Rural living ft. Alwin Anna

There are few things in my life as quintessentially Anaikatti as a visit to the tailor. Across the border a couple of hundred metres into Kerala, I have the distinction of claiming inter-state travel every time a new blouse comes my way!

Every trip to Alwin Anna is a project. We plan it a couple of days in advance, block out the hour right after school lets out, make sure none of us have extra class since walking “all the way there” by oneself is quite a pain, and set out. We run errands on the way there – someone always has soap or toothpaste to buy, and if nothing else, we halt at our favourite bakers and order the “usual”. Alwin Anna is usually sitting facing the door at his store, an inch-tape slung around his neck as he smiles his sheepish grin at us. Before he even opens his mouth, we know what he is going to say. Innum ready aagale-nge. It isn’t ready yet. That is our cue to haggle, telling him that one of us is heading home and need it by Thursday while he suggests Monday. Finally, we settle for Friday evening, on our way out, and leave, already scheduling our return in a few days.

Other times, he asks us to wait when the task at hand is not a big deal. If we need something taken in or a ‘fall’ stitched onto a sari or hooks onto a blouse, he will ask us to wait. The typically Indian promise of ‘five minutes ma’ ensues and we proceed to stand in the store, listening to the blaring noises of KTV and commenting on the various fabrics that will soon constitute a stranger’s wardrobe. It is in those moments that I realise the difference, notice just how distinct this rhythm is, and if I were to be honest, how uncomfortable I naturally am inhabiting that time.

You see, when we are at Alwin Anna’s, there is no such thing as a hurry. There just can’t be. It doesn’t do any of us much good. We stand around as he carefully takes out a stitch of a too-big kurta, measuring the exact length in three different places. If he is unhappy with the mark, he will start at the beginning and do it all over again. A few minutes later, he walks up purposefully to the spools of thread in the box on the floor, one for every shade imaginable on the palette and then some, and slowly compares it to the cloth in his hand. Nothing less than perfect is ever acceptable. He holds two spools in his hand, placing each against the cloth as he makes up his mind which to use. The rest of us exchange quick glances at each other and shrug. There doesn’t seem to be a difference in our eyes. He walks back to the machine, readies it, threads the spool in, tests the pedal, and gets to work. Again, if the stitches don’t fall exactly where he intends them to, he takes them apart and does it again. Until they come just right, the only thing that matters is that one line of stitches. Once he reaches the end of the garment, he starts over, stitching from the beginning again to make sure it is doubly secure, no loose threads anywhere. In case the end of the kurta has a border, he pauses to change the spool of thread again into the appropriate colour. Can’t afford to have the body-colour thread at the bottom now, can we? What happens if we accidently find someone’s head by our knee? Just when we think he is done, he holds the kurta afar to eye his handiwork, and then picks up the scissors, snipping at stray threads here and there until a satisfied half nod escapes him. Yet, we are still not done. He stands up, picks his way around all the cloth, and heads to a table at the back of the room. There, he puts the kurta down and irons it out, making sure the creases are crisp and exact, perfectly pressed and brand new. This he slips into a characteristic yellow bag, comparing a couple for the right size, and then hands the bag to us with a flourish. In the last forty minutes, he may have stitched us five hooks on a blouse, but gosh, would he have stitched them to perfection.

While all this exacting perfection is underway, we would stand around occasionally glancing at the atrocity of Tamil cinema that would usually play on KTV. Every once in a while, another customer would come in and hand over the latest addition to the wardrobe, and we would stand there eyeing the cloth up with a practiced air of people who have spent too much time observing other people’s clothes. The last time we were there, a lady walked in with two blingy salwars, handed them over to an assistant and pointed out which was for her oldest and which was for her youngest. I need the sleeves attached, she said, and walked out. The tailor didn’t bat an eyelid, evidently knowing the measurements and preferences of both the daughters in question. The other day a colleague said she wanted something stitched with three-fourth sleeves. That would be fourteen and a half inches, Alwin Anna announced, and my colleague insisted on getting it checked. He was right. The man never writes anything down, isn’t hung up on documentation and digitalisation, but he has just never been wrong.

As I stood at the store today waiting for ten hooks and the edge of a sari to be hemmed, I was restless. My mind was on a conference call that had been scheduled for ten minutes earlier, the two articles that were waiting to be written, the email I had promised to draft. My mind was perpetually weighing every hook against the number of items on the To Do list that could have been ticked off instead. My colleague, on the other hand, was at ease, filling me in on the trivia about the movie that was playing. When we finally left, I assumed we would head back to school given how much time we had “wasted.” Instead, we stopped to buy fruits and soap (duh) on the way. We finally got back to the school almost an hour and a half after we left – ten hooks, a couple of blouses, and a few bunches of grapes richer for the evening.

Every time someone asks me how I, a city girl, like my life here, it is moments like this that I tell them about. I tell them how the underlying pace of life here is different, that an evening considered “wasted” by the logic I grew up with is celebrated as “productive” here. I remind myself that having a baker who knows your favourite kind of bread and a tailor who knows the exact length you like your clothes aren’t things that find their way on a To Do list, but are exactly the kind of experiences I would never chalk up at home; that a tailor who insists on ironing your brand new blouse even in the knowledge that you were in a hurry would be hard to come by in that bustling metropolis I am so fond of.

