It was raining really hard and Sita had nothing to do except chat with Baba and Ma. Not that they were really interested in chatting with her.
Sita wandered through their thatched hut to the back veranda where her mother was stirring a pot of masoor dal over the open earthen fire of the unoon and at the same time, peeling and chopping brinjal.
“Hmm...” Sita peered critically into the pot with a thoughtful frown. “Dal and begoon bhaja...Ma?”
“And your favourite maacher jhaal.” Her mother pointed to a small basket sitting next to the unoon. “Fish in mustard sauce, Sita.”
Sita’s smile widened as her eyes shone brightly with happiness. “Ohh...we are having fish after such a long time!”
“Your baba got an order for Baluchari saris yesterday and he got the fish from the fishermen at the ghat this morning.”
“More than one sari?” Nine-year-old Sita was a weaver’s daughter, so she understood the value of getting a big order.
Her ma held up three fingers. “Three saris!”
Sita watched as her mother took the pot of dal off the fire and put a metal karahi on it. She poured mustard oil into it and opened a covered basket. Inside, there were a bunch of small river fish that she quickly cleaned and scaled. She rubbed them with salt and turmeric and then, with a loud hiss, she slid the pieces of fish into the hot oil. Soon, the air was full of the pungent aroma of frying fish.
“Oo!” Sita sprang back as the oil spit and spat up. “The oil is too hot, Ma!”
“Go and sit with your baba and let me cook!” her mother said impatiently and very reluctantly, Sita headed inside.
Ah well... who wants to watch fish fry anyway? Sita wandered towards the smaller hut that was attached to their home. that was where her father had his loom and usually, she would hear the “click!” and “clack!” as he worked, weaving saris and dhotis, gamchas and turbans. It was always exciting when he got orders to weave expensive saris like a Baluchari, it did not happen very often.
As Sita entered the hut she had already begun talking, “So, Baba, what are you doing . . . Ma was saying – ”
“Quiet, Sita!” her father said sharply. “Can’t you see I’m working?” As she sat down cross-legged beside him, he looked down at her face and added gently, “You talk too much; do you know that?”
“Of course, I do.” Sita leaned against his arm like a sleepy cat. “What can I do? It’s raining, na?”
“Very true!” agreed her Baba. “What can you do?”
Sita bent to study what he was drawing. “Oh! You are doing a new naksha for the Baluchari sari.” She breathed happily. “What will the design be, Baba?”
Her father was sitting on the ground before a low table, bent over a sheet of paper on which he was drawing the pattern he was going to weave on the pallav of the sari. A Baluchari was one of the most difficult saris to weave because the pallav that would be draped across the shoulder was like a painting, there would be men riding horses, women dancing, peacocks and elephants...all done with threads on a loom.
“What will you draw?” Sita asked.
“You tell me. this is for the three daughters of the zamindar of Tribeni – the bride and her two younger sisters.” His fingers were moving slowly across the paper, drawing an intricate border of flowers and leaves. “So if you were a zamindar’s daughter, what would you like to wear?”
Sita rolled her eyes upwards, thinking furiously. She tapped her lips thoughtfully with a finger and then said slowly, “I’d want a row of swans and lotus flowers...”
“That can even be on the border,” replied her father. He was now sketching a human figure slowly. “We always show figures on the pallav – men, women, animals and birds...”
Sita curved her head to stare at him. “Even children?”
“Sure, why not?” The design he was sketching was of a standing figure of a man wearing a turban. “Then you can draw me!” Sita said excitedly.
His hands stilled as he turned to look at her laughing face. “And what will you be doing? You can’t dance or ride an elephant or smoke a hookah...those are the kinds of things I weave on the sari pallav.”
Sita frowned. “Oh...I really don’t know how to dance!”
“And if you smoked a hookah,” he said, grinning, “your ma will lock you in the dark back room with the cows.”
Later, as they sat down to lunch, Baba said to Ma, “Do you know what your daughter wants?”
“She wants to learn to weave?” Ma guessed.
“No, she wants to be in the pattern of the pallav.” The two of them laughed at her flushed face.
Sita shrugged. “You said that girls were allowed.”
There was an odd thoughtful look in her baba’s eyes as he studied her round, large-eyed face. “Yes, I did say that, didn’t I?”
A few weeks later, Sita was playing hopscotch in the sunny courtyard with her best friend Gauri when Baba called out from the hut with the loom, “Sitaaa...come quick!” The two girls went running.
“What?” Sita asked breathlessly. “What is it, Baba?”
“I just finished the pallav of the first sari. Want to see it?”
The girls crept past the long spread of the warp of cream tussar silk threads to the other end of the hut, where Baba sat weaving, his feet on the two wooden pedals that moved the loom. the crosswise weft threads were being woven in and out of the bright scarlet warp threads and he was carefully creating a painting on the pallav. the shuttle holding the spindle of threads ran in and out as his feet moved, making the loom go “click...clack”.
The girls leaned forward to study the design and gasped in admiration.
“Oh, Baba!” Sita exclaimed happily. “It is so beautiful! You have never done this pattern before.”
“Who are they?” Gauri asked, studying the two figures closely.
The pallav had a border of leaves and flowers and in the middle were two standing figures woven in scarlet thread. there was a man in a dhoti and kurta, holding a tall bow. Beside him stood a woman in a sari, holding a garland. A deer and a peacock stood by the woman.
“That...’ her Baba said, pointing to the man holding the tall bow, “is Lord Rama, the prince of Ayodhya.” And then he pointed to the woman. “And that is you.”
“Me?” Sita raised her head, startled.
“That is Princess Sita of Mithila and she is about to garland her husband at the swayamvara after Rama has strung the bow.” Sita stood there, dazzled, her hands on her cheeks, her mouth open, her eyes wide. “That is meee?”
“Your name is Sita, isn’t it, stupid?” Gauri laughed. “So, it is you.”
Sita did a small dance around the room. “I am on a Baluchari! I am!”
“Not really,” her Baba said, grinning. “Right now, you are wearing a skirt and you haven’t even combed your hair. The Sita on the sari is wearing a sari.” Then he drew his daughter close. “One day, my Sita will get married and I will weave for her a Baluchari sari so beautiful they will all say, ‘Look, how pretty the bride is!’”
“Promise?” Sita frowned up at her Baba. “Promise.’
Excerpted with permission from Let’s Go Time Travelling Again: Indians Through the Ages, Subhadra Sen Gupta, Puffin Books.