Excerpt: 'Almost Home: Finding a Place in the World from Kashmir to New York' by Githa Hariharan
Photograph of Manila by travel oriented
From Manila 1974: The Sari and The Fan:
In the early months of 2005, a burglar broke into the small flat in Delhi I then used as a workplace. I didn’t chase the police about following up my complaint. Instead I wasted time speculating on what the burglar made of the place. (I don’t know that it was only one man, but that seemed neater for purposes of speculation.) I imagined his disappointment at the rows and rows of books, not dusted as often as they should be. Perhaps he noticed, with disgust, how many unfinished manuscripts sat forlorn on the tables and in the cabinets. At any rate, he only trashed some of them.
When this man found the flat’s one “Godrej” cupboard—an imitation one called “Be Happy”—his faith in happiness must have been restored. (There were large patches of blood-colored gutka spit on the floor by the cupboard, patches I took as evidence of relief.) Of course, there was no cash or jewelry in the Godrej, so his night was wasted. But he got a consolation prize—my three wedding saris that I had stored in the cupboard, just in case my offspring decided to marry in a more suitable fashion than I did. He also got a bonus—the fourth silk sari, a sari M.S. Subbulakshmi gave me when I was nineteen years old. I had never found occasion to wear the sari; it had too much gold for that. But in December 2004, when M.S. died, I took it out, admired it, and promised myself I would wear it one day.
No one in her right mind would associate Subbulakshmi with Imelda Marcos. One was a great singer, much loved by those who knew her or those who had heard her voice raised in song. The other was the Iron Butterfly—a dictator’s hard, ambitious wife, given to wearing ternos with exaggerated butterfly sleeves and owning a shocking number of shoes. But I met both women in the same year. More accurately, I met Imelda Marcos briefly, in a group, because of Subbulakshmi’s visit to Manila. The pineap- ple fiber fan I got as a token of my visit to Malacañang Palace lay among the mementoes of the years in the same cupboard. The burglar took Subbulakshmi’s sari and threw Imelda’s highly wrought fan on the floor.
There is some moral here, I suspect. The fan, which I had pretty much forgotten, now serves to make me remember and mourn Subbulakshmi all over again.
In 1974, I was at that awful point suffered by so many young people, between my B.A. and M.A., unsure of what to do with myself. I spent most of this restless year with my parents, who then lived in Manila. The high point of this limbo-like year was M.S. Subbulakshmi’s visit to Manila to receive the Ramon Magsaysay award.
Soon after the award was announced, we also heard that Subbulakshmi was to be our houseguest, along with her husband Sadasivam and his daughter Radha. The closest we came to having family heroes and heroines were carnatic musicians. But still, I was surprised to see my mother’s shining eyes and barely suppressed excitement. My mother is the sort who is, in principle, scornful of celebrity worship. If we admired anyone only for fame or social position, she liked to ask, with great sarcasm, “Has her head grown a horn?” (This is a far more effective question in Tamil.) So my mother’s anticipation was a measure of the honor of playing hostess to Subbulakshmi. It was as if she was letting me know that anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear would understand that Subbulakshmi was not just an accomplished musician.
I saw my mother’s point the instant I set eyes on Subbulakshmi. I had grown up hearing her music; I had seen any number of photographs in newspapers and magazines. Still her beauty, the quality of her beauty, came as a discovery. The innocent eyes and the warm smile; the fragrance of jasmine and sandalwood about her; and the soft-spoken voice that never seemed to say anything unkind even if someone was asking for a put-down: all these came together wonderfully in Subbulakshmi. Part of her beauty was her genuine lack of consciousness of the fuss and attention surrounding her. Once or twice, sitting next to her, I heard her humming under her breath as people made the kind of long and fulsome speech that accompanies any award. For me, this was the first inkling of how a real artist sets her priorities.
It was after the award ceremony, I think, that Subbulakshmi and her troupe were invited to meet Imelda at a lunch in Malacañang Palace. My mother and I went along. The lunch—the food, that is—was a fiasco. Clearly the Palace officials had not done their homework, and course after course of meat and fish came and went, untouched by the vegetarian guests of honor. Imelda, wearing a dress with her trademark butterfly sleeves, ignored this like a well-trained memsahib. She turned to her neighbor, the Indian ambassador, and asked whether Subbulakshmi was from the North or the South. She then looked soulfully at Subbulakshmi and made a little speech about how she had always found the music of South India especially spiritual. On Imelda’s request, Subbulakshmi sang a bhajan at the table, though she must have been tired and hungry, and though there was no accompaniment.
On the way back, Subbulakshmi, incapable of thinking badly of anyone, made only one remark about the visit. Imelda, she said, seemed to have gnanam—knowledge, sensibility. Imelda Marcos and gnanam—my mother and I were silent, but we exchanged an eloquent look. We had our revenge, though. When we were back home and Imelda’s guests were breaking their fast with idlis and curd-rice, Subbulakshmi’s daughter opened the extravagantly packed boxes she and her mother had received from Imelda. The boxes were full of cigars.
There was no more talk of Imelda, her gnanam or anything else. Luckily, as a fringe member of the group, I got a fan, not cigars. And for some reason, it still lies in my cupboard all these years later, ready to tell me of the astonishing difference that separates two famous women.
I’d rather have kept the sari as a memento of my meeting with Subbulakshmi. But the burglar changed that story. I too must change his. Since I like a story to have an open ending, I have imagined into existence a suitable end to the burglar’s encounter with my cupboard. I have resisted the unhelpful suggestions of friends that my silk saris must have been melted down to yield a few tiny lumps of silver. This is what I see, though I have not seen my burglar: I am convinced there must be a woman in his life, and that he has given her Subbulakshmi’s green and gold sari. And I would like to think that the sari, despite its years of hiding, despite the dishonest way it was made to exit from my life, will bring some grace—some kind of soul-changing music—into this woman’s life.
But this gentle mood of reconciliation came to me later. By then the aging century had faded and given way to the new millennium. To cities where the old homes of the seventies sat waiting in memory, a little too far from the twenty-first century.
Excerpted from Almost Home: Finding a Place in the World from Kashmir to New York, by Githa Hariharan. Forthcoming March 2016 from Restless Books. Republished with permission of Restless Books.