The narrow stairway with dead spiders lurking in the corners opens into an expansive basement. All available wallspace is occupied. Long wooden shelves mounted on steel brackets line two walls, floor to ceiling, stacked with clear boxes. Layers of fabric peek through the cloudy plastic. Some boxes are labeled—tulle, batiks, corduroy, denim, cotton for kids’ nightgowns—and neatly folded in stacks. Others are a whorl of scraps: lace, chiffon, cut up sari blouses. In the back, there is a shelf stocked with beads, buttons, and sequins that are arranged like candy in jars.
There’s a huge cutting table in the middle of the room, composed of two dressers pushed back to back. A great piece of plywood rests on top, covered with a gridded plastic mat for measuring and cutting fabric. It is often strewn with scraps, scissors, plastic patterns, stacks of precut strips or squares for quilting, sample fabrics awaiting auditions for the next project, or the rotary cutter with a retractable blade that once sliced off a sliver of Dadi’s finger. The hefty wooden drawers of both dressers overflow with projects in various stages of progress. There is irreplaceable beauty in this room full of unfinished projects.
“In Bombay, the flat we lived in was the size of half your living room,” Dadi always says. Every morning, she and her family rolled up their cots and stowed them away for the day. They shared one cupboard for all their clothes. Dadi owned a few sets of school uniforms, some kurtas to wear at home, and a nightgown—folded in neat stacks at all times. Each sibling was allowed two wooden pencils for the entire school year, so they used every pencil to the stub. (Now she has an entire table in one nook of her sewing room that is furnished with tins of sharpened colored pencils. Each tin contains twenty shades of the same color, a medley of various brand names collected over the years. There she can sketch project ideas and practice mandala designs to her heart’s content. The woody fragrance of pencil shavings lingers above the wastebasket.)
When the siblings quarreled, their mother would press a few coins into their hands. All bad feelings forgotten, the children held hands and skipped down the street to buy kulfi, sugarcane juice, or taffy molded into fantastic shapes. These days, Dadi is tempted most by specialty fabrics and upholstery samples and lace trims. Wherever she travels, she is drawn like a magnet to fabric shops. Every time she promises herself that she’ll just take a peek and not buy anything new. Every time, she walks out with at least a yard of some tantalizing textile.
Dadi has a special kinship with irons. As a school girl, after swimming every morning, she ironed her hair to dry it fast so she wouldn’t be late to class. Sometimes she’d have burn marks on the side of her face after performing this operation. She uses a hair dryer now and gently chides my sisters and me when we wear our hijabs over hair still damp from the shower. “You have a hair dryer! Why don’t you use it?”
Today, irons are one of the many tools of her trade. Her ironing table is streaked with color from experimental techniques gone awry, such as setting crayon or colored pencil into fabric, or melting shavings of crayon wax on paper to make colorful mirror-image designs (she has a separate table and iron for normal use). She uses the iron to fuse fabric to fabric for her appliqué quilts. She also collects vintage irons that are meant to be heated on a bed of coals and uses them as weights to hold down fabric while she cuts it.
Naturally, all motion in the sewing room revolves around the sewing machine. Its base is set below the surface of the table, which is sprinkled with bits of stray thread, thread spools, and bobbin. A fat tomato pin cushion bristles with yellow and magenta straight pins. There is a narrow compartment on the right hand side of the sewing machine for storing a stitch opener, thread snips, and the nut pick Dadi uses as a sewing stiletto to guide the fabric under the presser foot. (Dadi is an expert in wielding a nut pick for its intended use as well, especially with pecans: she knows how to apply just the right amount of pressure with the nutcracker so as not to pulverize the inside of the pecan in the process of splitting the shell. Then with the pick, she patiently pries away the bits of shell, like peeling a boiled egg, and extracts the two halves of the pecan after removing the hard woody sheath between them. She then bestows her prize upon a frustrated grandchild nearby who presides over a pile of pecan dust.)
