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A collaboration over too much coffee.
coffee and pen

06 March, 2005


All my life I have been sleeping with a paash-baalish.

Paash-baalishes are cylindrical pillows that you hug with your arms and drape around with your legs when you go to sleep; the closest English word may be bolster or side-pillow. Paash-baalish is a Bengali word - where paash means side and baalish is pillow. The Persian origin of baalish (as also of takiyaa), and the variation in this word among North Indian languages, makes one wonder if the notion of pillow came to India only in medieval times.

Paash-baalishes are filled with cotton - not the fluffy stuff that you see in medicine boxes, but the real thing that floats down from trees and that you make diyaas from - complete with the black seeds that are slightly larger than mustard, which you can feel when you pinch through the fabric. Occasionally these would pop out of the packaging and then we would play marbles, shooting them at imaginary objects across the room. The baalish had a form-fitting cover with drawstrings, and in my grandmother's time they were always white, kept scrupulously clean in a magical process that we children never bothered about. With the crasser trends of modernity, I increasingly find coloured pillow-covers - the solids are still bearable, but some multicoloured prints, like green with paisley yellow motifs, makes me quite unwell, I can't quite say why.

Every year after the Durga Pujas, during the lazy sunsplashed mornings when we would be studying how Aurangzeb beheaded his brother Darah-Shikoh, or the miseries inflicted on the world by Wilde's Selfish Giant, we would hear them come, twanging their one-string cotton shredders down the lane and chanting - "Cotton-shredding! Cotton-shredding!" And on a certain day, after the winter trunks had been opened and sunned, my grandmother would hail them from the window and then they would come and sit on the courtyard, surrounded by the entrails from the mattresses and quilts and a few pillows and occasionally even my paash-baalish. They would twang the cotton where it had smudged together, and re-stitch the cases with their oversized needles, and they would indulge the curiosity of us children as we sat around trying to pocket the occasional errant fluff. Mostly it was a balding man with a beard and a younger accomplice, both in sturdy shirts layered with dirt, but sometimes when the regular crew was delayed it could be a solitary man. Once they had settled, a few neighbours would also join in with more quilts and mattresses. Come evening they would take their money, eat the proffered snacks, and disappear from our lives until next year.

My paash-baalishes grew with me - as a baby I had a small one the shape of a soft overgrown sausage about a foot long - it's still there somewhere in my mother's cupboard of things-that-must-never-be-thrown-away, along with the mustard-seed pillow, the size of a Gray's Anatomy book, which is used for newly-born babies. As a teenager growing up at my grandfather's I had the adult version, and ensconced in its gentle softness I would drift off to sleep each night.

How hollow it sounds when you call the same thing "bolster" - it then becomes something formal that you keep on your divan for your guests to recline on - an impersonal part of the environment, that takes its role in the public gaze of day, rather than in the privacy of your bed at night. Somehow, this public bolster goes more with a kothaa or the moneylender's than with the comfort of sleep. My paash-baalish, with its warm cotton, was comforting in the winters and absorbing in the summers, and over eighteen years of innocence it was beautifully comfortable in sleep. Of course there was also a temptation in it's size, and there were times when many of us cousins would be running around the house, pelting each other with war-cries and paash-baalishes, much to the dismay of our aunts.

And then came the day, after so many skirmishes with words and equations, that I went off to hostel, where I was to learn great things and take my first steps on my path to immortality. Alas, there was no paash-baalish there. What I did not realize was that with the paash-baalish, I also left behind my days of carefree adolescence. In the hostel, I grew hard and rugged, like the green-painted steel cots which were issued us, but even today, sometimes the desire for a soft gentle huggable pillow re-visits me, and though I have had quite a few of these things made by the man who works in his airless shop on the main road, somehow it is never as comforting as it had been all those years in my grandfather's house.


Blogger SPECKLED_BAND said...

Kol baalish-o to bola hoye!

06 March, 2005 13:37  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can I be your paash baalish, khuto? :x


06 March, 2005 15:59  
Blogger Pragya said...

Such a wonderful bit of prose. Loved reading it. Loved the element of nostalgia and bygone times - so well illustrated via the medium of a paash-baalish.


06 March, 2005 20:11  
Blogger scribe said...

It's rarely that the prose flows well and urges you to read on effortlessly;and you said a lot with your paash baalish. Obviously you're not as rugged as your green steel cots - the soft cotton is still there inside.

07 March, 2005 15:37  
Blogger Dan Husain said...

very khuto like - immensely readable... i recall these paash baalishes being called 'masnad' or 'gol takkiya' or 'gau takkiya' in my ancestral household. And yes i still get upset when i do not find my paash baalish when i go to bed :-) great piece khuto - when are you posting your version of the delhi read-meet?

08 March, 2005 08:00  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've also been using a paash-baalish since I was a baby. Still have one paash-baalish that is 15 years old; been using it since my toddler days. Never had its cotton shredded before. Would have been very stressed if I see my beloved paash-baalish opened up and its cotton removed to twang. Aren't you afraid that your paash-baalish would be damaged when its cotton was twang? I would. Still can't sleep well without my soft cotton paash-baalish today.

05 January, 2006 13:01  

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