Every time someone asks me how a city girl has “adjusted” to the rural life, I think of Alwin Anna and the many snatches of Tamil cinema that have entered my repertoire thanks to him. Every bright yellow plastic cover is testament to the many evenings spent crossing the border to just “remind him we exist,” a project undertaken only in plural. Every perfectly stitched blouse of mine is one step closer to this learning, this ability to stand guiltlessly still and not count it a waste.


130 essays.

Alternative title : Meet and greet my class.

When I came back to term in January, I had a ninth standard girl ask me a question. We are also going to write English board exam, Akka, but why have we not had as much practice as the tenth graders? She was right. Thanks to the complexities of an international syllabus, she was all set to write the exam in June 2017 but had not come in for as many extra hours as her seniors had. I told her the rest of the term was theirs and that I’d make sure they caught up.

If only I knew what I had signed up for.

As it turns out, there was friendly competition between the two batches on who would write the most essays. Akka, they wrote 100? We will write more, they decided instantaneously. This coming from a bunch of kids who came with a warning a few months ago – they are great, but they just don’t like to write. Well, it seems they jumped over that one.

From January till date, the nine students have produced about 130 essays for me, a detail that has not escaped the attention of their seniors. (At dinner yesterday, a girl from the tenth asked me to ‘keep them in line’ – romba scene podaraange, Akka, 130 ezhuditaanga nnu! They are showing off too much because they’ve written 130.) Aside from being a nightmare to correct (I never seem to be able to stay on top of my corrections!), they are the perfect window into the lives of these students. Having recently become their class teacher, meeting them at 7 AM every day and reading their work makes me feel like I know them all a little bit more.

So, people of the internet, meet my class.

There is S, a perpetually cheery and forever smiling young girl. Coming from a difficult family (an understatement reserved for the internet), you could never tell just by looking at her. She struggles with spellings and logical continuation of her stories but is one of the most genuine, tender students I’ve met in the school. There isn’t a day when I have felt slightly run down that she hasn’t picked up on it and asked what was wrong.

Her best friend and forever-partner-in-crime amidst a fair amount of bickering and squabbling is N. A diligent, committed girl, her notebook was the first to show heartwarming improvement since June. On rough days at work, it is something she once said that acts as my pick-me-up – I never used to enjoy writing, Akka, but now I want to be a journalist like you.

The quietest of the boys is R, a diminutive, waif-like child who has blossomed into a force to be reckoned with. When I joined in June, he was on the list of children who may need extra help. In the worksheet I handed out yesterday, he topped the class. Sensitive and observant, R has made the painful climb to the top the only way he knows to – by putting in the hours. And how.

And then there is the trio of Ps. P1 is the quiet elder sibling of a rather riotous student in a younger grade. The first time I heard, I would not believe it, though the family resemblance was undeniable. His essays always star himself in the protagonist’s role, whether about superpowers or boy-next-door heroes, or fantastical journeys under the ocean. When explaining the concept of ‘people who support those in the limelight’ in some context the other day, he muttered so softly I wasn’t sure I heard. Like me, Akka.

His best friend is P2. They are joined at the hip, and on days when they have the leeway, even sync their wardrobe. (Just a few minutes ago, I was looking at a pair of pale yellow shirts in front of me.) P2 loves to act the hero. Any praise or appreciation or acknowledgement will see him raising his hand and waving away imagined fans, usually to much tittering in class. A surprise package, he was the first student of the school to hand over an essay with no subject-verb disagreement or tense mistakes. The fans were rather thrilled that day.

Sitting next to him this morning was A. A is the incorrigible, insatiable voice of curiosity in every class. He is the kind of student who cannot, should not, will not spend an entire class in silence. He is the one with questions about everything, solutions to everything; the one who will predictably say ‘No’ when everyone else says ‘Yes’. Recently, he sprung this one on me – Akka, if I am violent in pursuit of peace, can I still win the Nobel Prize for Peace?

The last of the trio, P3, is an earnest and committed child, forever showing up early in the mornings with ironed uniforms and impeccably grooming. Early in my time at the school, he interrupted a class to ask if I could clarify a doubt – how do we actually use commas, Akka? That, of course, led to a few hours of discovery and grammatical realisations for me as well. I have dreams of not having a single correction to make in that notebook.

Then there is K, a soft-voiced, quiet girl who struggles with ill health and a retinue of siblings behind her. Never one to crib, she swallows the almost-constant pain and slew of medication without complaint, only coming up to me to whisper the newest update as an explanation for a day off or a few hours missed. Can I have the worksheet I missed, Akka? The question will dog me until I really pull out a copy and hand it over.

Finally, there is D, an earnest, sensitive child. My first class teacher moment came with her as she confessed she felt bad – I am trying, Akka, but I still don’t understand tense. We sat and ploughed through it together and she is well on her way to mastering that one. D is nervous (ish) around authority but is chatty, relaxed, and willing to forget teacher-student roles outside class.

Between them, these nine of churned out essay after essay, zipping through my first set of fifty and then my next. Today, my To Do list has an entry to think up the next fifty. How are your students, I often get asked. Enthusiastic, I reply. Sometimes, a little too enthusiastic. It is these faces that flash before my eyes when I say that out loud. It is their voices asking for another essay and it is my response – please don’t write today, guys. Let’s take a break.

Obviously, they refuse.