A home is incomplete without a sewing machine, even if that home is a tiny flat in a Bombay highrise that is the size of half my living room; even if the sewing machine is powered manually. Dadi would sit on the floor, pumping the pedal with her feet as her mother sewed. When little girls were invited to a party, Dadi’s mother would take one of the few dressy saris she owned and pin it down to Dadi’s size with the skill of a seamstress. These saris were family treasures, textile heirlooms passed from mother to daughter. I can only imagine the touch of that richly embroidered silk against my skin. I wonder if any of those saris accompanied Dadi across oceans and decades and are biding their time in clear plastic boxes, awaiting a new life—perhaps as part of a magnificent ancestral quilt.
Dadi’s sewing room is in the basement of the farm house, which she moved into in the early spring of 2020, just as the world was poised to shut down due to the pandemic. When my grandparents bought their 5.5 acre property, the house was for them and the surrounding land was for my father, who had always dreamed of raising animals. We soon dubbed the newly acquired land “Arastu Acres” (or simply “the farm”).
Tucked away in an unincorporated area five minutes away from my family’s ordinary suburban subdivision in Elgin, Illinois, the farm was a priceless blessing during the pandemic. It became our haven, our playspace when going to public parks and playgrounds was not an option. My siblings and I would take a much needed break from e-learning and help my father with his chores. Every day was a new adventure, especially when we helped him set up a corral in fresh pasture for our herd of steer, sheep, and goats. We trooped after him like ducklings, sometimes with bundles of electric fencing on our shoulders. If we didn’t meet our quota of fun through simply performing chores, we practiced archery or climbed a tree or kicked around a soccer ball for a few minutes. As restrictions on gatherings slowly lifted, the farm was where we invited family and friends for open air picnics where we could all keep our distance.
Whenever my family and I came to the farm in the early days of lockdown, Dadi would bundle up in her black down jacket, pull up the hood, grab her collapsible trekking poles, and put on the waterproof slip-on shoes that she bought just for the farm’s seasonal muddiness. Then she would make the trek from the house down the slick grassy slope toward the barn with careful, deliberate steps. She performed this ritual just to see us and talk with us (at a safe distance of six feet).
I imagine she spotted us through the window in her bedroom that faces the barn and the back pastures. Or maybe she would finish up prayer in the all-season wood-paneled “lodge” that used to be a screened porch, peer out the window through her binoculars, and notice us grandkids, very visible in our poofy winter coats. Or maybe she’d be sewing and see us through the glass sliding doors of the walkout basement, frolicking with the goats, giving each other rides in the Gorilla Cart, or tossing a frisbee once the chores were done.
When we played frisbee, she was unafraid to give it a shot. She would transfer both of her trekking poles to one hand, or hand them off to one of the younger grandkids who always coveted those magical walking sticks, and fling the disk toward one of us. Sometimes the throw reached, and sometimes it didn’t. But nothing mattered except the fact that we had a cool grandma who could throw a frisbee and make impressive single-handed catches.
To this day, I am mesmerized by Dadi’s stories about her time as a Girl Guide in India. She tells us about scavenger hunts in the woods during which arrows made of pebbles and sticks pointed the way. Not only did they learn how to build a fire, but also how to cook over a fire. Most importantly, they were taught how to grip a ladle—firmly, confidently, not with dainty fingers. At the end of the day, their pillow would be their spare change of clothes folded neatly under their sleepy heads.
Just a few years ago, not long after Dadi recovered from knee-replacement surgery, my grandparents joined my family on a four-week road trip. We crisscrossed California and camped and hiked in nearly all of its National Parks. She came with us on many of those hikes with her trusty walking stick or trekking poles.
I can’t remember (or imagine) a single point in time when Dadi was not active—doing yoga, taking a class, teaching a class, spending time with kids and grandkids. As a child, boredom was banned from her household, blotted out of her dictionary, nonexistent in her vocabulary (and it stayed that way once she had children). If she and her brothers had nothing else to do, they literally jumped off the walls—practicing a rudimentary form of parkour.
