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
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.
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
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.