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  • A Toda friend

    While sorting out papers, letters, slides and photographs as a necessary antecedent to moving house (a moving experience in more ways than one: the past keeps appearing in more rapid flashbacks than in an Ingmar Bergman film). I came upon an archival picture of beautiful Toda woman that I had taken in 1975 in New Delhi. It was Pelgiji, with her hair worn in ringlets, deep set eyes and a wonderful dignity of bearing. What a presence! Befriending her was not difficult and I found that what we shared as persons seemed much larger than what we did not share in customs and rituals. But let me begin at the beginning of the story.

    The year was 1975, the month, November. Delhi was pleasantly cool in the early winter and the Mandi House area was the hub of the Universe, Naturally! A crafts show with a difference was being held, titled "Craftswomen at Work." The women had gathered from all over the country and the exhibition area in the interior of Rabindra Bhavan had become a hive of activity. One could see the process of something being made, seeing it grow, evolve, become more complex, get embellished or get transformed. The variety was astounding: Zardosi from U.P., delicate bamboo baskets from Tripura, a Kalamkari hanging from Andhra Pradesh - the list was unending, seemingly. It was greatly satisfying to make a transaction directly with the artist. While moving around, one came upon two Toda women, doing their traditional red and blue embroidery, on table linen and household linen, as well as on shawls. The Ooty of one's childhood was instantly revived and I spoke to them. "You can speak Tamil?", they asked with joy. "There is no one here we can talk to. Our words are getting stuck in our throats." I invited them to have a meal with me in my small apartment at the College and then go sightseeing on Sunday. When asked what they wanted to see in Delhi, they said, "Gandhi Samadhi" and "Nehru Samadhi". I included the Red Fort also in the itinerary and they were thoroughly happy. At lunch and in transit to the various sites, we talked. I found that the name Pelgiji meant the sound of silver bells and she lived up to her name, while her companion took part mostly with nods and smiles. Pelgiji told me that the land that the Todas held dated back to a pact with the British. Each family had access to 15 acres of land, which the young male got when he turned 21. No one was allowed to cultivate more, even if some land was lying fallow. Only men could enter the house of prayer and the entire community was cohesive and tightly controlled.

    Pelgiji mentioned that her husband, Muthakken would be coming to Delhi for the Republic Day the next year and that she would suggest that he call on me. (That cordial visit did happen).

    I got a standing invitation to visit Ooty as their guest - an offer I regret not taking then. Twenty five years later, if I do go, will they remember me? I wonder.

    Source: The Hindu, Folio

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