Read an Excerpt
The Tiger Ladies
A Memoir of Kashmir
By Sudha Koul
Copyright © 2002 Sudha Koul.
All rights reserved.
Om! Shri Ganeshaye Namah!
With that invocation made right at the beginning we make sure that everything shall turn out well.
Time unravels like a dog's tail, then it curls right back into a circle, and you start all over again. As we live out our lives, we gaze at the heavens and stumble on the nearest rock, and then we pull ourselves up, dust off the sand, and look around us. We think we have taken stock, we know our parameters, our landscape, and then our eyes go skyward again. If we were to look back we would see a disappearing line of predecessors whose lifetimes we have unknowingly mimicked. We look up eagerly at our gods instead and we live in hope.
My grandmother, Dhanna, has a mouth that smells like babies, all milky, toothless, and harmless, except when she smokes her hookah. She of the crisply washed cotton dress dried on the grass in the sun; her clothes smell of the herbs of spring and summer, and of the earth; she makes buttermilk drinks all day. Dhanna sits there at her kitchen window, one knee on the seasoned sill, the other knee balancing a round metal pot in which she whips up buttermilk flavored with salt and dried mint powder. I watch her make white and green foam as she churns the wooden whisk between her cracked dry palms.
The mint is from her grandfather's well. The leaves are plucked, then washed and dried on the wood-shingled rooftop. When the mint is so dry that it crumbles to the touch it is powdered by a small round stone mortar in an oval pestle, both of which have blackened with use and time.
"The well water is so pure that it makes the leaves fragrant," says my mother's mother, Dharma. "You must have mint buttermilk drinks in summer. It cools everything," she says, although she drinks glasses of her concoction even in winter because she thinks women must always have buttermilk or yogurt. But in summer she churns the sweet elixir all day, and offers it to everyone who walks in her wooden door, bending a little as they enter her well-worn portal.
Sometimes my grandmother fries brook trout in a small pan on a hissing kerosene stove. The stove is set on a reed mat in her cold, dark kitchen, and all the windows are shut. When she cooks fish she opens the wooden windows only if she must. Like so many others in our valley of Kashmir, she does not want a stranger's glance falling on her fish.
She tells me, "Of all things fish are the most susceptible to the evil eye."
No one must know, so the wooden windowpanes of her kitchen keep the smell inside. The kitchen looks like a dungeon. Instead of turning on the electric light I open up all the windows and let the sunlight pour in, revealing corners and bits of dust under the furniture. She allows me to do anything I want to and all is forgiven. I am the firstborn of her first surviving child. Let me explain.
Dhanna, of the fierce temper, and my grandfather Babuji of the ready laugh and reflective nature, both dream of the children they will have. She is young, unlettered, and outspoken. Her office-going husband is quiet, a complete householder, but he also practices his own austerities and rituals. She is dainty and light and from the city, and he is heavy and dark and from the village, and they have found each other in their marriage. Everything exists around their union. He is entranced by everything she does. They say, behind his back, that he indulges her. And does she have a temper, they say.
Together my grandparents pray for children. She runs her palm over her full belly many times but then somehow the children are lost, either inside her or after she lets them go. Then the husband and wife wait, year after year, and pray for the children they will keep.
One night Dhanna has a dream and she is told what she has to do to keep her children. So she goes to the village of her ancestors. She finds a well at least nine-men deep and it is near her mother's house. Once a month she goes to the well at midnight, unties the two tightly woven braids of hair that start just above the nape of her neck. With her fingers she pries open the strands until her hair, crimped by weeklong braiding, falls loosely about her shoulders. Then she takes a bath.
She draws the water herself, lowering the well post with the bucket dangling at the end into the cold silent well. Then, slowly she pulls out the water, and in the dark she can hear the reassuring licks of the water in the bucket as it comes to rest on the grass beside her. This she does for one year, bathing through the seasons, gritting her teeth as the Himalayan winter approaches, glad that her ritual is a monthly and not a daily one. If she had to do it every day she would.
She says, "When you have to do something, you do it." No one may see her, or she will have to start all over again.
After twelve baths at a forgotten well hidden by wild mint bushes, my mother's mother comes home to her husband. Then she conceives again. By autumn her belly has grown full and taut. She likes to sit under the fruit trees, and her lips are purple from the large black cherries she eats all day. They all say she will give birth to someone special; all she wants to eat is fruit. When it comes to children everyone looks for signs and portents.
