Wardrobe Woes

Last night I had a dream. My saris, blouses, dresses and tunics were floating around me and talking to me. ‘When are you going to wear me again?’ asked my purple kanchivaram in her silky voice. I had worn the purple beauty only once during my cousin’s wedding, I recalled. Pretty pink jamdani glared at me angrily. I had almost forgotten about her. My range of designer blouses, tunics and dresses started jostling for my attention. Golden stiletto and red sandal started accusing me of neglect. They started dancing around me as if in frenzy, pulling me in all directions. The golden stiletto suddenly kicked hard on my ankle. Startled, I woke up. ‘What a crazy dream or rather a nightmare!’

I switched on the light and opened the wardrobe. All my clothes were in the right place. Saris stacked up neatly on top of each other, blouses stuffed in the drawer, dresses and tunics hanging close to each other. I opened my shoe closet next. At least 30 pairs of shoes snuggling close to each other, at least 10 pairs that I haven’t slipped my feet into in months. I took another look at my prized sari collection. Many of those, especially the expensive ones haven’t been worn in years. I went back to bed but couldn’t sleep. The images of my overstuffed wardrobe and shoe rack suddenly started mocking me. Locked up at home, with social distancing the new norm, I was quite clueless about when I would get to wear all these clothes and shoes again.

The image of me prancing around as girl in a flowery frock flashed before my eyes. I had about 8 to 10 ‘good clothes’ then that I wore for birthday parties, weddings, for visiting friends and neighbours etc. – frocks, skirts and tops mostly stitched by mom, a few pairs of jeans, and two pairs of shoes, besides the school going shoes. With what sounds like a limited wardrobe now, I was considered to be a well-dressed girl back then. I was very happy accepting hand me downs from my older cousins as well. It was a done thing then.

My mom, who loves saris, owned about 4 to 5 expensive saris then (besides her regular cotton, organza, and silks) that she should wear for weddings and special functions. It was absolutely fine to repeat those saris. She had a beautiful rani pink tanchoi silk sari that she would wear for such functions quite often.  Later, when the sari started coming apart, she cut it and made a beautiful kurta for me that I cherished for many years. She would also wear a beautiful peacock blue kanjivaram with broad red border every now and then.

I started becoming more ‘fashion conscious’ during my college days. Mom stitched clothes were not enough, I wanted branded clothes. When I started working, I would spend a lot of time in Sarojini Nagar hunting for fashionable clothes, knock-offs that would fit my budget. From street fashion, I soon moved to the branded stores and then to the glittering malls that offered great deals on international brands. E-commerce sites that offered everything from lingerie to footwear at an enviable price further added to the allure. My wardrobe was spilling, my shoe rack was full, I had more purses than I could carry, but I just couldn’t stop buying.

Sari day at work

With years I became a little more discerning, chose style over fashion, or so I thought. I developed a fondness for saris like mom and started buying saris from all over India. Be it Bengal cotton, south cotton, chanderi, baluchori, ikkat, bomkai or kachivaram, I have them all. The cotton and the silk ones I would wear often to work. The more expensive ones were worn for weddings etc. I have also built a collection of exclusive dresses and tunics, thanks to my designer friends.   Though I have been spending money on saris and other expensive clothes it didn’t feel like a waste. ‘These are classics that would never go out of fashion’, I would tell myself.

My wardrobe made me feel good. I was ready for all occasions. But every occasion demanded something new because repeating an outfit is an absolute no-no. How could you wear the same outfit or sari before the same crowd? Posting a picture on social media in the same dress twice? Thus, I ended up with so many saris, clothes, and shoes that I love and that look great on me. Ironically enough, I have worn these beautiful things only once or twice, just because I can’t repeat myself. Seriously, when did I become such a hoarder or a show-off, or both!

“This has to stop. I am going to wear all my clothes over and over. I am going to repeat my saris because I feel beautiful in them.” Maybe I am a bit delusional with the extended lockdown or maybe I have more time to self-reflect or maybe it’s both!

A showgirl sans audience

Locked in all alone in my apartment, no one’s coming, no one’s watching me, I can do pretty much as I please. I can don my finest clothes and walk around, or I can choose to wear nothing. I can be on bed the whole day and laze around. I can read or watch TV through the night and get up at noon. I can sing, I can dance, I can scream (as long it doesn’t reach my neighbours), I can be a mess, or I can be perfect. Who cares? No one’s here to judge and comment on my choices. What freedom!

A regular day at work before COVID

Yes, that was my initial feeling of glee (in these gloomy times) when the lockdown was first announced. But alas, it was short-lived. I blamed it first at having to work from home. “If I didn’t have to open the laptop at 9:30 every morning life would be so much better,” I grumbled to myself. Then I realized my weekends were no better. So obsessed I was with cleaning every nook and corner of my apartment, cooking a perfect meal that I managed to have lunch only at 4 on weekends. After that, I would be too exhausted to do anything, usually not in such a great mood.

