A Swatch From The Fabric Of Time

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It’s a shame the apocalypse hasn’t come sooner, because the women of my mother’s generation were raised to survive it. They strode in their no-nonsense shoes through rationing, poverty and a socialist economy. They conjured useful things out of nothing but thin air, intelligent focus and good intentions. They kept scores of shopkeepers on their toes, trying to keep up with their utilitarian demands: typewriter ribbon, bicycle-tube rubber cement, copper wire, raffia, crochet needles, sewing machine parts, threads and wool and yarn, trim and lace, and fabric.

Especially fabric. My mother’s generation all learned to sew. Their adventures as seamstresses meant intimate knowledge about fabric. Names, not just cotton and silk and linen, but georgette, crepe, seersucker, sharkskin and at least a dozen types of lace. They could tell you the difference between organdy and organza or satin and sateen, which fabrics have shrinkage, how they fall, how to use scissors and thread to bring a flattering skim past a chubby arse. “If I cut it on a bias, it will move like so… ”

My sister decided to have ten bridesmaids for her wedding. Uncharacteristically efficient, we bought all the fabric six months early. A deep marsala with a hint of stretch at a brilliant discount from a shop with a cool name. Two months before the wedding, the tailor measured us all up and said, “Sorry, you need at least 10 metres more.” There was no more fabric to be had at the cool shop.

"Bollywood, ad phillums, stage shows, abroad they go… but first they come here to make the outfits."

But then I remembered Anwarally’s. My mother conjuring birthday dresses for the same sister (and her twin), a gorgeous skirt for me, discussing puffed sleeves, piping, scallops, rouching... So, sample swatch in hand, I walked into the labyrinth that is Sona Shopping Centre and followed the sounds of elderly women quavering to each other and the smells of lavender talc.

Anwarally’s is larger than it ever was. From one tiny outlet it has grown into a warren of small shops stacked with row upon row of bolts of fabric like a giant child’s crayon box, some straight, some lying down, some higgledy-piggledy on the floor. You point high up, and a young man will scamper to the top and play “where’s wally” with you until you “to the left one… no no, up one… yes, that’s it!” He lands with a thump. Then unrolls the bolt out, crumples the fabric, stretches it, follows your eye to ask if the one next to this one looks better… Most importantly, if you have lost your mother, in the labyrinth or to life, the Anwarally’s staff will patiently take you through the personality of each fabric, pausing now and then to check their facts with the matriarch who sits at the cashier.

As the salesman went to the warehouse to look for a match to my marsala swatch, I looked around. The usual velours and velvets, but now also mull with a hipster bicycle print, heavy viscose stamped with images of steam-punky ships’ wheels and gold cords. It was exactly as I remembered it, except now there was a wall of shelves that caught the light weirdly. “Is that… plastic?” I asked. “Yes madam. We also have PVC and a whole range of new items,” the young man said. A couple of old ladies were grinning at my ignorance. I didn’t let it stop me. “Whatever for!?” “Costumes. Bollywood, ad phillums, stage shows, abroad they go… but first they come here to make the outfits.”

Later, Google and gossip run me a list of famous, young designers who source all their fabric needs from Anwarally’s alongside Bandra’s old Bohra and Catholic women who buy their cotton, silk and lace.

I’m considering adding learning to sew to my to-do list for growing old. At the very least I could make my future grandchildren something to wear. And if an apocalypse does come and all-weather attire must be fashioned, I know where to get the PVC.

Anwarally's, 31, Sona Shopping Centre, Hill Road, Opposite Globus, Bandra (w), Mumbai 400 050. Phone: 022 2642 2534

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