Dhanna had fourteen children. She lost eleven of them before she found the way to keep them. That is when she had my mother, then my aunt followed a couple of years later, and a few years later she had my uncle. He was dressed as a girl and nursed under cover to fool the evil eye. As a child my uncle always had some black soot from the kitchen stoves rubbed on his forehead, like so many other children, girls and boys, to make him undesirable to fate. There was some discussion about naming him after a demon to achieve the same purpose, but in the end my grandparents decided to be up front about it and opted for calling him "longevity" instead.
My uncle eventually grew out of his mother's arms, and out of the girls' clothes, and became a deceptively fierce-looking man with a large mustache. My grandmother could not fool his destiny anymore. In spite of all her efforts he is, like all of us, tempting to his fate and she claims him. Grandmother resigns herself to her daughter-in-law, but never really forgives her for taking her son into a world that excludes her and where she cannot protect him.
Now I see her sucking at her hookah, puffing up the smoke through the water in the hookah-belly, her still-young eyes in an old face. She laughs at me, she prefers to treat me as if I am still a small child, she is unwilling to let go of the child. She throws the apron of her ankle-length pheran on my feet to make sure I am warm.
Her skin is ivory, dry and crinkled like parchment, reddish near the cheeks, as if someone has just dabbed colored powder under her lively eyes. She wears several large and heavy gold hoops in each of her ears, all through the same hole. The holes are stretched by the time I become a girl, and the only reason that her earlobes are not torn is that the hoops are also held up by a ribbon that goes over her head and takes some of the weight off her ears. Even so, the hole in her earlobe is stretched and large. I can catch glimpses of the nape of her neck through the hole in her earlobe as she makes quick movements and gesticulates. Her animation is also a cause for consternation among the other women because it is entrancing and you have to look at her. The men don't seem to mind. When her husband died they said she was a beautiful woman.
I stare at her and her colors and take in her textures and her smells. I know that I will not have them forever. She stares at me with contentment in her eyes. I am a hybrid, daughter of her daughter, two men are in the picture by the time I arrive, but her smile informs me that ultimately I am from her loins.
When I was born Dhanna brought all kinds of things for my mother to eat. For me she brought things to wear. My swaddling clothes are from her, an old pashmina shawl of natural color, almost threadbare but layered like phyllo, impossibly light, so warm and soft, and delicious to smell.
In our valley of Kashmir, which sits like an infant in the lap of the Himalayas, one of the first things you do when a newborn arrives is to make sure the baby is warm. You take the oldest shawl in the family, one that has worn fine with use, and fold it many times over until you have a small cloudlike blanket for the infant. The snow line encircles us and we are always making sure that we are warmed by wool and by firewood.
The men usually arrange for the procurement and purchase of firewood in the autumn when winter begins to nip at our heels. It is a short and brisk transaction. The wood is bought, chopped, and arranged in crisscross fashion in backyards, ready to provide the beneficence of heat for our rooms and cooking stoves when winter arrives. Wood from the hatab tree is at a premium because its density provides the most intense heat; walnut wood is highly prized as well, and nothing catches fire like the pine, but there comes a time in the winter when any wood is better than none at all. Not everyone can afford a wood-burning stove at home, but all carry their own kangri, a small handy portable firepot around which a basket with handles is woven in red and green wicker. If we are to survive the winter, we must carry the indispensable kangri everywhere. It warms our beds and dries small articles of clothing in winter; we warm milk in it in the metal khos we drink tea from; we burn incense in it at weddings, roast chestnuts or small pieces of meat in it; we light our hookah tobacco with its coals. In winter when we sit on a chair, very often our feet are resting on a kangri. When we sit on the carpet, our legs folded against our chest with our feet away from the body, the kangri is kept under our knees in the space between our feet and thighs, like a central heating system.
Wool, on the other hand, is a lifetime's preoccupation. Women and men collect pashmina and wool fabrics, they have woolen clothes stitched, they have woolens knitted, or they knit themselves. Kashmiri women used to weave their own pashmina, no one else knew the arcane technique that produced the inimitable weave. Now they have it done because no one seems to have the patience anymore. We too have a family spindle put away in the attic, covered with cobwebs. It may not hold any magic for the women in my family, but I have read a story about a dormant female and a kissing prince at my Irish convent school and stay away from it.
Dhanna is a collector of pashmina; she has great yards, medium-size shawls, and small pieces of the reassuring fabric. She sprinkles her collection with dried bitter flowers and medicinal herbs and wraps them in fine muslin. Then she wraps the muslin-covered bundle in hand-embroidered cotton or silk tablecloths and ties up the corners so that no air or silverfish can find their way into her hoard. As she gathers up the packages to put them into a large steel trunk, and locks up with a padlock, she repeats a litany I have heard to the point of not listening.
