In Old Calcutta – Tales of the Maker of Saree Blouses
I was in Calcutta (I still prefer calling it that) recently. The week there came with sweaty everything, lots of fried food, rattling Ambassador taxis, processions of the CPIM party and anxiety for the inhabitants of the place who still think time is on their side!
People seem to finish their race there only to realize they have to wait a decade for their reward to reach them! They then seems to while away their time, in what I like to call the ‘paradise of cuisines’ available there. Pretty soon they are absorbed in the lackadaisical pace of the system and put their feet up to enjoy the view.
I stayed the first few days with my in-laws. The evenings with them were spent with cup after cup of glorious Darjeeling, a big bowl of puffed rice mixture popularly called “Jhaal Moori” and tons of stories from all around. One of those evenings, my mother-in-law’s sister, whom I call Maashi, came to visit and we knew immediately we were in for an extraordinary session of chat that day.
It is almost criminal in Calcutta to start any discussion around this time without a reference to the shopping done for the upcoming festival ‘Dasherra‘ or ‘Pujo‘. This is a time not only of shopping for your wardrobe but for the entire battalion of extended family. It is a time to give and receive gifts. The markets thrive and throb during these months and when the festival is over it’s almost as if a war has just got over! And so our conversation began with my mother-in-law and Maashi exchanging notes on each other’s bargains, new styles and various other subjects associated with ‘Pujo‘.Anyone who is familiar with wearing or buying ‘sarees’ will know the challenges of finding an ace tailor to make a perfect blouse to go with the coveted piece of new garment. A blouse gone wrong could prove to be disastrous to the festive spirit of looking perfect; it could dampen the entire annual celebration and hence the rest of the year! A good blouse hence is an imperative for a Bengali wrapped in Tangail, Tant or other special saris.
In this background, my mother-in-law and Maashi ventured into a conversation regarding their tailor. Maashi seemed to be livid with her tailor for all the wrong reasons. She wondered why she had to keep going back to that “horrible man” when all he did was look down at her (literally)! The tailor, Somnath Babu, seemed to be the answer to every woman’s prayer in North Calcutta. He made blouses that seemed to be a mere layer over a woman’s curves. Not only did he accentuate each and every possible angle in a woman to make her more desirable but also found ways to create the same for women who lacked – all by the way of stitches!
But Maashi was not happy! She sat there brooding over her imminent appointment with Somnath Babu. One had to take tokens (cardboards with numbers written on it to signify your appointment with him) a day earlier to get some time with this woman’s man! She fiddled with the one she got in her hand while devising ways of being bold with him.
Maashi, a well-endowed woman of late 60s, was belittled by Somnath Babu every time she went there. Not only was he most disapproving of the kind of brassieres she used for support but also very critical of the blouses she wore when she went there. My mother-in-law was spared the abominable experience on grounds of being petite.
To get the best fit, Somnath Babu apparently almost wrestled with the bra Maashi was wearing, lifting it up so that her breasts stood where they should, despite her age. For Maashi it almost amounted to mild molestation but he would hear no protests. He would show her the door if she even as much as cleared her throat or raised an eyebrow! And this he did without any hesitation.While he took measurements, Somnath Babu, however, was least interested in anything else but the measuring tape and the clients’ body in a strictly professional manner. The entire time one would hear him cursing the tailor who may have made the earlier blouse. Since his blouses fit like a second skin, for him to even look at a piece of monstrosity created by a novice was insulting!
There was hardly any scope of escaping the dreaded drill either. If you took an old blouse made by him for the measurements so as to divert the impending “molestation” you would only be made to sit down and listen to his scientific logic as to how women’s bodies changed every 3 months, making all old measurements obsolete! He would even give you the address and phone number of tailors who would make do with the old blouse but he took pride in being a purist and held his nose high up while at it.
Finally here is something that takes the cake – if you were to ever realize that a blouse he made for you was getting too tight and tried your own gimmicks at it by opening up a few stitches or so it had better work for you. If it didn’t and you took it back to Somnath Babu to mend, he would charge you an extra Rs. 50 as fine for meddling with his art!
All of the above and more – yet Somnath Babu continues to reign supreme! The queues outside his small tailor shop continue to be responsible for creating traffic jams; small squabbles over who got there first; secrets and jealousies and most of all a genuine anxiety over how to look good in front of him. Under the circumstances, I cannot help but wonder whether the ambitions of the looking good for Somnath Babu beat the age-old traditions of looking good for Ma Durga’s arrival!