On days with nice weather, instead of taking the bus, she went to school on foot. That way, she could save the pocket change she was allotted for the bus fare in order to buy some snacks. During the monsoon season (when clothes didn’t dry in the humid air; her family placed freshly washed clothes over an upturned colander on the stove to dry), she waded through the flooded streets in knee-high boots—much like the galoshes we have now on the farm—as she made the three mile trek to school.
I’m sure she relives some of those memories now, through the farm. That first spring (the Covid spring), parts of the farm were flooded for a solid month due to snowmelt and rain. My father bought galoshes for all the frequent farm-goers.
When we explored the back field and traipsed through long grass and prickly thistles, she followed us as far as the uneven ground would permit. Sometimes we stumbled across rotting turnips that were planted by the previous owners to attract deer during the hunting season. When we went past the gate that divided our property from the forest preserve and into the woods, she still ventured as far as she was able—until there were too many logs to clamber over, or the water level in the flooded marshlands became too high. She stood on an island of dried yellow grass and watched us splash our way through the water, legs submerged almost to our knees, marshy water sometimes able to circumvent the protection of our rubberized armor. I remember how she laughed when my second youngest sister had to stand on one leg and empty her leaky galoshes of water every few minutes.
As a young girl on her way to her grandmother’s house, Dadi vividly remembers leaning over the front railing on the top tier of a double decker bus as it passed the slums on the city’s fringe. She gaped at the huts made of tin cans beaten into flimsy sheets, and then she saw the roofs. They were draped with quilts laid out to dry, made of old clothes, torn clothes, all stitched together into a medley of color. They enchanted her and never released her from their spell.
It wasn’t long before she found her true calling in life: textile art. Decades later, as a mother and grandmother, on a visit to Bombay, Dadi passed by the same sight where her passion for quilting put down its first roots. She fumbled for her phone—this was her chance to capture this tapestry of color for posterity. The bus zoomed past before she could take her photo.
Now, Dadi curates a portfolio of screenshots on her laptop that are pulled from Facebook posts about the Bombay of her childhood. She has thousands of stories at her fingertips. She waits for a grandkid to come her way who is ready to listen.
If she gets tired of waiting, she brings the story to life. She brings the story to us. Like the time she took a black and white photo of the school she attended as a child, traced the image onto fabric, and then stitched each detail by hand.
Or like the bench that sits in her living room, painted with iridescent, metallic hues. It used to be part of the wrought-iron gate to a distant cousin’s house in Hyderabad, India. When the cousin moved away and the house was about to be demolished, Dadi got part of the gate shipped to her house in Columbia, South Carolina and had it made into a bench by a blacksmith. Eventually, she painted it to look the way it does today. It has followed Dadi from South Carolina all the way to “Arastu Acres.”
Dadi’s latest art quilt is one of the many projects that have been sparked by the screenshots or photos she so diligently compiles. It is a vibrant portrait of the farm as viewed from her house, and she submitted it to a local quilt show. Free motion quilting recreates the textures of the clouds and the furrows of mown grass. Carefully selected fabrics bring to life the trees and the brick red barn. Miniature cows, goats, chicken, and sheep cut out from fabric dot the landscape. The quilt even features the bonfire pit, an old stump, the white fence with four old wagon wheels mounted on it, the Gorilla Cart parked by the barn.
Asiyah Arastu is a second-year student in Weinberg hoping to major in Creative Writing and minor in Arabic. She serves as a content editor for for Al Bayan magazine and is member of Hobart House. She also plays Ultimate Frisbee with Northwestern’s women’s frisbee team and likes to camp at National Parks with her family. In her free time, she likes watching Turkish and British period dramas, going on long walks while listening to an audiobook, and agonizing over not being productive enough as a so-called creative writer.