My mother told me, ‘Thangamma, your father and I are growing old and who will buy you a pavada (skirt) if anything happens to us? You are growing up too fast and you can’t wear the same pavada (skirt)for the rest of your life. We are getting you married off so that there will be someone to buy you a pavada (skirt)and you don’t have to worry about your clothes and food”.
“Well for a eleven year old then that idea seemed most logical. Besides, I thought by getting married I would not only get a new dress to wear, but also plenty of payasam(kheer) to drink. In those times, payasam (Kheer) was made only for divine festivals and weddings. You need to buy the dhal which is the main ingredient and we normally didn’t have the money for it.”
I could not imagine not having money and not going to the shop to buy things. So I asked, “Ammachi, didn’t you go shopping at all?”
Ammachi explained,” When I was young, people’s needs were different. We had cows that would give milk, hens that would give eggs and meat, and we would catch fish from the river near home. Rice was grown in our fields and so were all the vegetables. We even made our own oil from coconuts. When we wanted a vegetable that didn’t grow in our fields we would go to the market and barter trade. Our only need then was a nice neriyathu with a good amount of zari to wear for weddings and Easter church service and a nice gold bangle.”
I knew what a neriyathu was. I have seen Ammachi and other elderly woman wear the neriyathu with chatta and mundu in the church. The more gold zari embroidery on the neriyathu the more expensive it was. Ammachi always pinned her neriyathu on her chatta with a nice flower shaped brooch with pink stones on it.
I noticed that Ammachi took special care of hers; every time she came back from church, she would take it off from her chatta and hang it neatly on the clothesline. She couldn’t wash it after every use and made sure that nothing ever dropped on it. Of all her clothes, Ammachi never allowed her grandchildren to touch her neriyathu. It was the most precious thing she ever owned. Ammachi kept all her clothes in an old leather suite case.
Whenever I visit her I try to play with her leather suitcase and Ammachi would always tell me’ Nina, when you get married, you have to take the clothes to your husband’s house in that suitcase, so please don’t spoil the suitcase.’
Inside the suitcase, there was always a brand new chatta, mundu and neriyathu still in the original brown paper cover. Ammachi has never worn that, even when her clothes are old and torn, Ammachi wouldn’t touch the new set in her suitcase. I didn’t understand why Ammachi never wore that. So I asked her one day
“Ammachi why don’t you ever wear the new chatta, mundu and neriyathu in the suitcase?’
She told me,”when I die, I want you to give me the ritual bath and drape my body in the new set of clothes’ . I don’t want anyone to spend their hard earned money buying burial clothes for me and I don’t want to wear my old clothes when you bury me.
I looked at her shocked. I couldn’t understand how could my grandmother die, and how does she expect me to bath her when she is dead? How can a 10 year old bath a 50 year old woman?
Ammachi carried me and hugged me close to her and told me, “Nina, life and death are a part of life”.
I didn’t understand what Ammachi was trying to tell me, but at that moment her hug and the smell of the coconut oil on her hair was comforting to me. And I never asked her about the new sets of clothes in the suitcase.
note: Chatta, mundu and neriyathu are the traditional dress worn by the orthodox syrian christian woman in Kerala, India.