The Alias Graces of Chindi

Note: Some Alias Grace spoilers ahead!

Like most people, a lot of my free time these days gets spent on my laptop watching Netflix than with my Kindle reading a damn book. But watching literary adaptations like The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace is kind of like reading. Right?

By my own convoluted internal code of ethics, the fact that I’d read THT the book many years ago and so was able to watch the show with a critical, comparative eye made it an ever so slightly more elevated version of brain-dead Netflix bingeing. But I had no such luck with Alias Grace, which I in fact heard of for the very first time on our beloved red-and-black website. Regardless, I binge watched it over two evenings and came away thinking about the many Grace Aliases at Chindi.

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In this typically feminist story by Margaret Atwood, we meet Grace, a convicted murderer and solidly unreliable narrator, who very much occupies a grey zone of morality that never quite gets clarified for the reader/viewer. I love stories that live in the grey zone, so I was not as offended by its Inception-like ending that leaves us wondering which version of reality was in fact real. This is also where the title comes from — Grace is a woman with many aliases within her and around her in the form of the other women who occupy her world.

What I found myself fixating on throughout the show — and which apparently is the structural anchor of the book as well — is Grace’s endlessly working hands, furiously sewing patches of a quilt throughout her narrative, which in itself is measured like the neat rows of stitches her hands keep making. Even as Grace represents a woman repressed and ill treated by the chauvinism and patriarchy so typical of that era [as well as, sadly, this era], she sits there the entire time in the most womanly of positions — hunch backed and industriously doing what is decidedly a woman’s work. Sewing.

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Such an interesting juxtaposition — a woman conforming to every norm created for her even as she breaks them.

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Just a few days ago, my aunt’s physiotherapist who visits every morning, saw me crocheting at the dining table and exclaimed with genuine surprise, “Arrey aap yeh karti hain? Aaj kal padhi-likhi ladkiyan aisi cheezen nahi karteen!” [“You’re doing this?! Educated girls nowadays don’t do such things!”]

I had my own genuine moment of confusion, as I asked, “Isme padhi-likhe hone ka kya connection hai?” [“What’s the connection between crocheting and being educated?”]

But of course I know what he meant. Crochet, sewing, quilting, embroidery were all historically taught to women along with cooking as domestic skills needed to keep a husband and a mother-in-law happy. And here’s a 36 year old, unmarried, city girl doing this voluntarily? I can understand his confusion.

Perhaps I crochet because I have the luxury of choice — it was not foisted upon me as a burden of patriarchy. Perhaps I crochet because it’s deliciously ironic — I like the kind of cognitive dissonance it produced in the physiotherapist. I know for certain I crochet because I enjoy it and it calms my anxious personality. And I suppose I crochet a little bit because I want to reclaim “a woman’s work” as a woman’s choice.

Me knitting on a winter morning in London

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Outside of being an organisation committed to offsetting textile waste through upcycling and recycling, Chindi is very much a platform to empower mostly female [and female-identifying] craftspeople who are unable to get conventional jobs due to social and cultural barriers. Most of the women we work with are home makers, married young, with children, forced into the role of cook, cleaner, mother, daughter, wife… and not much else. Almost all of them were taught to sew, knit, crochet, and embroider as children, so as to be able to fulfil their duties as womanly entities that exist only in the context of other members of their families.

At Chindi, this trope gets subverted a little bit.

Chindi craftswomen at our centre

The women are able to work from home or at our women’s centre because it is considered a safe space only with other women doing womanly things and therefore devoid of any corruptible influences. Most of our women’s husbands, brothers, or fathers visit the centre to inspect it before their wives, sisters, and daughters are allowed to join us. What they see pleases them — groups of women, in womanly poses, doing womanly work like crochet and sewing.

Much like Grace, however, these women are fitting in the box as a way to get out of it.

At Chindi, crochet becomes something they do not do to make their mother in law happy or to make pretty things for their bedroom to please their husbands. They do it to earn an income — usually their first — of their own. They do it because they are able to use a skill they already have to get something they’ve never had — a sense of self, an identity of their own, a measure of financial freedom, and a vocation that they are good at and also enjoy.

Funnily enough, when we ask them what they spend their incomes on, the answers are typically “girly” — a new sari, a piece of jewellery, a pair of sandals. But let’s not roll our eyes just yet — these are things they have traditionally needed permission to buy, because a woman’s frivolous desires should always be secondary to her family’s clearly more important needs — school uniforms for the children, work clothes for the husband, a TV or a fridge for the home. The Chindi pay check lets these women, for perhaps the first time, decide how to spend their money on themselves. And this isn’t a small feat of empowerment.

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At the end of the show, Grace still sits sewing a quilt [and even choosing to do her own washing and cleaning instead of hiring a “girl”], this time as a free woman and the mistress of her own estate. In that moment, she is more free from the shackles of domesticity than ever, having embraced her domesticity as her freedom, her hobby, her skill, and her right.

At the Chindi centre, the many Aliases of this Grace pursue that same goal. I hope we’re able to help them get there someday.


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