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Saleemji

You would walk right past Saleemji’s room if you didn’t know better, mistaking the one storey, brick building with its tiny flight of stairs leading up to worn wooden shutters, padlocked rustily, for a storeroom.

The room gives the impression of having been being built around the loom, which takes up most of the space. The loom’s legs are embedded in the packed dirt floors. And the rusty machine, with its bundle of punch cards for making designs, hangs from the ceiling. It is unclear if Saleemji lives in the tiny room, which is no bigger than a closet. There are pots and pans on shelves, a TV, clothes hanging from the ladder that leads to the roof, and some afternoons I find him napping in his blue checkered lungi, stretched out on a plank he rests on a metal garden chair without a seat and a little foot stool.

When I step into Saleemji’s room, it is as if I am stepping into another time. The horn shuttles, like the loom itself, look as if they have been used for generations. In some places they are smooth and shiny from frequent touch, in other places the thread has worn away deep grooves. Saleemji’s fingers, too, have calluses and lines, carved into his hands by the threads from years of work.

Saleemji can identify any material you place before him. He can discern the subtleties that differentiate Chinese from Japanese silk. He can tell if the fabric was handwoven or produced on a power loom, if the thread was hand spun and if it is made of one or two or more strands twisted together. When, after my lesson, he buys me chai at the chai stand on the corner and we sit on the bench, sipping our hot teas, Saleemji examines the saris of the women who pass by and tells me if they are high quality or not.

While I work, Saleemji sits on a little pink plastic stool next to me and looks out at the street. Sometimes his friends stop by to chat for a while, but for the most part, Saleemji simply watches life on the street pass by. Women in bare feet, their heads shaved in devotion, walk in the direction of the Ganga with their saris hoisted above their ankles. Men, sitting on the bench to his left, read their newspapers and chew paan purchased from the paan seller next door.

Music from a shop down the street drifts down the alley and mingles with the clack of the loom, the call to prayer from the nearby mosque, the ringing of bicycle bells and honking of motorcycle horns, the clamor of people trying to navigate the too narrow alleyways.

Saleemji doesn’t speak much English and I don’t speak much Hindi. His vocabulary is limited to words essential for weaving. If he wants me to move over and make room for him on the bench, he tells me “Side! Side!” And squeezes in next to me. If I am making a mistake, he cries “No no no no!” If I am weaving a design using the punch cards, he knows instinctively from the groaning of the machine when I need his help. When the punch cards stop rolling and changing to the next row of the design, he alerts me with his characteristic sound of “ye ye ye ye.” Recently he has decided that I must do “self design,” and he refuses to give me advice on colors or designs, no matter how much I beg him. But when the time comes to leave, he, crying “side!”, sits next to me, pats me on the back and gives me a squeeze, and points to his head then to me and says “Brains.”

It doesn’t matter that Saleemji and I can’t understand each other’s languages, because we understand each other. After our last few sessions, Saleemji wouldn’t let me leave, insisting that I stay for at least five more minutes, or weave 5 more rows. He must like my company as much as I like his.