Thursday, 29 December 2016

A basket of nostalgia

Sikki baskets (c) CK Kalyan

As the Buddha Air plane soared off in the sky, I got ready with my camera to click the bird’s eye view Kathmandu Valley from above. And then suddenly I saw something familiar. It was a plot of sikki grass near the tarmac. The golden colour stem with purple-reddish stamen at the top is really easy to differentiate it from other grass.

And this was only a decade ago.

The sikki grass, not an ubiquitous species any more, was found in abundance in Kathmandu – before it started taking the shape of a concrete jungle.

You might wonder why I’m not talking about the basket I’m so nostalgic about and beating around the bush instead. Actually, this is how the basket was woven. 

Circa 1980, returning from school, throwing the bag in a corner and running away to play with my friends was a daily routine for me. But one day when I returned from school, I decided to stay back and help my mother. My mother had brought a bale of sikki grass that day and was busy with sorting out the best ones from the lot.

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She had brought the sikki from Balkumari in adjacent Lalitpur. One day when I followed her to my relative’s house via Chyasal, I could see a jungle of sikki grass in the area – taller and stronger than its species found in the Terai.

Sikki grasses generally grow in marshy, wetlands and near water sources. The place I am talking about is near the convergence of Bagmati and Manahara Rivers. It was a perfect site for the grass’ healthy growth. Today, the marshy land to the south of a cantilever bridge has turned into a hardened piece of land and houses have mushroomed up just like in the rest of the Kathmandu Valley.  

In Terai too, these days, the sikki grass is a rare species – thanks to the use of pesticides, fertilisers and encroachment of public land, not to mention the lowering water tables. The bunds bordering the fields used to have sikki grass but nowadays it has been replaced by the lentils. The commercialisation and trying to get the maximum out of the remaining fragmented land pieces, people have almost pushed the grass to extinction which used to grow in abundance on the bunds, fallow land and near water sources. 

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The bale of sikki grass was a thing of amusement for the onlookers – my neigbours. After sorting, my mother started tearing the sikki stems into two halves. I had done this before during my winter break and I had enjoyed my grandma’s challenge to split the sikki stems. So, I too started helping her. My neighbours also joined in out of their curiosity and soon the bale of grass was reduced to a bunch of golden splinters.

A sikki stem never breaks in between if you are a little cautious with pulling the two ends after cutting the tip into two with a blade – or with your nails.

Then for the next few days I could see my mother busy with keeping the sikki stems on the sun to dry and collecting them in the evening.

After few days, the sikki stems had turned into glossy and flexible but sturdy splinters.

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Then my mother started weaving small baskets out of the sikki stems. The weaving is a cumbersome process – putting a fistful of kans grass and coiling them with sikki splinters by using a needle like equipment called takuwa

She wove two small baskets out and handed me one to eat my daily breakfast. We call these small baskets pauti and it is common to eat beaten rice and other non-sticky items as snacks in the rural villages. However, with the availability of steel and plastic containers the pauti is no more a common item.

Read: Weave your own basket from kans and sikki grasses

Another basket was for my little sister. Though she was just a toddler, my mother made sure that both of us never fought for one basket.

Then for the next fortnight she kept herself aloof. She wove a very beautiful basket and then she started covering it with colourful threads, creating comprehensive geometric patterns. The final product was – in one word a ‘wow’!

She carefully hid it inside the cupboard and then when I returned from school, she took me to a corner and said, “Bauwa, this beautiful basket is for your would-be wife.”

She continued, “Even if I die, make sure you ask your father to gift it to my daughter-in-law.” Then she started sobbing. I was moved by her gesture and then I started crying too.

And then after a year and half, she left us. For ever. To be with the gods and angels.

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After my mother’s demise, I took that basket to my grandmother who lived in the village, almost 500 kilometres far from Kathmandu where I used to stay with my father.

She gently wrapped the basket in a piece of cloth and put it inside a cupboard my mother had brought along with her as a dowry.

And the basket stayed there for more than two decades.

My grandmother would remind me to marry and ask me to open the cupboard and check whether the basket was intact. I refrained from doing so since every time I saw that basket tears rolled down from my eyes.

I could never forget my mother’s love for me. I don’t think there is any individual who doesn’t long for a mother’s love. 

Then the D-Day arrived, just a day after my 30th birthday. My grandmother didn’t’ forget to gift my would-be wife the jewellery in the sikki basket woven by my mother.

And that was the last day I saw the beautiful gift. I never enquire again about it. I have handed it over to the rightful owner!

Till this day, the beautifully woven sikki basket holds a special place in my heart. It’s nostalgic. And to keep away the nostalgia, I have planted a handful of sikki grass near a pond in my village!