I was born in a middle class family in a small town in Northern India. Money was scarce; struggles were plenty.
My parents wanted our lives to be better than theirs and believed education was the key to it. So, they enrolled us in the best private schools which were well beyond their means.
All my life I have always known my mother as a mother, not as an individual. She sacrificed her needs—big and small—to provide for our education. She never bought new clothes or shoes, cooked all our meals and stitched all our clothes. She ate last after everyone was full, always watering down the curry for her plate.
Once a year, on her birthday, we sisters pitched in our savings to buy her a sweater or a warm shawl. We were admonished for spending carelessly and then the new garment was ruefully stowed away in an old trunk. Her collection in the trunk grew but she never could muster the courage to use the new items. Their shine ultimately gathered a patina of dust.
At first, we complained that she did not appreciate our love, but then we resigned to her personality.
My mother used to run a small sewing business at home to supplement father’s income. She used to sew dresses, shirts, and skirts for women and girls of the neighbors, family, and friends. Women were allowed to walk-in any time of the day because she was always home. Her shop had no shutters.
Women trusted her with their finest fabrics for the finest occasions. After all, they got the boutique quality at half the price.
They also hurled leftover scraps of fabric at her and she transformed them into pretty little dresses with matching or contrasting frills. She could alter a skirt of an elder daughter to perfectly fit the younger one. She could magically expand waistlines for fecund women and trim them down for the shriveling ones
My sisters and I helped her with the hemming and fastening of buttons after finishing our homework. She never tried to teach any of us the real tailoring though because she wanted us to grow and excel in science, medicine, technology –areas which she could not explore.
A client once brought a fancy quilted bag to my mom—which was a gift from her relatives abroad—and asked her to sew a replica using fabric from an old sari that was burnt in a corner. My mom loved to challenge and grow her skill, so she tried and successfully made a quilted handbag with neat pockets, handles and zippers.
Tailors in the market did not make a product like that, so she did not how much to charge for stitching a quilted bag. She arbitrarily named a price that was not prohibitive to her penny hoarder clients’ wallet.
The product was an instant success and the word of a new possibility for old, worn-out or damaged saris spread like fire. Soon, she was flooded with orders for those bags.
She soon realized that the effort in making the bags was not commensurate with the payment she received. The quilted goods took longer to make—it involved cutting the fabric and the lining, extra seams for strength, sewing zippers in multiple pockets.
She had none but herself to blame for that. She hadn’t thought this through. The demands for more utility pockets and flaps to cover them kept increasing but she could not increase the price for fear of losing clients.
Years later, after I completed my education and migrated to the U.S., I saw Vera Bradley handbags in a mall and the picture of mother sewing in the wee hours of the night came flashing to my mind. The sound of her sewing machine that used to be our lullaby each night reverberated in my ears.
Knowing her aversion to gaudy colors, I bought a navy blue tote bag with small white and yellow flowers and took it to her as a gift when I visited that December. She first chided me for spending my hard-earned money frivolously, but soon enough she had it turned inside out—running her fingers all over the seams to study them closely.
She then urged me to gift the handbag to my sister who worked as a teacher.
“No, she has money to buy her own things. And I am never going to buy anything for you if you don’t accept this. Park it in your pristine trunk but please take it,” I argued back with translucent eyes and a quivering voice.
That finally caved her in and she quietly brought out her old cracked leather handbag and started evaluating the contents. Grabbing the chance, I quickly arranged her glasses, wallet, notepad, handkerchief, ballpoint pen, measuring tape and rosary in different compartments of the sassy new bag.
Voila, the monumental switch was done!
Next day, I chaperoned my mom to visit a distant uncle who was unwell. She was wearing a pair of new shoes that father brought for her about a year ago and she was carrying the Vera Bradley bag proudly and on her shoulder, cautiously clutching at it lest it slip away.
I just smiled at her in admiration. Words would have embarrassed her.
As soon as we were seated in the living room of our hosts, my gimlet-eyed aunt who was also a yesteryear client of my mother’s started, “What a beautiful bag! Can you make ….” She was cut short by mother who had already grasped the purport of her remark.
She gave me a look seeking connivance and slowly said, “My daughter bought it for me. I can’t sew anymore; my eyes are not that good.”
One truth and one lie— her eyes were good, but that lie was her declaration of independence. Her kids were educated and independent; they could take care of themselves and her.
She was shedding her mom skin and metamorphosing into an individual. She was no longer just a mother of daughters, but also a woman with a desire to adorn and embellish herself.
She could purchase goods stitched for her by someone. She could start feeling the caress of new clothes against her skin, the gentle massage of new shoes on her feet.
She could still sew to her heart’s content, but never again for money.
Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar is an Indian American. She was born in a middle-class family in India and will forever be indebted to her parents for educating her beyond their means. She is an Informational Technology professional, wife, and mother of a teenager. Her thoughts find clarity on her usual Fitbit-powered solitary, which she pens down on her blog Puny Fingers. Her blog is a medley of personal essays, poems, and fiction. Her work has been published in The Haiku Journal, The Brown Girl Magazine, The Aerogram and some other poetry sites. She can be reached at Twitter @PunyFingers