A Patchwork Quilt of Memories

This article was first published under the title ‘Quilting Stories’ on the blog run by the Hri Institute for Southasian Research and Exchange in March 2013, and was commissioned by Laxmi Murthy. I reproduce it here in memory of ‘Dadi’, my paternal grandmother, Kamla Modi. Today is her birthday. She was born on November 19, 1930, and passed away on December 18, 2006. She would have been 87 today if she had lived just a little longer.

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Dadi (Kamla Modi) with Dadaji (Indarchandra Modi)

What is your most special memory of your grandmother? Here is mine: of Dadi, my paternal grandma. When I was due to leave for Hyderabad to pursue a post graduate degree, I was being greatly fussed over. I had never spent a long time away from home. There were some words of advice, some farewell gifts but Dadi didn’t indulge me; she quietly gave me a spool of thread and a needle. “You’ll find it useful,” she said. She loved sewing, stitching, darning and making patchwork quilts, somewhat like Agusta, the grandmother in Merle Almeida’s My Godri Anthology, a new book that pieces together a collage of memories through the enduring, colourful, creative and homely metaphor of the godri or the patchwork quilt beautifully celebrated in these lines:

I know of family lore bound with twine
Carved in stone, even pickled in brine
Our godris are our diarists, our tiatrists
Our comforters in the morning mists

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(Source: Bookworm Goa)

This approach to archiving family history is not encased in the urge to meticulously document, or pore over records, or rummage through files and folders. It thrives, instead on whiffs of personal memory found in stories, recollections of conversations, objects, and allows a considerable amount of reinvention, given the nature of memory itself.

At the Mumbai launch of this book at Comet Media Foundation on March 22, 2013, Almeida shared, “My grandma died in 1990. I wanted to tell the story of an ordinary woman who had an extraordinary impact on my life. She flew no flags, climbed no mountains, expounded no ideology but she knew how to mother- perhaps that is not a fashionable thing to say. Many women think of that as a limiting role. My grandmother played it in a very empowered way, though it was not an easy life. Her husband was a sailor who spent a lot of time away from home. She had to cope with losing children too, and I remember her talking about it. In fact, she also mothered the children of her siblings. She has enriched me in many ways — emotionally, intellectually, as a person.”

Almeida, an editorial consultant based in Mumbai, was approached to work on this book by Sujata Noronha who leads Bookworm, a Goa-based organization that publishes books and also runs library services, literacy initiatives and creative thinking skills programmes for children in and out of school. The book that Almeida eventually wrote began on a different note. It was not meant to be about her grandmother’s experiences. Noronha wanted her to write a children’s book about a godri, wherein each piece in the patchwork would tell its own story.

“As part of our story programme, children bring objects from home and talk about them. One child brought a little godri with a pink lotus on it. He was a bit shy, but he brought in excitement and conversation. We launched a little project to find out who makes godris in Goa, what kind, which communities make it, what motifs they use, etc.,” says Noronha. That is how it all began and the energy spun itself into a book project about “the life and times of my beloved gran,” as Almeida says in the book, which is entirely written in verse.

This godri’s precious, my gran gave it to me
It has bits and pieces of her songs and tears
And, as you shall see, her pangs and fears

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Left to Right: Sujata Noronha, Merle Almeida, Anjali Monteiro and Nina Sabnani (Photo credit: Chandita Mukhejree, Comet Media Foundation)

The narrative is not in the words alone. A large part of it is in the illustrations done by Nina Sabnani whose work in animation films and children’s books reveal an abiding fascination for how women use needlecraft to create stitched histories. She was given a Goa immersion programme by Almeida and Noronha. Her visit to the place was framed by a hectic itinerary, which involved seeing what she calls “Hindu Goa, Christian Goa, Portuguese Goa, North Goa, South Goa — all of it.” She browsed through family albums, met godri makers, watched a play about Goa, visited local markets, and took lots of photographs of landscapes, people, cats and anthills. She also had meetings with friends and friends of friends, aunts, cousins, and all manner of relatives who lovingly shared pieces of fabric,pieces of memory. Because of this, the book has also turned out to be a tribute to other important women in Almeida’s patchwork life.

She took to sewing, thinking sails and ships
As she cut triangles off leftover slips
That beige she salvaged from a feast gown
Once softly finished in velvet down

Filmmaker and fellow Goan Anjali Monteiro, who moderated the discussion at the book launch, remarked, “Both quilting and mothering are seen as feminine preoccupations but there is so much wisdom in both that is not seen or taken for granted. Do you think of a book like this as having a discourse on gender, an appreciation of a certain world that is not given its due?”

Almeida, replied, “A quilt is something that is crafted with love and it gives you warmth. This book was not meant to be a statement as I was just telling a story. When I look back, I am glad it celebrates how needlecraft has given a voice to women. Patchwork is also about cobbling together stories that are disparate.” She has structured this book in the form of a conversation between a young girl and a curious ant who together unwrap various layers of the grandmother’s godri. She has also woven in glimpses of Goan life in the 1900s, coinciding with Agusta’s lifetime.

The evening’s discussion attempted to extend and deepen the engagement with themes emanating from this book — themes of memory, and of patchwork as an art form. “Memory begins with the self, from the search for answers to questions like: Who am I? Where do I come from?” said Heta Pandit, who has documented the work of artisans and craftsmen in Goan house-building and also conducts walking tours in historic areas of Goa. Her observations pointed to the subtle understanding that narratives of nostalgia are framed by a need to not only remember what once was but to also to establish continuities with the present.

Chandita Mukherjee, Director of Comet Media Foundation, brought in pieces of patchwork from her personal collection to show examples of how bits of cloth have been put together, either by individuals or by people working in groups. Her presentation included specimens from Maharashtra, Orissa, Rajasthan, Bengal, Kutch, Mizoram, Vietnam, Laos, China, Burma, Maldives, and also one from the World Social Forum held in Mumbai.

The makers of My Godri Anthology hope that it will inspire families to chronicle their own stories. They now intend to hold workshops with children and grandparents to help them discover the treasure of stories that live inside them, waiting to be told, and perhaps crafted into books or beautiful little godris.

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