This photo reminds Ammamma of the few good days she had as an unmarried woman. It was taken at Vishnu photo studio near Magadi road on 7th January 1969. Everything she is wearing in this picture was bought with her own money. She is wearing a black sari with gold border, and her mother’s antique neck-piece.
The glasses are from a local street in Bangalore and the pearl bag is from Bombay. She loved to dress up and get her pictures taken. It almost became like a routine. She would pick a sari, buy everything required to go with the outfit – matching bangles, bindi, footwear and even hair accessories and go all the way across the city to get her picture taken. She said that it wasn’t too expensive to get the photo taken; it cost her around two rupees.
Ammamma’s family has an unfortunate history with girl children. They could never have any. Even if any girl children were born, they would die within a few days. That’s why Ammamma’s birth was a miracle. She was born in Haladi, Kundapura at her ancestral house. When the family discovered that it was a girl child, they pierced her ears and nose and buried her in the field adjacent to their house. Ironically, this was done to prevent her from dying. They did it to keep her alive because the burial and later – the retrieval were supposed to symbolize that she was dead and had been reborn again.
After a couple of years, they moved to Bangalore looking for a better life. It was here that Ammamma went to school. She speaks about the struggles she faced when she had to walk all the way to her school which was eight miles from her house. If she left for school early in the morning she would only come home late in the evening. After coming back she had to help out her parents. She did her primary school in Shankar Matt Government School for four years and later shifted to a school near Gandhi Bazaar for middle and high school. She had to take a bus and walk for two miles to get back home after school. She did this most unwillingly because she had to cross a cemetery to get home. And one day she saw a body hanging from a tree and never went back to school after that – not even to collect her certificates.
She got into fashion after she dropped out of school in 10th standard. She always had a creative perspective towards things. She never asked anyone to teach her instead she watched and learnt. In this way she was very quick at grasping and learning new things. She learnt how to stitch clothes by watching her neighbour do it.
Soon she started helping out her tailor stitch clothes and make new designs. She never took money for this unless someone insisted too much. She made quite a lot of money from it which she sometimes saved up and bought saris with. The tailor, whom she helped, returned the favour by buying things she wanted from Bombay. Each time he went to Bombay he would ask her what she wanted and she would give him a list.
She secretly mentioned to me that women during those times did not wear bras and she specially went looking for it in Chickpet and that’s when the women in her locality were fascinated and then started wearing bras. She was almost like a trendsetter in her area. People adored her for her sense of style. She was so conscious about her style that she never wore the same sari twice. Even to this day, people borrow saris and jewellery from her to wear on special occasions. She hoards clothes, accessories and trinkets. She has three closets filled with saris and matching petticoats. There are many colours and materials in there that I haven’t seen before. The older she gets, the more difficult it is for us to convince her to share her things, even with her children.
After she got married she got busy with life and taking care of kids. She still had a noticeable sense of style and she even passed it on to her kids. Two of her kids picked up on that pretty quickly; unfortunately my mother wasn’t one of them. She has stitched clothes for all of her grandchildren. We all have crocheted sweaters with funky buttons as souvenirs from our childhood. For most of us in the family, Ammamma’s passion for styling is a happy memory of our childhood.
If one part of her life was dominated by her sense of style, the other was dominated by boothas. Ammamma’s family believed in another form of God called ‘bootha’. So the belief is that before any auspicious event the families are supposed to honour the bootha’s existence. If the family does not do so it is said that the bootha will cause trouble and in some cases not let the event occur.
Ammamma has told me many bootha stories. One of the most prominent bootha incidents happened when she was getting married. All the preparations were taking place. To acknowledge the bootha’s existence, Ammamma’s elders were supposed to honour it by keeping a coconut in a certain place. But in the busy schedule of marriage arrangements, Ammamma’s father forgot to keep the coconut.
After a few days into the preparation, Ammamma and her family were hearing weird sounds. They tried to investigate into it. This continued for a few days. One night, Ammamma heard someone throwing stones on tables, she woke everyone up and everyone looked around but they could not find anything. The next night they heard sounds of utensils being thrown around. These were special utensils that were brought home to prepare food for the marriage ceremony.
Three days before the ceremony, more and more weird things started to happen. My grandmother was very scared to get married at this point. Later someone asked my great- grandfather about the bootha. He then realised that he had not kept a coconut for the bootha. He did the required ritual and all the noises and other weird things stopped happening.
This tradition is still continued in my family. But I wonder why every time we go to Mangalore to visit my paternal family, they keep a coconut aside.
It seems that the ghosts Ammamma speaks about do not want to leave her. There are so many.
When Ammamma’s family first moved to Bangalore, they lived in a very small locality and could hear their neighbours all the time. One of the neighbours was a family of four – mother, her son, his wife, and their baby girl. One day there was news that the baby died but no one knew how. A few days later, the mother also died.
Soon after this, there was news that a new baby had been born to another woman in the same locality and that both baby and mother were experiencing strange things. When the baby was put to sleep, it would begin crying but the baby would not be found in its crib. It was seen being dragged around and left in some corner.
A few days later, there was rumour that the baby that died was actually killed by her father because she was a girl. The mother could not stand this and killed herself a few days after the incident. Now that everybody got to know about this, they started thinking that the mother’s ghost might be troubling the new born and her mother. The residents of the locality began spinning a narrative about how bad the ghost was because she couldn’t see other mothers have a bond with their children. Obviously no one said anything to the man who murdered his baby. Ammamma and her family later moved out of that locality because of many such things that were happening there.
Years later when Ammamma got married and had her fifth child, she felt like the ghost was back in her life and was troubling them. She lived by herself with five children because my grandfather had to work in a far-off place. The first few days, she just heard footsteps on the roof and her son crying and falling sick.
Later she would feel someone moving around the house. This continued for a few days and one night she could feel herself floating in the air. She felt helpless; she couldn’t move and process what was happening. She was very worried about her children especially her new born. She was petrified after that incident; even though all this sounded like something to do with sleep paralysis, Ammamma was very sure this was the same ghost that haunted her and her neighbours when they were little.
After my grandfather came home, Ammamma told him these stories and begged him to change houses. They shifted houses and she did not experience boothas anymore. Even today when she narrates this story she is filled with fear, thinking how she got through times like those and made it to this day.
I think her style scared the boothas away.
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