I met her when I was looking for a surahi for the family -- those were the days when refrigerators were uncommon in middle-class homes -- at Kutcha Bazaar, an unwelcoming, pencil-thin lane with drains probably forgotten by municipal workers, which lay right behind the high-end shops.
As I sauntered along, I suddenly found myself transfixed by a face in a window. It was as if the woman, apparition-like, had been there for a thousand years, an oil painting framed in a grimy, wooden window with rusty bars.
Time seemed to lose relevance as I gazed at the face, almost motionless, bespectacled, with furrows dug by years gone by, topped in white. A twisted tin plate proclaimed in black: 'Rama noor artwurrk'. I could not help being drawn to the dank passage leading to the first-floor room.
As I stood in the doorway, she glanced up for a moment to reveal eyes at once distant, mystical and enigmatic. But the ancient woman, exuding the quietness of the cloister, for that was my first impression of her, ignored my presence as she focused on an exquisite criss-cross design with a needle. All around the room, with crumbling brick walls, lay breathtaking work on fabric, some sensuous and otherworldly.
There were pearls, beads and sequins. An unbelievable range from mirror work to chikankari and chinar leaf designs inspired by Kashmir craftsmen. There were also half-complete pieces in dark turquoise, alizarin and lavender, and in gold and silver.
"Do you have a needle or a magic wand?" I said. She did not respond and, after what I thought was an eon, said softly: "Do you wish to buy?"
"Yes, for my wife. A wedding anniversary gift. The embroidery must be unique; you must never make it for anybody else."
She peered coldly into my eyes and looked out of the window. "It may cost you a small fortune," she said. "You don't seem to be endowed with patience. But you will have to wait, may be for a year or so, for the magic, as you call it, to reveal itself on the cloth. So, you must also pray every morning and go barefoot from your home to Pir Baba's mazaar on the outskirts of the town every day till my work is finished. The dress will bring good fortune to the one wearing it, as it will be made at the mazaar. Besides, you will have to pay half of what you planned to spend on the gift, one-fourth in advance. You must tell the truth about your budget for the Pir is said to strike liars down silently but surely."
The unusual demand was beyond my means and physical ability to fulfil; but for some reason I agreed, with much hesitation and against my self-enunciated rationalistic principles.
I returned the next day with the advance in brand new currency notes. "Remember, keep your promise for your wife's sake, if you truly love her. Persevere in your worship of the Almighty and have patience," she said, keeping the money in a brass box and handing over a square strip of silk which she claimed was from Ajmer Sharief.
Months passed as I went through my ordeal, walking barefoot, in hot weather and in cold, in wind and in rain, and prayed as never before. People scoffed at me and neighbours even declared that I was turning mad. Quite unlike my usual self, I was obsessed, single-minded in achieving my goal and fulfilling my promise, come what may.
As the anniversary day approached, one rainy evening I learnt that the little-known master craftswoman had passed away in her sleep in a room at the mazaar. Early next morning, a young woman showed up at our house with a polythene bag containing clothes. "My mother completed it the day before she left us," she said, handing over the bag.
I do not know whether the dress, which still draws profuse compliments at social gatherings, has brought luck to my wife, but the experience certainly taught me a few secrets of success.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com