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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Zipping up (Not)

This morning I spent a full fifteen minutes changing one cushion cover. Here I was, full of housekeeping energy, determined to finish all those boring things one just has to do to keep a house looking somewhat in order (now, I do realise that 'order' is a loaded work, what is perfectly acceptable to one is reason for high tension for another). The first sign that things were not going to go quite in the manner planned was when I found I needed to sit down to get that cover on the cushion. It wasn't one of those easy slip-on-and-fold-over jobs. It needed quite a lot of pushing and pulling to get the thing on, the good fit that it was. This took all of five minutes. And then came the zipper, which, I understand, is also called a slide fastener, because (yes, I get it) it slides along the toothed tracks to fasten or unfasten something. This one was a pretty long zipper--all of 18 inches, which meant some maneuvering to get the fastener to slide. Which it refused to do. It would go an inch or two and stall, and I would have to nudge it a little bit so that the teeth stayed in sync. This kept happening; the fastener was just refusing to slide smoothly, and all this while I was thinking about design and manufacturing and the fact that we just don't seem to be able to get even the simplest devices to function the way they are supposed to. Safety pins, bobby pins, paper clips, vegetable peelers...the list is long. How many of us have bought a strip of paper pins (alpins, they used to be called) and found one after the other lacking a sharp tip, finally making do by just pushing them harder into the paper? How many women have had safety pins (almost) make uneven holes in sarees because they weren't sharp enough? How many of us have asked visiting relatives to bring back these items from abroad and then hoarded them jealously against siblings and cousins who kept wanting to steal those lovely sharp-tipped items?

But the fifteen minutes spent on that particular recalcitrant zip took me back to my childhood, when zips were not all that common in India. They weren't manufactured locally, and when we asked a tailor to use a zip in an article of clothing, we'd have to pay extra, and insist that he use a brand called "YKK". When we bought readymade clothes with zips, we'd  look for those letters on the metal fastener. It also reminded me that the most ingenious inventions are often the simplest, and also the least celebrated.

So I went in search of the history of the zipper, and like all good contemporary scholars, my first stop was Wikipedia, where you can (as expected) find a whole lot of information about this very interesting and useful device. For starters, I learned that an American engineer named Whitcomb L Judson is credited with the idea and the design, which was improved upon by a (no surprises here) Swedish designer Gideon Sundback. Wikipedia also tells me: "The word Zipper is onomatopoetic, because it was named for the sound the device makes when used, a high-pitched zip."  

And yes, I also found out that YKK is Japanese, Yoshida Kogyo Kabushiki, which continues to be the largest-selling brand in the world, selling more than half the world's zippers. There's a lot more information there for those who might have a curiosity about zips, their history and the various uses to which they are put.

One of my favourite magazines, Slate, has an interesting article on the evolution of the zipper, and this is where I finally found some resonance with my frustrating cushion cover experience. The invention, which is now close to a century old, still has not been perfected (and I thought it was only the Indian zippers). As the author of this article notes, a malfunctioning zipper can render a whole garment (or a favourite cushion cover) unusable.

Fortunately for me, I managed to get the cover on the cushion, and zipped up. And I learned something. Not bad for a Saturday morning.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

in the manner of a thank you

I've reached an age when I'm no longer anxious about age. Well, not in the same way as I was when I was 16, or 30, or even 40. Beyond a point it is no more than a number and the concerns have more to do with the processes that accompany the passage of time rather than any preoccupation with chronology or the idea of "getting old" (or "older").  At 53, I feel fulfilled, yet excited. The fulfillment comes from the aggregation of goodwill that I suddenly become conscious of, in multiple-mediated ways--through cards and texts and whatsapp messages, emails long and short, people suddenly dropping in, unexpected and expected people at the other end of a phone line. The excitement comes from being in a place that I love, doing what I enjoy, looking forward to the possibility and the promise of discovery, at having continued access to the minds (and often hearts) of young people. That's really what keeps me learning--and what better way to live life than to be constantly in touch with those who are discovering it for the first time?

Having a birthday that coincides with Teachers' Day (in India) is a double privilege. You try to keep the birthday part of it quiet, but it sneaks in through information flows from seniors to juniors and of course there is the public square of Facebook where wishes end up becoming public views! But sharing my birthday with something like Teachers' Day means I never have to complain that no one wishes me, or that people have forgotten!

Voices and words reach out from decades ago, as well as from a month ago, and the day just becomes this endless celebration of relationships of so many kinds, connections that have enriched my life in so many ways, and none too small.

Thank you. All of you.