Saturday, March 28, 2015

Pattamadai Mats

In the old days, every home in Tamil Nadu had one or two pais or mats made out of reeds. People slept on these mats, welcomed guests to sit on them, and for toddlers to sit down on them and play. After their use, the mats were rolled up and kept in a corner. We have lost the grace of sitting on the floor, not realising that it is a form of exercise and good for your lower limbs! There were mats of various dimensions, and the long, narrow ones called bandhi pais were used for sitting down in a row on the floor and eating. They were woven for weddings and gifted to the bride and groom often with their names woven into them.

Soft and pliable silk mats are produced in a village called Pattamadai, in the Thiruneveli District of Tamil Nadu. They are different from the common pais or mats which are commonly available.. The mats are made of kora grass which grows in river beds and other marshy lands, and harvested in the months of  September/October or February/March.

What makes the pattu pais special and different to others?  It entails a complicated weaving process, which is  unique to this region. The grass is cut when it is still tender and green, and dried in the sun, boiled and dried again. The strips are first washed in running water, then  immersed in water for a whole week sometimes. The grass swells, and when it dries completely, it is taken for weaving after it is dyed in the colours preferred. Natural dyes were the only colours used, but later for the sake of convenience synthetic dyes were introduced. Red, green and black were commonly used, but today there are a whole range of colours and designs to choose from and some even have zari borders. After weaving the mats are polished.

The fine silk mats are woven with reeds which have their outer skins shaved off, and split into  very fine strands, which are used for the weft in weaving. The warp is cotton, and water is sprinkled throughout the process of weaving. They are called pattu pais because they are so delicately woven  and so soft that they feel like silk, and can go into a box or even a handbag. The  mat weaving is a closely guarded trade secret among the Muslim Community of Pathamadai from ages.

Coarser mats are also woven and today they are made into runners, place mats, shopping bags, file cases etc which throws the market wide open.  With modern design intervention and reintroducing natural dyes, this handicraft has had new direction and will  hopefully be kept alive both in the local and international market for generations to come.

A valuable craft the Pattamadai mats were presented to celebrities like the Soviet leaders Bulganin and Khrushchev, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth.

Monday, March 2, 2015


This column is addressed to the sons and daughters  who live with or without their parents. To the children who wish they could do more for them, but cannot due to “circumstances beyond their control”. To those who are assailed with guilt for living their own lives.
We’ve been there, ourselves, so we know what it’s like, to be helpless.  As newly weds, we lived in Bhopal for 5 years, before the Union Carbide tragedy. We would often sit in the verandah of our little home, musing on the old folks back home, wondering if they were in good health and cheer. We had no telephone at home, and no mobiles for constant communication. We had to be content to make the occasional call, and send letters by snail mail which would take a week to reach Chennai or Bangalore, and another week to get a reply if they wrote back immediately. My resourceful grandfather gave me a pack of postcards, with his address, to write at least every three days. He would send us parcels of dried curry leaves which were not available here, and my mother would add on rasam powder and balls of vadagam!
We fervently wished we could be there for our parents, even though they were blessed with good health. The trajectory of change comes in with passing time. Families went nuclear, and we encouraged our children to seek greener pastures, to better their lifestyles, with a “we’ll look after ourselves, we are fine” attitude masking cleverly any physical ailment we may have. Our sons and daughters go away with the images of parents who are young looking, invincible and definitely “alright”.  When they make their brief visits for a couple of weeks at the most, which are divided between visiting two sets of parents, cousins, friends and what have you, they only see the best front that you put out for them. Can they be blamed for something they do not see? They are besides, nurtured in a Western world with a different value systems and a radical approach to old age.
Westerners  nudge the children out of the nest when they are young adults, to live on their own, and the older people would rather die than live with their children. The West however is geared to offer comfort for their elderly, right from user friendly pavements, public transport, safety audits at home, and streamlined communication systems to hospices and medical care. We are the sandwich generation of Indians, watching life streams changing, elders trying to be independent of their children, not knowing what to do when they are old and infirm, and systems not in place for staving off their loneliness, nor support for coping with age related illnesses.
The sons and daughters do not “see” what their parents are going through, nor understand that the smallest of jobs seem so difficult, even the ones they executed with ease a couple of years ago. With domestic help on the decrease, and becoming prohibitively expensive day to day living becomes a challenge.  You meet children, who assuage their feelings of guilt by presenting their parents with expensive gifts, laptops or ipads that they don’t know how to use. Smart phones leave them bewildered.  How many of them have the time in their turbo charged lives to actually sit down with the parents to explain the working of these gizmos?
Thanks to the innumerable interviews I have had with the young and the old I am able to understand the problems of both sides without being judgemental.  Take the case of one daughter-in-law I know.   She is the most darling of women with compassion and an altruistic zeal to be there for her in-laws. An outgoing girl, pre-marriage, she is submissive, casting  her dreams aside to be next to her ageing mother- in- law to do her bidding, whatever. In return she receives the love and support of her husband and his family.
The other kind are children who do not want their parents to quit the family house, despite their inability to cope with a sprawling home in the autumnal years of their lives. There are some weird ideas of sentiment, of memories of growing up which they want to hold on to. Why don’t they come back and live in the home that they profess to love, for God’s sake? Of course they can’t, they have their careers, their lives, their children. One solution is retirement homes. Not easy, first the shift which is hard to accept. Secondly few have the blessings of their children for whom consigning the parents to a home leaves a bruised ego.
We have to trade our possessions and  property, for  a peace which is so invaluable. Some children do not allow the parents  to sell any property, and they just abide by their children’s decisions.
A daughter whom I know, used to visit her parents very regularly even though she lived abroad, and it was not just  a “naam ke vaste “visit”. I don’t know how she managed it, but her time management was wonderful. On every visit she and her husband would try to understand parental needs, look at the home again with new eyes to make it user friendly, put in a stair lift if necessary, hand rails for steps leading to the house, grab rails in the bathroom  etc. If the home needed painting it was done during their visits despite protests from the older people. They were encouraged to make their life simpler, sell whatever property they could not manage to keep. They also looked for support systems within close family and friends who could tackle emergencies, and be of solace to them whenever needed.

There are caring, considerate sons and daughters, by the legion, and parents who make life tough for younger people, complaining, demanding and obstinate. Every swallow does not a summer make, so it is difficult to generalise.  Both generations need to have a balanced perspective, and  understanding of each others difficulties, if they wish to have a good relationship. Solutions lie in each of us, if we care to find them.