By Sara Chansarkar
I miss Father as my sister lights the candles on my birthday cake which is sitting in a stainless steel plate on the scratched glass-top coffee table at my parents’ house in India. My birthday is the 24th of December and I visit around this time every year because it is also my son’s winter break from school.
After I blow the candles and cut the cake, Ammi lays a gift − neatly wrapped by my sister − in my lap. I carefully open the gift, plucking the tape off gently, so that the wrapping paper can be reused. It is a finch-pink sweater, soft and warm, with shiny buttons adorning the front.
My lips and hands start trembling, unable to cope with the happiness. Ammi hugs me, runs her hand over my head, and dabs her eyes with her dupatta.
As I sniffle, my sister narrates the tale of the sweater:
In the beginning of November, Ammi picked a cream-colored sweater from Father’s undisturbed wardrobe. He had worn this sweater only twice last winter and she was going to unravel it to re-use this yarn, still new and lustrous, for my sweater.
She put on her glasses, sat cross-legged on the divan facing the living room window, with her knees slightly raised, and started unraveling the sweater, wrapping the yarn around her knees multiple times to make elliptical-shaped bunches. This unraveling took 2-3 days and a toll on her ageing knees, which my sister massaged with warm turpentine oil at night.
She then lugged those bunches in a jute bag on her shoulder and hailed a rickshaw to the market to get the yarn dyed pink. She knows the shade of pink I like the best.
After collecting the colored yarn a couple days later, she soaked it in a bucket full of water overnight to drain off the excess dye. Next morning, she wrung out the yarn bunches, and clipped them to the clothesline on the terrace to dry them, and fed the tinged leftover water to her hibiscus, rose, and other plants.
The rumbling clouds woke her up from her afternoon nap and she ran up to the terrace, cursing the unseasonable rain, plucked the yarn from terrace, and hung it in the covered verandah. The November sun was feeble and it took 2-3 days for the yarn to completely dry: every evening, she brought the yarn into the verandah to avoid the dew, and hung it back in the terrace in the morning.
While the drying process was on, she started looking for a beautiful pattern for my sweater. She visited her next-door neighbor to borrow the Femina magazine’s November edition because it contained a seasonal knitting section. But another neighbor had already borrowed it, so she went knocking the doors of the other neighbor. It took her 4-5 knocks and an evening to trace the magazine.
From that magazine, she picked a beautiful but complex cable pattern interspersed with holes forming the shape of a flower. The pattern involved knitting four stitches one way, then borrowing a stitch from the partner needle, alternating the yarn front and back in a rhythmic pattern. It wasn’t easy and took her multiple tries and one day to get the sequence of steps right on another old, scrap piece of yarn.
After the pink yarn dried completely, she started the process of transforming the yarn bunches into manageable balls. She again sat cross-legged on the divan with a bunch of yarn pegged between her knees and started pulling the yarn with her right hand and wrapped it around her left four fingers. After a few rounds, she slipped the loop off her fingers and kept wrapping the yarn around it to form a neat ball. It took one day to transform all six bunches into spheres.
With all the groundwork done, she began searching her sewing/knitting stash for a pair of size-10 needles – that was the size of needles the magazine instructed to use for the design to really pop out. Unfortunately, she could find only one size-10 needle and blamed her visiting grandkids for misplacing the other one. Again, she bundled up in a shawl and hailed a rickshaw to the market to buy a pair of size-10 needles.
Next day, before my sister left for work, Ammi spanned her shoulders with her palm − my sister and I are the same size – to estimate the number of stitches she would need for my sweater. Then, she started looping the yarn into stitches onto one new size-10 needle.
After that, her hours revolved around the sweater. Her fingers started working right after her fajr namaaz, when she sat on the prayer mat, knitting and reading The Holy Panj Surah. As the sun started peeking through the window she took the needles, pierced in a ball of yarn, out in the porch, unfolded her chair, and sat knitting until noon. Father’s chair stayed folded, leaning on the wall, keeping her company.
Chores stole her away but she returned, quickly. She cooked simpler meals, cut down her afternoon naps, evening walks, and neighborly visits, to save time for knitting. She knit in the evening while watching TV and in candlelight during daily power cuts. She knit until my sister heard her gentle snores and pulled the needles from her hands and lowered her onto the pillows.
After the front and back pieces and the sleeves were done, Ammi sewed them together and washed and dried the completed sweater. She held it in her hands and inspected it, but was not quite satisfied with her work. It needed a little glitter, she decided. So once again, she bundled up and hailed a rickshaw to the market to buy pink and golden buttons and then sewed them to the front of the sweater.
Finally, the sweater was complete in fifty days − two days before I arrived. Ammi then passed it on to my sister to pack it.
This was the story of the sweater I was holding. It held the smell of turmeric and ginger from Ammi’s hands, the verses of her prayers, and the warmth of Father’s chest; I was going to carry all of it back to the USA.
I ask Ammi why she did so much; she says: You will know when your children have grown and flown.
Dupatta : Long scarf worn by women in India
Verandah: a roofed, open-air gallery or porch
Fajr namaaz: Prayer at dawn, offered by Muslims
Panj Surah: Five chapters from the Holy Quran
Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar is an Indian American. She was born in a middle-class family in India and will forever be indebted to her parents for educating her beyond their means. She now lives in the United States. She is a Pushcart nominee for 2017 and her work has been published in Ms Magazine blog, The Same, The Mutha Magazine, Star82 Review, The Sidereal among others. She blogs at Puny Fingers and can be reached at twitter @PunyFingers.