Woman -in -blue-saree and Subtle changes in Simla of the Sixties

The Woman-in-Blue-Saree and Subtle changes in Simla of Sixties….

We, as kids, were as inquisitive as the millennial or day Generation Y kids are though in a much different way. The kids of our generation had the charming ads on the radio to weave our dreams about and for visual effects we watched with interest big hoardings which were the only way the world of advertisement was opened to our young brains.

While I walked to Lady Irwin School, I would be especially waiting to watch, every single day, a big hoarding near to the Telegraph office, to the right of the Mall road, adjacent to the road ascending to the Bentony castle. It was a woman, a beautiful woman, in blue saree, holding the handle of Atlas cycle! She was brilliantly painted, in bright blue, her sparkling eyes would seem to follow us wherever we would move. She was the perfect enchantress for me…capturing my mind and soul. I would watch her from all possible directions and her pleasant gaze would follow me, the only time when neither she would look at me nor I would be look at her was when I would stand close to her. So I would prefer to watch her from a distance. This was very early Sixties when we had seen women cycling only in a movie and how pleasurable it was to watch the heroine and her friends, in tight kameez and churidars, cycle on the roads, happily singing a song, and meeting the hero in between! Cycling stood for, my little mind…empowerment, freedom, control over motion, and if you fall down; in the supporting arms of the hero…the romance as well!

Control over your life, your emotions,, feelings etc. were the phrases that were not part of any sermon or even plain conversation in Simla of the Sixties. We never heard these words of “worldly wisdom” even from our elders as parents and kids led a life where the parents would discipline us instead of “playing a friend”! But this woman in blue saree became my symbol of freedom and perhaps of many other girls of my age. Driving a car or even sitting in a car was not even in my remotest dreams but cycle was something which became a part of my dreams. I would, though unconsciously, compare this saree clad woman with my Amma! The picture of my Amma, busy in the drudgery of everyday household chores, smelling of spices and smoke, would somehow never fit in the role of the woman-in-blue-saree! Two very diametrically opposite lives…one of power and liberty and the other of an average woman in the Lower Bazaar neighborhood. The beautiful woman, cycling past the onlookers, against the wind, in blue saree, with eyes that looked at all possible directions, would captivate my imagination but then I would run to school and forget about her.

In the evening when I would return from school, I would find Amma knitting a very pretty babyset, in soft baby pink wool. I would like to touch that soft wool against my face but Amma would quickly put that safely in the bag and close the bag lest the wool gets soiled. She was extra careful with this knitting work; it was not like others that would be anywhere and everywhere scattered in the home. This was what she was knitting on orders and it had to be kept neat and clean.

There was a change that was taking place, although subtly, in our Lower Bazaar Mohalla, among the women, which I could not think of at that time but today looking back I am able to analyze that objectively. The aftermath of China aggression transformed the lives of ordinary people in more ways than we could have imagined. There were some agencies who provided wool to women to knit cardigans, socks and hand gloves to be provided to men-in-uniform fighting a war with the Chinese. Once the war was over, women in our neighbourhood who had, perhaps, knitted woolen accessories, for someone outside their family and acquaintance, learnt a new way to do it for money. I remember, many of them walked to some place near Lakkar Bazaar where they would get wool-on-order-to-knit. They would knit for money now. Wool indifferent hues and quality would be brought and knit on order…beautiful baby frocks, booties, men and women cardigans in patterns simple and complex would be knit in the neighbourhood. I never thought how important this first step was for these women but they had taken the proverbial first step towards economic freedom. They were earning, though a little, their own money. How liberating it must have been for them. This was their ride on the cycle just like the woman-in-blue-saree in that hoarding.

Then there was this Sikh family owning the famous Cotton works shop in the middle bazaar, just above the tunnel, who would supplement the work of their shop by threading the quilts everyday in the open space outside their home in our mohalla. Shakuntala Massi, along with her three daughters, would cut onion and vegetables at home, to be taken to their hotel, Deepak Bhojanalaya, in the Middle bazaar. Shashi and Sudha, whose father owned an electric repair shop in the lower bazaar, would sometimes help their father in the shop. It was nothing less than a marvel to my mind that these girls knew about mending small electric gadgets when all we could do was to change a fused bulb at home! Another elderly young woman was into doll making that interested me a lot. She would bring home clothes in the shape of limbs, both legs and arms, for the beautiful fold, that were showcased at the Himachal emporium. She would fill these limbs with sawdust and insert an iron wire, thick enough to support and bend the limbs. She would embroider hands and feet with needle on these limbs. It was not less than a magical trick to watch her play a god… making dolls. I would be mesmerized

Massi ji, our next door neighbour, at that very point of time, bought a mechanical knitting machine which I had seen in the showcase window of a shop near Bhatt opticians on the Mall. We all would look at, with widened eyes, how the magic machine would knit sweaters at such a speed, with Massi ji moving a press like object on it…and the knitted sweater would inch downwards from the machine. … She would ask us, the kids, to untangle the wool in a heap as the machine would not use the balls but the loose wool put under it in a heap. What a miracle it was to the whole of the neighbourhood. It really was a miracle as how this Massi was openly knitting sweaters on order for a payment, though earlier the women would do it under the pretext that they were knitting it for someone, a distant relative! This brought the economic activity out in the open, without any inhibition or embarrassment. I could never understand at that time how subtle changes were taking place around me in the neighbourhood but today when I remember all these small, yet important, details of everyday life in my Lower Bazaar neighbourhood, I can see that these women were realizing the woman-in-blue-saree but in their own sweet, simple and small ways!! The woman-in blue-saree holding the handle of a cycle was on the Mall but these women in the Lower Bazaar homes were doing their mite for supplementing their family income in their own little ways and it was their ride on the cycle!! And I failed to see all those changes, being in close proximity of these women and today when I am watching it from a distance, both in space and years, I am able to appreciate it. Was it not the same when I would not see the beauty of woman-in-blue-saree when standing close to it…..but would enjoy her beauty watching it from a distance!!

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