Thursday, August 10, 2006

Shopping with Mother Theresa

Now that’s a pretty terrific title, isn’t it?

Since I am speaking this afternoon to this state gathering of professors of Gandhian studies (in my experience, rather useless folk, in an academic sort of way, but I really should be more charitable), Krishnammal decides we are to take the bus to Madurai (the jeep being at Kuthur and which will bring LAFTI leaders to Gandhigram for our three-day meetings) and go shopping for the items on my shopping list. She knows (from experience) that, generally speaking, I hate to shop, and she is constantly nagging me about my 25-year-old green Gujarati bag (all the mirror work has fallen out, and loose threads are hanging down all over it) that I see no need to replace. It is, after all, a bag, not a work of art, and still carries around my reading glasses, notebook, and wallet perfectly adequately, so what for? I bring out of my traveling case a dhoti (wraparound cloth) that I purchased in 1981 – since we don’t wear dhotis at home, I take it out of my dresser drawer each time I go in India and, as far as I am concerned, it is as good as new. “Besides,” I remind her, “any money I don’t spend ends up in her achaypatra – the magic bowl that funds LAFTI’s operations.” But there are these things on my shopping list, and “it is my duty” to accomplish this work, even if it isn’t the sort of work I prefer.

We jump on a private bus to Madurai (as the population, and especially the middle class, has grown, public services like buses – as well as schools – have stagnated, creating huge opportunities in the private sector.) It is video bus. Speakers all over the bus blare, at an unspeakable volume, as two video screens display Tamil versions of American-style crime tv, though far more violent, and in some senses, much more predictable. I can always tell the villains from the heroes – the heroes are always light-skinned, the villains dark. I work among the dark ones – so I ask Krishnammal about it, and she shrugs (she is storing material for a diatribe against modern video culture, which I will hear later.)

Madurai is HOT! Madurai is ALWAYS hot. Walking the streets of Madurai is a great way to get heat stroke. And here, like Gandhigram, there has been no rain in six months.

We go to the first store – the Khadi Bhavan. This is the place where handspun cotton and village industry products are sold, and I always do the bulk of my purchases here. Sadly, Jagannathanji, because he is now completely blind in both eyes, has finally had to give up his spinning. Prior to that, he had spun every thread of cloth he had worn on his body for more than 55 years. He misses it terribly. So do I. My most precious possessions are simple white cotton shirts, in the Tamil style, woven by him. Years ago, I used to hoard them in my closet, like heirlooms. Now I have decided that I don’t like to make a fetish of them (or anything else), and will wear them until they finally come apart. Cloth, like life, is to be worn, with as much grace as can be managed.

First, white cotton cloth for Aliyah’s churi dal pants. She has a top made with Jagannathan’s cloth, but needs the pants to go with. We will have the tailor come to the Workers Home and we will give him the measurements. Next, she wants a Gandhigram cotton saree – I could have purchased one in our home village, but the better colors are usually sent to the showrooms in the cities. I tell Krishnammal that, while I can buy one, Aliyah would prefer to have one that had been worn by her. So I offer to buy Krishnammal a new one in exchange for one of her old ones (in purple). She laughs. Krishnammal never gets a new saree – all of her clothing are hand-me-downs from daughter Sathya, and Sathya has very good taste. Oh, she remembers, it is Sathya’s birthday tomorrow, and since it is the week before Indian Independence Day, all handspun goods are 30% off. So now we have a magnificent green and orange saree for Sathya (and I kid Krishnammal with the truth that in the longer scheme of things, she has purchased one for herself.) Actually, I have purchased it, but she understands that I will leave India without a single rupee, and she gets it all anyway. I buy her a two-toned purple bedsheet (purple seems to be the theme color of the day.)

The workers at this store have all known her for years, but Krishnammal is treated with the respect due to a queen. That is not the most striking thing that happens, however. I need 30 little posters of Ganesh – the elephant-headed god of new beginnings and second chances – that I will pass out to children at a storytelling session in Dallas in three weeks. So we go to the west entrance of the magnificently gaudy Madurai Meenakshi Temple (from which my older daughter received her middle name.) We go to the little store with religious artifacts, and tourist goods. The proprietor, whom Krishnammal has never met, addresses her as “Amma Theresa”. This is becoming more and more common as we travel – total strangers virtually bow before her, this little, unprepossessing woman of 80, in her slightly torn cotton saree. And here we are almost 300 kilometers from the center of her work. But perhaps her image is being spread in the newspapers. And when “The Color of Freedom” begins to be serialized in the Tamil weekly – a cross between the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly but far more influential than both – I expect this will spread even further. I hope the readers throw money – while the work is progressing amazingly well, the staff haven’t been paid in two months.

Frankly, she hasn’t yet figured out a proper response to the “Amma Theresa” thing. If, dear reader, you consider for yourself how you might handle being called Mother Theresa by perfect strangers, you can see it might get old very quickly. I tried out for her, “Mother Theresa was for the dying; I am for the living,” but that sounds ungracious. It can take more energy than it is worth to vigorously disavow the association each time it comes up.

Mother Theresa can still strike a hard bargain, and I get my 30 Ganesh pictures, plus three extras thrown in, for 200 rupees ($4 U.S.) We walk out, and she still nagging me (without success) to purchase a new bag (I will probably get one in Chennai on the way home, though if Bhoomi brings me one from Cambodia – the bags are nicer – I will graciously accept, I tell her, laughing aloud. So I amuse her with the story of my “new chair”.

When Ellen and I moved to Olympia some 16 years ago, I purchased an old, brown recliner at Goodwill (the used furniture store) for $10. It was perfectly suitable, the color brown hiding coffee stains very well; the dogs could climb all over it. But now the springs were beginning to dig into my back, and the upholstery was going, and so it was time for a new chair. Ellen and I agreed that we would purchase one following her graduation from nursing school. Well, several months later (it simply wasn’t high on our priority list), we walked into a furniture story that had an entire room of recliners – overstuffed ones and straight-backed ones, rocking ones, in every imaginable color and fabric – it made our heads hurt just to think about them. They cost $400-$500, which we could relatively easily afford, but, oh, making decisions! So we walked into the next room, and there were couches with recliners at each end. One for each of us, and I could keep my computer papers on the middle seat while writing. $1,000! We could still afford it, but how to make a decision?

That night, Aliyah and I were walking to our local theater (only 4 blocks away) to see a community production of “The Merchant of Venice”. There, on the lawn in front of the houses, was a recliner, rocking, of non-descript color and texture. We sat in it, and it seemed perfectly fine to us. $30. Ellen picked it up in the morning. We both congratulated ourselves for not having to think about furniture for next 10 years.

Amma Theresa laughed. She herself didn’t own any furniture until 1998. Martin Luther King came to the Workers Home in 1955 for three days; Nehru had been here, as well as a range of world leaders. They were all entertained without any furniture.

Sometimes there are just more important things to attend to.


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