"Pashmina has always meant security for the women of Kashmir. In the old days women got saris of pashmina in their trousseaux, but they only wore everyday wool at home. If they fell upon bad days they cut a shawl out of a length of pashmina and sold it to the shawl peddler for cash. Never forget, these shawls are equal to gold." She says this with a sigh, softly, matter-of-factly, just as my mother will eventually.
My grandmother smoothes out the wrinkles in the fabric with a gentle reverence that is shared by all Kashmiris. We don't brag about it much, but we know that we have enslaved Europe and conquered Scotland with this silky wool made from the winter fleece of the goats found only in the upper reaches of our mountains. We have spun wisps of the elusive down, slowly, lovingly, and we would never have accepted the machine-made incarnation they named after our valley. In Kashmir the real thing is what we are after. If the women wear gold it is so pure that it turns soft like butter when they stand in front of the kitchen fires.
My grandmother's shawl peddler, like all our tradespeople, is a Muslim. We Hindus are all Brahmins and are commonly called pandits, denoting our tradition of being the learned caste. There are no other Hindu castes in the valley. Many explanations have been put forward for this unprecedented situation, so unlike the rest of India, where there are always several castes in each Hindu community. The most common explanation is that most of the Brahmins were administrators and did not have to convert to Islam or did not want to convert. Some pandits did convert and their descendants carry their Brahmin names today, even though they are Muslim.
Hindus form a minuscule minority in the valley, but I remember that it did not worry us a bit, we did not think that Muslims and Hindus were natural enemies. In Kashmir, we were more preoccupied with the fact that we were all Kashmiri and we lived in the most beautiful place on earth.
Like other visitors to the house, the shawl peddler takes off his shoes before he enters the kitchen hall and sits on the floor with the ladies of the house. It is always too cold to keep the floors bare, so we pad the floor with a cushioning reed waguv, over which embroidered, pressed-wool namdeh or layered gabbeh are piled on for warmth, and, if you can afford them, carpets top off all the padding.
The shawl dealer is given a cup and saucer set aside especially for Muslims; one never knows what kinds of meats they eat at home. Hindus do not usually eat food touched by Muslims, so the question of sharing dishes does not arise. In any case my grandmother does not touch porcelain or china, even ours; she drinks her tea out of her goblet-shaped brass khos. In her scheme of things glass and metal are not forbidden and terra-cotta is fine.
"Not to be touched," she says, pointing to the bone china dishes in the china closet out in the dining room, dishes required for her husband's official visitors.
She is reluctant to say why because she cannot bring herself to say the sacrilegious words "crushed cows' bones." It is a rumor brought to us centuries ago from China and the mountains have trapped it, like so many other things, in the valley.
The shawl man is content not to drink tea from a Hindu cup; he does not know what has crossed their lips. Hindus habitually garnish their food with asafetida, which he, like many others, believes comes from pigs' feet. He can hardly bring himself to use those words. Nothing is said, no misgivings explained, these mutual misunderstandings are completely acceptable and completely in place.
All this religious stuff is irrelevant in light of the real business at hand. The peddler is privy to the innermost secrets of the household, because girls, pashmina, gold, silver, shawls, puberty, and marriage are all wrapped up in the same tender package, opened up only to the innermost members of a family circle. He carries his own bundles of exquisites, wrapped many times over, on his bicycle rack, as he pedals through the narrow lanes of the old city and through the wide streets of the new city where we now live. When he sits down, with some ceremony, to display what he has brought them, all the women of the house surround him.
The shawl wallah takes embroidery orders based on his prized silk samplers that are over a hundred years old. His village has grown the fat white cocoons of the silkworm on mulberry leaves since the days of the Chinese traders. No one remembers the silk traders anymore, but we continue to grow silk, weave it, walk on it, and wear it, and it lasts forever. His family has sent its silk carpets around the world for generations, but he loves the shawl trade. It suits him, he is part of every step of the interpretation and execution of the designs he owns, and his collection of samplers is his claim to fame. Besides, carpets take months to weave and the young weavers follow a song pattern that is sung for them out of a tattered book, day in and day out, by an old master sitting on the side. The shawl peddler is too fond of company, frequent compliments; he is restless and energetic and too much his own person to follow patterns composed in their entirety centuries ago.
Excerpted from The Tiger Ladies by Sudha Koul. Copyright © 2002 by Sudha Koul. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.