An acquaintance of mine, Chantal, called from New York the other day with a request: she needed brooms; lots of them. Could I source them from India? Chantal is a gaunt French-Algerian chain smoker. She says merde (shit) a lot; wears Rouge Dior lipstick, and lots of moody grey Chanel eyeshadow. She used to be a hand model but now specializes in department store windows. Her job, she says, is to make mannequins into models. Over Skype, Chantal explained her idea. She would decorate an entire department store with brooms. She had watched Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Madison Square Garden in New York, US.
Her current boyfriend is Gujarati and had told her about the “Clean India” campaign. She had seen photos of Modi cleaning the streets while an experienced pressure washer team was behind washing the buildings. She didn’t care for the politicians but she wanted those brooms; at least a hundred of them. The mannequins could hold the brooms in various poses. “Think about it,” said Chantal. “Flying Balenciaga clothes with brooms; Sacai on brooms; Givenchy’s Antigona bag surrounded by a chandelier of brooms; Celine in a forest of brooms; Christian’s nail polish (shoe designer Christian Louboutin) dripping red and purple on brooms. The possibilities are endless.”
I told Chantal that I would see what I could do. I knew a person who could deliver on this demand: Nagamma. As a young girl, Nagamma had worked for my grandparents in Coimbatore. She was now a septuagenarian and had returned to the family business: broom making. She taught me many of the skills that have made me the woman I am today: stringing together a jasmine garland with a thread made from banana fibre; playing “five stones” and picking up three, four, five and even seven stones with one fist; drawing elaborate kolams or rangoli designs on festive days; and expertly parting hair with fingers and catching running lice. I caught up with Nagamma at her village near Modakurichi, Tamil Nadu. We squatted under the swaying coconut trees with verdant paddy fields on all sides and engaged in an activity that she had taught me as a child.
On one side were dried up coconut leaves. We had to squat on the ground and slit the leaves to pull out the spine. It was an activity that was as meditative as tying jasmine flowers or cleaning a lice-comb with a toothpick. For a while, Nagamma and I sat in companionable silence, ripping the coconut spine from its leaves. We both were chewing betel leaves and it was tough to talk over the red juice that was on the verge of drooling every time I opened my mouth. Finally, I tucked the leaf expertly in a corner of my mouth—another skill that Nagamma had taught me—and proceeded to lay out my proposal. I needed 100 brooms to export to the US, I said. Nagamma leaned forward confidentially. “Kannu,” she said. The word means “eye” in Tamil but is used not as an “eye for an eye” type threat but an endearment. “Kannu, ever since the Aam Aadmi party, our bijiness has been very good.
Every politician wants to wield a broom these days. How can I supply 100 brooms for your friend, Shanta?” “Chantal,” I corrected absently but that wasn’t really the point. Nagamma corrected my technique: slit in the middle, not the top, she said. That way I could pull the spine out on both sides. Quickly, she tied a bunch of coconut sticks, or eer-kuchi, as we called it, with a coir rope. A broom was done. “You’ll get paid in euros, Nagamma,” I said. She frowned. “Can I buy vethalai (betel leaves) with euros?” I nodded vigorously. She could buy a barnyard full of betel leaves with euros. That got her attention. Now I had to place the problem at her feet. Chantal wanted the brooms to be tied with twine of multiple colours: neon, purple, candy pink, red, and turquoise. “We can’t put Chloé on traditional brooms,” she had said. “We need the brooms to have fashion also.” Nagamma would have none of it.
In the past, she said, they tied brooms with banana fibre. Tying it with coir was itself a compromise that she made for city-dwellers. Neon plastic twine was sacrilege. “In our country, we can eat our brooms, Kannu,” she said. “It comes from earth and it goes back to earth. How can I put all this false colours on the broom?” I consulted Indologist Rekha Rao, who has written terrific books on therapeutics in Indian sculptures and how they depict healing mudras and marma points (published by Aryan Books International but hard to find in bookstores). “There are objects that look like our brooms in Indus seals,” said Rao. “In fact, Narendra Modi looks like the male figure of Indus seals. With the same type of beard and facial features.”
Brooms in ancient India were used for saucha, said Rao. Cleaning the external space but also the inner negativities. Rao has analysed the sculptures of Rani Ki Vav in Patan, Gujarat. She said many of the sculptures there held brooms and their uses were somewhat similar to the shamanism that was practised in Tibet and Nepal—where the body was literally swept clean. Rajiv Sethi, the painter and art curator, once showed me photos of brooms designed and held by tribal women, each of which was hand-tied and decorated in a fashion that was almost Japanese in its minimalism and subtlety. So I did the only thing possible. I called Chantal and told her that I could provide Harry Potter’s flying brooms in a variety of colours if needed. But the humble Indian jhaadu was non-negotiable: take it or leave it. She is still thinking about it.