagonist, while wandering along the countryside in search of employment, suddenly sees a “bright and fragile face” of a young woman from a cottage window.

“And now there were a pair of delicate hands too. They had the action of performing on some musical instrument and yet it produced no sound that reached his ear,” he observes.

Turns out that the girl is Phoebe, the village lace maker. Her synchronized movements with her hands had mistakenly led him to imagine an instrument on her lap.

Phoebe was also someone described by her father, “always working – and after all, sir, for, but very few shillings a week – always contented, always lively and always interested in others, of all sorts.

Dickens had an intrinsic kinship with long-suffering men and women who despite their circumstances retained their capacity for vivacity and compassion.

Not unlike my old tailor and many of the handloom weavers in India who now face catastrophic effects of factory-made competition.

Slaving away from early morning to late night, with eyesight at a peril for a pitiful payment, time and patience is the only valuable thing they have.  Time, a song on the radio and a kind favor.

“When you ain’t got no money, you got the blues,” thundered the Chicago Blues singer and guitarist, Howlin’ Wolf, in his baritone voice.

And nothing rings truer than that. Despite the hardship of survival in a mechanized world, where hand-made kerchiefs, cardigans, dresses lie in heaps of neglect, the handlooms refuse to disappear.

It is the staunch legacy of an abiding allegiance to the craft that the weavers cannot tear themselves from.

And so, the other day, when I stood near a house by the sea, with windows draped in antique lace and a candle glowing underneath, I saw the shimmer and the shadow. Half-seen silhouettes bending over elusive patterns of lilies-of-valley in love and song.

A mystery of the ages about the dollar and the dream. Much like the fabled Vermeer painting.

(Poppy Mookerjee is a journalist and a writer for more than a decade with American and Indian publications.)

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