While we Remember
The downside of being unwell is the sudden lack of activity, the lull in communication, the interruption to routine and a certain boredom that sets in after a couple of days. The upside is the gift of time – to rest, sleep, reflect and to focus on healing. I did not take the laptop to bed – I took the radio instead and drifted in and out of wakefulness accompanied by news, views and music – a rare privilege for one who thinks in sudden grabs while news, views and music rushes by. One afternoon, in conversation with Petrea King (Quest for life Foundation), ABC’s Richard Glover explored the ways in which death impacts on our emotional state and, in particular, deaths of those removed from our everyday world – the famous, the gifted, the inspirers and those who entertained, provoked and challenged us. The lists are long and include many whom we never knew such as the victims of the Twin Towers attacks or of the Bali bombing and recently, none of us in Australia is without acute sadness for the victims of the recent fire in Brisbane and their grieving community. The discussion prompted me to reflect on a death that is somewhat closer to home and which I have never quite put to rest. I know that after several months it is time to let go and move on and yet before I do so I’d like to share some memories of a wonderful personal friend who also happened to be the friend of so many others from all parts of our planet and from all walks of life. We are - each and every one of us - far, far richer for knowing Ranju.
Dust filtering through the rays of a late afternoon sun yields a quality of light like no other. This golden haze epitomises India but never more so than during my first wanderings through a mediaeval town on a late January afternoon. I was lost in a maze of narrow alleys, stone walls hemmed me in on either side and ornately carved wooden gates offered no exit route, they were simply entrances to family compounds. Don’t get me wrong though - I did not mind being without direction - each twist and turn led me into new worlds and into a time before the chaos of modernity. Two wheelers (scooters) were some years away and cars were for the privileged few. The only traffic was by foot, bicycle or by an animal drawn cart – ox, donkey, horse or even camel; cows ambled by nonchalantly chewing their cud - often with a calf alongside and even the appearance of a huge hump backed bull did not bother me – there was something about the quiet gait that quelled any fear; stiff haired pigs bristled through food waste disdained by cows and dogs slumbered fitfully in the territories over which they reigned. Sometimes people spoke to me and I, shy of being so pale and so foreign, did not engage in those days. I sort of nodded, ducked my head and moved on. It was not until I suddenly emerged out of a narrow road and into the bottom of a busy market street that I began to feel new confidence as a bunch of French visitors wandered by showing off some newly acquired brightly coloured cloth. They were the first other foreigners I had encountered and I was relieved to know that I was not the only one in town.
I stopped briefly by a stall that sold richly hued pungent spices and my mouth watered over sweets in another; an absurdly narrow shoe store held me entranced and I fingered a dusty embroidered skirt hanging outside a fabric store. And in this manner I moved slowly, totally entranced by the knowledge that I was really in India, until I was stopped in my tracks by a pair of bright blue doors with the unlikely name ‘Senorita Boutique’ spelled out in bold yellow letters above them and I had a brief flash of geographic confusion. Then I looked into the shop’s deep interior, a small woman stopped stitching at her Singer machine, looked me directly in the eyes, smiled and said crisply ‘Hello. What is your name? What country are you from? Please take chai with me.’ Thus it began - my first meeting with Ranju Mayecha and the beginning of a love affair with people and place and that shows no signs of diminishing!
On this, my first, visit Ranju looked out for me and after me. I ate many meals in her small house in Orient Colony and learned about Gujarati cuisine by her side in her humble kitchen with its clay water pots, blue painted cupboard that held treasures, matching blue painted refrigerator and the small shrine at which she performed ‘puja’ on her return from work each day. I liked to stand at the stone bench and ‘pop’ the mustard seeds in hot oil and suck the insides out of fresh green cardamom seeds while she rolled the roti and introduced me to the delights of Shrikant - that heavenly blend of strained curd (yoghurt) and dried fruit, cardamon and other aromatic ingredients! Her chai was bliss and I went home armed with recipes and specially blended spices. Over the next few weeks Ranju advised me where to go, who to meet and never once did she have a bad word about anyone – the worst she ever said when I probed was ‘Sometimes good, sometimes bad – you will be OK.’ When I became ill with food poisoning from a hotel where I stayed (but where I should never have eaten) she came every day to my sick bed with freshly made curd, kichdi (boiled rice and mung dhal) and bananas. Between her kindness and my driver’s watchful eye that oversaw my medication routine and the hotel manager who ensured I was comfortable - I recovered quickly. Kachchh kindness had begun to seep into my bones! Later, Ranju joined me at the desert festival for performances that started at 10pm. She was with me the night that I saw and heard the fabled Kachchhi folksinger Danubai Khana who, at 80 plus, was still belting out numbers about the weight of dowry silver and other gutsy songs. I left Kachchh three weeks later laden with gifts from Ranju and from her sister, Manju whom I had come to know in such a short space of time.
