Sweet Pea was an initiative of the Girl Child Group in 2016 and 2017.
The project was to make a Goody bag with new Xmas dresses and trinkets for the HIV/AIDS orphans. We did it for two years when I was in Chennai and I had to very reluctantly and with a heavy heart give it up when I moved to the Retirement Village at the Foothills of Kodaikanal. There was absolutely no way that I could have done it after I left Chennai. If there is something I really miss about Chennai, it is the excitement and joy that working on the Sweet Pea project gave me.
Cotton Street is a fascinating experience off the Pantheon Road in Egmore. On the left are a row of temporary wooden platforms and stalls that run all down the length of the street, displaying the most amazing and colourful fabric imaginable. The fabric are rejects from the major export houses in Chennai. The flaw may be in the colour, the width or the print. This is usually not invisible to the lay eye. To the untrained eye it was a bonanza. Merchants display them on sunny days, in bales, bundles or draped on rods. The fair prices are a bargain and they attract women across the board in Chennai, especially those who like to design and tailor. Bejewelled women from the upper classes drive up in chauffeur driven Mercs to haggle alongside the working classes, with no holds barred.
Colours have always fascinated me and I used to spend many a happy afternoon after I retired from The Global Hospital, browsing in Pantheon Street, as a stress buster. The possible combinations and colours were mind boggling. Matching colours and prints was the easy bit. Keeping a hawk eye when the vendors short changed the customers on the measurements while cutting, was a challenge. What was paid for, never reached the home, as every metre of fabric would be at least 10 cms short, making it many cms short on the bale. You could not afford to take your eyes off the scissors in his nimble fingers, no matter how much he tried to distract you with small talk while cutting.
I used to be delighted matching the polka dot with the stripes, the paisley and the Jacobean with the plain. The possibilities were endless. I would come home with the bales of fabric and wash out the dust and dirt of Cotton street in batches in our domestic washing machine, using just fabric conditioner so that the finished dresses would smell fresh for the kids when they got them as parents.
Radha Sudarshan , my walking calculator and voice of caution, lived 2 doors away from me on my floor and she kept me grounded from floating away and there was a strong possibility that it could happen every other day . When I had gone overboard and bought more than she would have approved of, I would sneak past her door and smuggle the parcels into my apartment, praying she would not catch me. I could not resist all the pretty fabrics and all the fantastic combinations that ran around in my head. She is an absolute doll and there was nothing she would not do for the Sweet Pea project. She would double up and do everything cheerfully. She was the backbone and the spine and the spirit and the life of the project. Sheeba John was another angel in my life . For years she sent us regular home cooked meals relieving me of the strain of shopping, fridging and cooking routine stuff. If I cook, the food would rise up to meet me and I had to stash it in Tupperware and stack it in the fridge. Initially the food would appear in its original form, resurrected on table. Then with time it would be reincarnated when it would be mixed with something else to mask its identity and age. Poor Sam’s face would lengthen with dismay with every passing day. Extremely tedious on a day to day basis. Sheeba used take to take the sting out of all that.
Sheeba knew tailoring and she launched Sweet Pea on the our 8 seater Dining Table which was Sweet Pea property except at mealtimes. The first dress she cut was the epic yellow dress that eventually became the dress the Girl Child mascot wore on the Face book page. She gave Radha and me a template each and we would cut the fabric. They would place the pattern on the fabric in way that there was no wastage. Whatever was left over as bits was made up into baby frocks will frills and ruffles. Nothing was wasted. Initially Sheeba and Radha did the stitching. Later friends would send us paper patterns , pinking shears and sewing accessories from abroad , so there was no guess work with sizes.
We wanted pretty dresses made from bits and bobs. We were creating beauty from cut pieces and rejects. something along the lines that the people looking after the HIV/AIDS teams were doing with the orphans who suffered the aftermath of a disease that decimated their families. The dresses were Hobo dresses with tiers in different colours and prints. They were so pretty. Even the sleeves had ruffles. Someone asked me why we did not do it as a commercial venture. It would never have been the same.
We sent out feelers into the community, asking if there were tailors among in the neighbourhood. After a few hits and misses, we found Kavita , a lovely girl who understood the concept and translated it the way we wanted. She was willing to think out of the box and eventually we got her an Usha sewing machine with multiple appliances and fancy stitches so that she could take tailoring at home to make a little money. She was a quick learner and soon we were humming a happy tune. She would collect the cut pieces and bring them back the next day sewn when Radha would pack it in plastic sleeves and label the sizes. Since the Bollineni Flat had 5 bedrooms, one was converted into the Sweet Pea Room as a stock room for fabric and to stack the finished dresses in the cupboard. Soon Geetha Anand and Lin Panakal joined the group. Some dresses were outsourced to volunteers who wanted to be a part of the project. Rene George was our liason person in Town. She opened out her house in Chetpet and stepped in whenever we needed her help. Rene belongs to a vibrant class of Good Shepherd School Alumni, a bunch of girls who called themselves the Goodshies, who jumped in enthusiastically.
We got trendy coir Goody bags from a NGO Stripes run by Gavin and Julie Route. The bags were filled with all the stuff generous people donated across the Globe. There was a packet of sanitary towels for the older girls, crayons for the younger ones, trinkets, a little pouch with pencils, a towel, knickers etc. Dr. Daisy Dharmaraj’s group got sandals fitted as well. Selvam our Driver used to run around doing all the odd jobs and errands with his cheerful laugh. Sam and Selvam brought us Cardboard cartons that we packed , strapped and despatched to the HIV Orphans in Andhra, Bangalore and Nammakkal .
I never saw the faces of the kids when they got their Goody bags at their Xmas party. Sam brought back videos of the event on his phone. They would open their bags with great excitement and on seeing their colourful frocks they would break into squeals of delight. They would stroke their dresses and smell them in wonder, sometimes burying their faces in the fabric. The trinkets would be inspected and tried . They would peek into the other bags to see what the others got. Like all kids, some would like what someone else got . Some would squabble and try to pinch the other bag and would need arbitration. The Older kids were given tailored Salwar Kameeses made again with matching and well coordinated fabric. The Staff of the Orphanages wer given sarees. Since some of the groups weere mixed a few lucky boys were included in the program. However on the whole , it was a happy day with happy faces. I used to feel so happy seeing those videos again and again.
Sweet pea would not have been possible without the generousity and support of all the kind people who opened out the hearts and purses to bring a little cheer to the kids in the orphanages.