The Quilt

Sutapa Chattopadhyay
Sutapa Chattopadhyay


At the National Museum of American History in Washington DC, I came across a new exhibit that intrigued me. I happened to find it serendipitously, while looking for something else. A few rooms in the museum were dedicated to quilts that were woven by people who had either been born into slavery or were poor sharecroppers during the Reconstruction years; quilts that came from plantations in the South. The quilts told unique, diverse stories of pain, perseverance, and the private love of each of the artists who had made them. They were quite remarkable in both form and content.

I was struck by the similarities between these quilts and the quilts of my childhood. It dawned upon me at that moment that we humans are the same at heart, and our recorded history is often written by unknown artists.

My fascination with quilts started from when I was a young girl in Patna, India. My grandmother gave me one when I was about 6 years old. It was made of small pieces of cloth in beautiful, symmetrical patterns against a white backdrop. But there were some tableaus, as well, stitched into the cloth which were meant to tell her personal stories. At the very center was a piece of cloth in the shape of a little girl, with her hair tied in a single short braid. The girl was skipping happily and running, it seems, towards a rising sun. The braid was very much like my braid, so I asked her what it meant. She said:
“This girl is you, my dear child. I want you to be as carefree and happy as this sweet child in the quilt. I want you to be free to do whatever you want, chasing your dreams every day with the rising sun.”
Much later, learning my grandmother’s history as a homemaker in the early twentieth century, I understood what she meant. It took many years for me to understand the core ideas behind her creation. 
She was married when she was barely 9 years old, too young to have an adult relationship with a man, 15 years her senior. After the day of the wedding, and with the marriage not consummated, she stayed in her father’s home until she reached childbearing age. Then, she came to her in-laws’ home and became a part of her husband’s household, as a new bride, the lowest member in the strict hierarchy of the family. She was there to take care of a large joint family along with her other sisters-in-law, who were closer to her than her own sisters. One of her duties was to raise the large brood of children in the household, not just her own, but born to the many members of the extended clan, her husband’s brothers, cousins, sometimes sisters and other relatives. None of this was unusual. This was the story of a girl born in that period of history.

The sisterhood sustained these women. It was their collective job to run the family’s day-to-day activities; to help prepare the food, to serve, to raise the children. They were the last to eat, after everyone had had their lunch or dinner. They were the last to go to bed, after everyone had retired. They were always inside the innermost sanctum of the cavernous houses unless it was a large picnic outside, an outing for the whole family, usually strictly supervised by the matriarch. Every one of the daughters-in-law, though, had to veil her face with the borders of her saree during those occasions, so that her face was not visible.

But quilting was an activity they learned growing up in their husband’s homes that was pleasurable. These works of decorative art were made in a large room, with just the women in the room. Everyone would be seated on the floor on large handmade bamboo rugs. Large pieces of spare cloth were put in the center. The women cut and stitched on the floor, laughing, and gossiping. This activity took place mostly in winter.

The warm comforters, the artistic ones, symbolized life, or their aspirations for themselves and for those who received them as gifts. Unable to express themselves, these comforters were a vessel for their inner desires, their sorrows, their tears, their hidden wishes. Some of those going through a rough patch in their life would have their teardrops fall on the newly made quilts, mingling with the needlepoint and the colorful threads, to evaporate on the white background.

I used to hug my grandma’s quilt, trying to deeply breathe in the scent of the fabric while wrapping it closely around myself on a cold Indian winter night. Did I taste the salt of a teardrop there? Did I see a little drop of blood where she could have pricked herself with the needle? And what was that in a corner, pieces of cloth cut like a palanquin with a woman inside? Was it her tear-stained face peeping out, leaving her father’s house, leaving her abode of love and everyone she knew, to venture into an uncertain future, a future in which she had no hand in making any decision for herself?

And who was that baby in another corner, angelic, with cherubic dark curls, on a little makeshift hammock, with the mother in the background, busy making pickles? Was that the first child she lost to meningitis when she was eighteen? The child, the baby of her dreams, snatched from her by Yama, the God of Death? Could she still hear him call out for her, grasp her fingers with his little ones?

The quilt also comforted me when I was unhappy or depressed. When I saw my own self-determination being taken away from me by an indifferent patriarchy, I mingled my tears with hers as I hugged the quilt and I became one with her, although she was long gone.

You see, a quilt speaks to me even now. It carries those hidden sorrows of my beloved grandmother across the thousands of miles separating her from a girl born in a new age in an independent India, a girl emigrating to another land. It tells me to carry on the heritage of fearless women; to do what she would have wanted me to do through her hidden messages. It also tells me to preserve a piece of my dearest grandma, who paid with her blood, sweat and tears, for being born during an indifferent time, but who somehow overcame it to live to a grand old age.

She would have wanted me to learn that lesson of survival. She would have wanted me to accept my fate with grace, but to make a statement in my own way. She would have wanted me to live the way she made the quilt: to try to live in the confines of a situation with equanimity, not to make too many waves but to finally assert myself in a unique, meaningful way. I may not have stuck by some of her desires for me, but I certainly understood the message of stoicism when I saw it in the quilt, her legacy, that she left just for me.
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Bio: Ms. Sutapa Chattopadhyay is a lifelong technologist who has worked for more than 38 years as a software engineer. In her spare time, she loves reading and writing. Her favorite genres are biography, history, literature of the nineteenth century, and modern classics.  She also gets inspiration from writers of Indian origin such as Jhumpa Lahiri.

A short essay of hers has been recently published in an anthology of memoirs “A Body of Memories: A collection of personal memoirs and essays” edited by Lopamudra Banerjee.

1 comment :

  1. Vey realistically brought out the feelings of the girl child of those days. I still remember about an elder cousin sister of mine, and imagine she was the first of a total brood of 11 children of my aunt and the difference in age was about 17 years and literally she was like a mother figure to all cousins of our age when we lived as a joint family in our native village in Kerala. It was very normal to have children in double digits as the husbands stayed in cities like Mumbai (Bombay ) , Madras etc working as stenos ( in those days you will see every second steno of big companies was a Malayalee from Kerala invariably) and visited the family once a year when he presented a lot of goodies and dresses to the all the children in the household and more often than not a little baby in the making for the wife. Those were the days of yore. Beautifully written Sutapa.

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