Over the next fifteen years my friendship with Ranju grew. Senorita Boutique was the first place I headed for on arrival in town. Her shop was the hub of Bhuj. Foreigners were drawn to its depths where they rummaged and unearthed all manner of textile treasures, had clothes made overnight from silk, cotton, wool, embroidered, block printed, tie dyed or plain - clothes made to measure, designed by Ranju and stitched by her tailors. I still have the first ‘kurta’ made by her - a ‘mango’ design black and white block print by Ismail with its opening held together by an antique silver fastener - a special gift to me. The dress, now worn and faded, remains the sample from which all others are now made. And not only foreigners came to her store, locals flocked there too for fabric and stitching and gossip and it was a repository of local crafts - of copper bells and lacquer buttons, of Rabari shawls and bandhani scarves, of Afghan coats and silver nose rings – all of it driven by Ranju’s love of beauty and her will to help others. And it was through this same hub that I met an array of wonderful international women – a sisterhood deeply connected to Kachchh and who work for its wellbeing; women such as Andrea Serrahn whose workshop in Bhuj produces clothes for her San Francisco boutique while supporting two tailors and their families; Uta from Germany who raises funds at home to build schools and pay for corrective surgery for disabled children and Liz from England who buys and sells things of great ethnic appeal. These women are just a few of many I have met over the years and always my opening question to Ranju, after greetings, was ‘Who’s in town?’
When the earthquake struck Bhuj in 2001 five days before I was due to arrive, Ranju was the first person with whom I tried to make contact. After ten days of constant daily unanswered calls she finally picked up the telephone and in her usual clipped voice said ‘Hello.’ When I cried and said ‘I am so glad you are alive’ she quipped ‘you are pleased? I am very pleased.’ Her unquenchable spirit had survived. The message I posted on a website to say she was alive and well still floats out there in cyberspace along with other relics of those days – the past has found another dimension! Once I had established that Ranju and several other key people were OK and I had some sense of the scale of the disaster, I rescheduled the postponed trip and arrived in early March when I slept (or tried to) in a yellow tent outside Ranju’s house and attempted to come to terms with the scale of devastation. The winding laneways were gone, so too the carved doorways into family compounds - the charm and beauty of a mediaeval town was obliterated in a single violent act of nature. Over the next 6 weeks we talked long into hot dusty nights, we travelled out to the epicentre where we wondered at nature’s forces, we travelled at the break of day in local buses to visit artisans and we planned what to do, what was best to do, what we could do given these harsh times and our own circumstances.
Over the next two years Ranju was a guiding light in the complex task of putting together an exhibition (Resurgence) planned for Manly (NSW) in 2003. She helped me to navigate the intricate pathways of local politics and counseled me in ways to deal with factionalism. Best of all she was a sounding board, listening attentively while I sorted out my jumbled thoughts and more often than not made no comment while I made my own sense of the task. At the time I was working with NGOs and individual artisans and there was only so much of a pie to share - you have to understand that these were extreme times calling for extraordinary action. The entire community was traumatised and physically and emotionally challenged by this dreadful event, foreign aid was flowing in and, with survival uppermost, any hint of succour was readily seized. The way to success was strewn with potential risks and I was challenged to handle them impartially. Two years later, when the works for the show were finally completed and had been proudly shown off in Bhuj, it was Ranju who travelled with me in a less than adequate vehicle bound for Ahmedabad and the threat of the terrible Octroi (roadside tax) waiting to seize us at every bend in the ravaged roads! It was a slow, uneventful journey and we giggled most of the way when I told her how I imagined that Octroi was the troll under the bridge of a childhood story and we, including the driver, were the three Billy Goats Gruff. But there were only tolls at the bridges we crossed.
