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Manjal paichronicles

AKILA KANNADASAN
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NostalgiaAlong with vegetables, rice and bundles of cash, themanjal pai carries golden memories

It's hard to believe that a thin cloth bag can bring good fortune. But it's true, says Periyandavar, the proprietor of a general merchant store in Madurai. “Themanjal pai was worn out and faded. But, it brought good luck,” he says. “I gave it to my sister many years ago. The very firstvasool it carried was Rs. 1 lakh. She has been holding it dear ever since.”

How can any of us forget the good oldmanjal pai? Bright yellow and starched, with names printed in blue or green, complete with address and phone number, to me, themanjal pai brings back memories of summer holidays in Madurai.

Every morning, my aunt or grandmother went to thesandhai to buy vegetables for the day. And I tagged along, hoping for anungu or two. They held my finger in one hand and amanjal pai in the other. Coins jingled in the bag — it was light yellow and soft, with a temple's name scrawled across in Tamil.

A lot of women in thesandhai had similar ones. Some had an extra one tucked in their waist. They also carried wire baskets, while some carried bigger cloth or jute bags. But there were no plastic bags — I remember that very well. Those with no bags used their saripallu to put in the vegetables.

Themanjal pai came in handy when sugar or rice was bought as well. My aunt knotted it at the top and it held up very well. Of course, one must be careful not to stuff it too much, for the cloth handles are quite thin.

Women in long queues in front of ration shops all carried amanjal pai with their ration card, some small change and house keys inside. Men cycling on the streets strung amanjal pai from their handle bars.

But, things have changed. I do not recall seeing as manymanjal pais on my recent visit to Madurai. “Some people still use them,” says my aunt. “But many have switched over to fancier bags.” Periyandavar says that a few years ago, customers brought their ownmanjal pai or baskets to carry home their groceries. It's not the case these days, he adds. “But in the bazaar, you can still see businessmen carrying bundles of cash in amanjal pai. They fold the cloth around it and hold it tight. It'll be safe that way.”

Tamil cinema often depicts a villager as a man in a whiteveshti andthundu,with amanjal pai in hand. This bag has always been a part of our culture. Since yellow is auspicious, the bag was used to present return gifts to guests at weddings and family functions. Even today, parents of brides and bridegrooms carry wedding invitations in such a bag! “I remember taking my slate and pencils in amanjal pai on my first day of school,” says 40-year-old P. Shakti Bala. “Whenever we had exams in school and had very few books to carry, we would use such a bag,” she says.

There were variations too. “Cloth bags, hand-stitched and embroidered by the woman of the house were also a rage back then,” she adds.

Some people never cast off their old bags. My mother, for example, has a huge collection of them tucked inside the bureau. “My father gave them to me,” she says.

Grandpa had adal mill, so every time he visited us from Madurai, he would bring urad or toor dal in amanjal pai. “I've been saving them for years,” says my mom. “I just can't bring myself to get rid of them.”

AKILA KANNADASAN

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