I normally wear Indian clothes when I’m here in India, partly as a token of respect to my conservative countryside hosts in a deeply conservative culture and partly to blend in with my surroundings. In shalwar kameez or churidar kurta, I blend. No-one bats an eyelid. Some people appreciate that I’ve taken the trouble to wear Indian clothes. These clothes are not risk-free for the unwary, though. A fitted kurta does not forgive extra kilogrammes (“You’ve gained weight, haven’t you?”) and a drawstring waist, though more accommodating can also cause issues as in that scene from Bride and Prejudice (2004) where William Darcy’s trousers fall down at the engagement party. That’s happened to me more than once. (I tried to find the clip but YouTube could not deliver on this occasion. You’ll just have to watch the film.)
I’ve not always been comfortable in this position. Not in the clothes: in my view there are few outfits more practical than baggy drawstring trousers that taper at the ankle and a long tunic to go over them. The dupatta (of shame*) is optional, but still worn by most women. I have purchased several mix and match outfits from Fabindia in the last few years. They’re easy to wear and they suit my body shape. Largely, they accommodate the vicissitudes of my life as experienced by my size and weight gains and losses.
And yet. I never wear Punjabi suits at home in the UK, let alone saris, so why would I suddenly adopt them to wear in India? It smacks of cultural appropriation, even though it’s (sort of) my culture. But it’s not, because Punjabi suits are not part of Marathi culture, which favours the sari even if you can’t go the full nine yards. You can see how this is a can of worms, and would be reserved for my personal tussles if India hadn’t increasingly been indulging its own populist undercurrents in the last few years, in the form of Hindu Nationalism.
Now, I must make the caveat that I cannot hope to understand the minutiae of this alarming movement and I’m lucky enough to be a casual outside observer, but it still horrifies me. None of the clothes shaming and name calling would really matter to me were it not for the comments I receive about my clothes. As I’ve said, the people who look after my mum often make remarks about my outfit – to be fair it’s a reasonable conversational gambit – and ask whether I wear Indian clothes and my Indian wedding necklace at home in the UK. I never wear the kumkum of the married Hindu woman, because I am not a Hindu woman. It seems to matter disproportionately to many people what I wear.
I reacted quite strongly at my uncle’s funeral in Den Haag last year when a family member looked at my black wool crepe Hugo Boss dress and jacket ensemble and remarked that he was surprised to see me dressed like that and that he knew me before I had become “Anglicised.” Which clearly means that he has never known me at all. I see it as part of an insidious patriarchal expectation of “modesty”: that a respectable Indian woman will wear Indian clothes and cover up.
I have always believed that to is not anybody else’s remit to dictate what people should wear, and this is getting dangerously close to that, isn’t it? In my consulting days I researched and spoke to several Muslim home who see their choice of wearing a veil as both an expression of their devotion to God and as a liberation from being sexually harassed or shamed by men. I’m not naïve, I can also see that some women are obliged to wear the veil against their will. Isn’t it ironic, though that, while Hindu women are expected to cover up, Muslim women who wear a veil of whichever sort but especially a full-body veil are marked out and targeted for abuse in many countries? At the same time wearing clothes that other people prescribe that cover you in swathes of clothing, especially dark clothing, seems to be pushing women further into the shadows.
Naturally, all this has made me defiant.
On my last trip to India I packed only dresses. The OH felt that this could be seen as insulting to the people who look after my mum but I don’t see why I can’t choose what I want to wear, how I want to be. It’s not as if I’m running about the Indian countryside in a bikini.
Despite being initially thwarted by Emirates Airlines losing my suitcases (they were delivered to me 24 hours later but, India being what it is, this was an anxious time) I managed to wear three dresses. The nurses looking after my mum were quite surprised: I was an object of amusement for Sister Savarna, who thought I was embarrassed to be improperly dressed. I suppose if you only ever see children wearing dresses, it’s amusing to see a woman of 52 clad in a purple Icebreaker shift. My vanity case had not turned up either so I had no make-up on and was not looking my best.
On another day I wore one of my Bombshells, intensely fitted Liberty print cotton, these are grown up dresses that magically impart a spectacular degree of confidence. For some reason, the people I have known for several years were more polite and respectful. Checking into the hotel that evening, people rushed to my assistance, as if they had not recognised me from any of the multiple other times I’ve stayed here. It was very strange, this lack of blending. Suddenly I had become a person again, not least in my own mind.
I prevaricated more than usual when packing for this visit to India. What I wear has become a political act in a country whose press is finally highlighting misogyny including shaming woman for their clothing choices. Men do not appear to suffer this sort of disapprobation, by the way. I decided to pack both Indian clothes and dresses and defer the decision.
Yesterday I wore a fitted long kurta and was told that I looked fatter. (I have actually lost weight.) I shocked the person concerned by telling them how much exercise I do during an average week. For the record I’m a size 10-12 and, though hardly skinny, am not doing badly for a woman at least 15 years older than my interlocutor. So today I’m wearing a dress. It’s Brora linen, mid length with shoulder cut-outs. And I’m wearing red lipstick. And I feel like me.
- Shame Salman Rushdie 1983