In 1993 Ranju came to Sydney. We rallied amongst her friends and raised an airfare to bring her out with the artisans for the exhibition opening and to attend the Fibre Forum textile conference in Mittagong (NSW). She was a guest in our home and I have huge, warm memories of this small woman, always immaculately turned out, in my kitchen cooking alongside my even smaller and just as immaculately turned out 84 year old mother. For several days the kitchen was crowded with friends. Some had travelled from New Zealand especially to see her and Ismail Mohmed Khatri and Ali Mohmed and there were many other well wishers. In a short time she had formed a strong bond with my family and thereafter, when I returned from Bhuj, I carried shirts made by Ranju for my brother Graeme, son Simon and for Mike and always something soft and silky for my mother. But one of the most profound moments during her stay was her sudden observation about my life. One morning while I was cutting herbs in the garden, Ranju looked at me astutely ‘You cook, you clean, you do the washing and ironing, you buy the food, you make things and you work full time in your business. How do you do it?’ she asked. It was a moment of revelation for both of us; me - because I take my roles for granted; Ranju - because she assumed we had it easy and for the first time I saw myself though another lens and had an insight into the chasm that lies between how the lives of western women are commonly perceived in India and how they really are. In all fairness I need to tell you that husband Mike also cooks, cleans, shops, irons his own shirts, gardens and works full time. Ranju also went home with a different perspective on the economics of international trade when she saw for herself how items increase in cost between artisan and eventual buyer and a new level of respect strengthened our alliance. Her trip to Australia somehow found its way onto the Internet in answer to a travel query about Bhuj ‘Oh also in Bhuj’ it reports ‘there is a store called Senorita Boutique - run by a lovely woman in the main bazaar - she makes and has some good stuff. She has been to Sydney - something to do with an exhibition in Manly.’
But it is the part that Ranju played in my tour groups which is something that cannot be replaced. She was the welcoming conduit between East and West and made my role so much easier when comfort zones were stretched. She offered her hospitality with generosity, good grace and humour. Imagine twelve or more women crowded into her tiny apartment being fed her famous specialties and leaving filled with good food and emptied of much laughter; imagine twelve or more women crowded into her tiny shop and finding and trying and being fitted and laughing at large western arms not quite making their ways into slim Indian sleeves! She was our touchstone in the market place, nobody ever got (totally) lost between her shop and our connected cell phones; she made outfits for the small and large and transformed many a drab tourist into a colourful traveller; she gave advice and friendship and above all she was always there!
When Salim called me with the news of Ranju’s sudden death on January 15th, I had a group with me. We were only two days away from Bhuj. I had spoken to her briefly on the telephone when I first arrived - there was no mention of illness and not a hint of anything amiss in her voice. Sadly I did not get to see Ranju Mayecha again. She died of a heart attack after a sudden, brief illness and as is the custom was cremated the following morning. When we arrived the following day Bhuj was in a state of shock - so great was the impact of this small woman’s death that I had to revamp the first few days’ itinerary and while the group went off the following day with guide and bus I attended a simple service at a temple in Bhuj. An inconsolable Andrea from San Francisco, who was in Bhuj working with Ranju at the time, sat near me and during the two or three hours that I sat in quiet reflection I watched the familiar faces of the artisans of Kachchh come and pay tribute to a woman who had played a key role in their lives. When Muslim men attend a Hindu ceremony you know for certain that religion does not interfere in the closeness of community. There are no ‘wakes’ in India; after the ceremony and in the absence of our usual custom (Bhuj is dry) a small group of us went for ice cream at Ranju’s favourite ice cream shop. We walked slowly into the familiar market place, each of us locked quietly into our own grief, when Ali Mohmed Isha broke the silence; in a few succinct words he summed up our feelings ‘Our friend is dead’ he said softly ‘What are we to do now?’ Indeed what are we to do?
All I know is that when I arrive in Bhuj on September 17th I will not be jumping into an auto-rickshaw and heading into ‘Darbargadh’ to a small shop with blue doors called Senorita Boutique and sharing my first taste of Kachchh chai with a small woman called Ranju who was always there. I thank the forces that placed us in each other’s path, gave us the miracle of friendship and inter-cultural insights and allowed us to share part of life’s journey together.
Postnote: Andrea and I have discussed making a memorial to Ranju in the market – perhaps a bench overlooking Lake Hamirsar where travellers can rest. We welcome all ideas and suggestions from local and international friends and aim to have it in place on the anniversary of her passing.