With a wedding around the corner, I recently found myself inside the original Nalli store, opposite Panagal Park in Chennai. Established in 1928 by Nalli Chinnasami Chetty, the shop is a wide tunnel, lined on either side with glass shelves of neatly folded fabric in piles. They come in mindboggling variations. Kancheepuram silk, Mysore silk, crepes (not the edible kind) and cottons. Fuschia, indigo, crimson and azure fabric peeks out from behind the glass cases divided by solid wood panels that house them, many of them lined with bold gold borders, and seem to say, "Pick me, choose me."
The experience gained significance as I shopped for a trousseau and was accompanied by my mother and grandmother. Three generations of women in my family draped billowing cloth in front of full-length mirrors in an effort to decide what looked timeless. What cloth would capture the beauty of the moment that we intended to wear it for, forever.
Customers jostle in front of display counters as sales people expertly pull piece of cloth, one after another, depending on specific requests. The mound of cloth builds in front of a client and they begin to fish through pile as they decide what to buy, resisting the temptation to sort though or choose from more. A customer leaving the store empty-handed is a rare sight as the cash registers ring ceaselessly and the smell of money lingers above the payment counters.
Nalli is one of many icons associated with Tamil Nadu's history. Although I may never state what I am about to write here to a side of the family who has appealed to me since childhood to consider the state in more fond terms, I must admit that during this particular visit I found Chennai much more fascinating than I do otherwise. Maybe it had something to do with the weather which was nothing to complain about, bordering on pleasant, compared to the sultry mess that usually greets a visitor and threatens to melt their insides until they leak through every available bodily orifice. Whatever the reason, this time I was paying attention to local attire, thinking about native cuisine and a local history that is several centuries old.
Putting no time frame to my resolution, I intend on returning to Chennai and greater Tamil Nadu willing to discover beauty that I am now convinced exists.