Stories woven into a Kashmiri shawl

  • Renuka Narayanan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Mar 15, 2015 14:11 IST

Ram is your soul. Sita is your heart. Ravan is your mind that steals your heart from your soul. Lakshman is your conscience, always with you and active on your behalf. Hanuman is your intuition and courage that help retrieve your heart to re-animate your soul.

These views were shared with me recently in Delhi by a Kashmiri Muslim over a cup of fragrant kahva. I had gone to his shop with a friend to find a birthday present for yet another friend. The Kashmiri gentleman had a Lebanese buyer with him, who was in the throes of placing an order. But he came out to chat with us for my friend was his second-generation customer, a Kashmiri Hindu originally from Srinagar. It was through this Kashmiri Hindu friend that I had been directed to his shop some years ago.

My errand then was to get a fragile old Kashmiri shawl repaired, to have its two faded jamewar panels reattached to a plain new pashmina base. The shawl had belonged to my aunt. It was exceedingly modest compared with the grand shawls but precious to me as a keepsake. It had gone back to Kashmir for repair in the nineties and yet again in the noughties. I was reconciled to spending a chunk of my hard-earned money on its repair every decade. But when it tore for the third time, I was about to leave India on an assignment for several years and called my Kashmiri Hindu friend for help.

"I will have to send this to Kashmir for repair. It will come back in four to six months depending on the craftsmen," said the gentleman I was referred to. "Oh, but I'm going away for a few years and don't know when I'll be able to collect it," I said. The gentleman looked at me sternly. "Do you know the value of these panels? People cut up such antique pieces into fragments, frame them and sell them piece by piece. And you want to leave it with me?"

"Sure, why not? You were introduced by an old friend who is your old customer," I said, telling him about the shawl's sentimental value. The gentleman smiled and offered me a cup of kahva. As we talked, we discovered our shared interest in mystical teachings. I went away without another thought and eventually got an email with pictures of the repaired shawl. I picked it up just a few months ago. Although he was away then, his shop assistants produced it within minutes.

On this visit he told us how his elderly spiritual guide in Kashmir, a very old Muslim seeker, had explained the Ramayana to him years ago as a holy book. This Sufi interpretation had lit up his understanding, he said, and made him realise how every holy book contained an uplifting message for humanity. I thought wistfully of how my long-dead aunt and grandmother from faraway South India had explained the Ramayana to me just so as a deep spiritual message that was woven and embroidered as a story to ensure that we kept it always. Alas, that it had unravelled again.

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