Lockdown, which in some ways has been a break for many, has been utterly exhausting for me. I go to bed planning the next day’s chores “I have to be up by 7 and clean the balconies, chop the veggies and then close a proposal before the 10 a.m. call,” I would mutter to myself at night like a prayer. I would jump up in the morning and chide myself for waking up late for there’s so much to do. I pushed myself almost to the brink – the house had to be perfect, meals cooked, all the tasks done well ahead of time. I even dress up every morning for office (my living room now) or a call, that’s something I actually enjoy.

Many moods: work from home

In the evening when I would finally relax with a cup of coffee, I would look around me with some pride and satisfaction. I would look at myself in the mirror and smile. But then, the feeling of being let down and being under-appreciated would come gushing back. My friends who sometimes are not able to call me every day, my colleagues and acquaintances who don’t seem to appreciate me adequately would be frowned upon. For, strangely enough, I would feel like a martyr. “I am doing so much from morning till night (all for myself, on my own accord), and no one cares.”

Many moods: work from home

But why should anyone care? Why should I care whether anybody cares about what I do within my four walls? But unfortunately, I do. I guess we all do, whether we like to admit it or not. We have a bit of a narcissist strain running in us, we are all bit of show-offs. We love to be acknowledged, we love to be appreciated, we love all the attention we get. My life is my show, my performance and I am the protagonist or the showgirl. Not having an audience for our show has perhaps been one dilemma for people like me, who are locked in alone. Though I was a little ashamed when the realization first dawned on me, it’s not such a bad thing, I guess. My urge to show myself off is something that is driving me along as I wait eagerly to catch up with my friends and family once this is over.

Now that I have accepted the fact that there’s a showgirl in me who’s missing not having an audience around, I am much more at peace with myself, I am much happier. I have stopped blaming others for not being there, I stopped being hard on myself. The showgirl does as she pleases, she smiles at herself often, she ponders, she relaxes. And most of all, she takes good care of herself, for when she steps out again, she would like to put her best foot forward!

A novel twist to the desi New Years

It’s New Year time, I mean time for desi New Year Celebrations. Be it Baisakhi in Punjab, Bihu in Assam, Noboborsho in Bengal or Vishu in Kerala, most regions in India usher in New Year mid-April, sometime between 13th to 15th April. These days are significant for each community marked with new purchases, feasting and cultural celebrations. People visit their places of worship, layout traditional feasts, visit each other, there are so many social dos.

This year, however, it was different. Locked in to tackle a novel virus we did not have much to celebrate for. With social distancing becoming the new norm, any kind of function or social visits were out of the question. Some of us did manage to dish out feasts at home with whatever ingredients one could manage. Picture of homecooked delicacies on social media and WhatsApp groups did bring me some cheer. We wished each other in our virtual world while the real world wore a deserted look. We prayed in the solace of our home wishing for our old world to be back soon.

Photo courtesy Abhishek Rana

Nature, on the other hand, had a different story to tell. There were celebrations all around. As I went to my balcony at night in my good noboborsho pyjamas, after a plateful of special Maggi for dinner, a glowing Venus greeted me in all her glory followed by her friends twinkling with joy in a clear night sky. The plants in my small balcony garden have never looked greener, blooming periwinkles are such delight to my eyes. Ganga water has become fit for drinking and Yamuna has never been this clean before. Dolphins have been seen on Mumbai beach, peacocks and deer are out in the road. The most polluted cities of India are filled with Oxygen. The story is the same world over. Nature is revelling as we humans are locked in!

My blooming garden

We vain humans. For all our successes, our march to progress, we forgot that we are but a small cog in the grand scheme of things. We forgot that we once worshipped and celebrated nature, and not destroyed her mindlessly. Indian New Years, that usually fall in the fag-end of spring, mark the beginning of harvest season, celebrates Mother nature before sowing new seeds. Nature has been an inherent part of our culture. Epitomized as Prakriti, a fertile woman or a mother, who conjoins with Purusha, the man, to create and nurture the world – the world that consists of all things living, not just humans. 

Spring Sky. Courtesy Riti Chakraborty

Other civilizations across the globe, have their own lore’s of nature, of man’s oneness with nature. Gods and Goddesses in both Hindu and Greek mythology symbolize many forces of nature. Noah’s ark that saved his family from the great Biblical flood also sheltered thousands of species of animals. In fact, God commanded him to do so.

But for us, the educated urbane lot, these are just mythological tales, mere lore that the novel virus has thrown back on our face, rather mercilessly. Yes, a rude jolt was what we needed, but it remains to be seen how long we stay awake!

The Human Touch

Routine, I so miss my routine. I never thought I would say this about my dull boring routine. Pulling myself out of bed every morning, rushing through the morning chores – glancing through the newspaper over a cup of tea, watering plants, hurriedly deciding what to wear, gulping down some breakfast and then scurrying off to work. Hurrying back home after a tiring day, hoping to catch up with reading or do some writing but ending up watching TV or Netflix, going to bed with a guilty feeling of not having done enough, and then blaming the dull routine for sapping my creative juices. I have so often wished I could break free of this routine to focus on more creative pursuits or things that I considered more productive intellectually and emotionally.

Just loitering with Poonam & Joy

But now with the routine missing I am like a fish out of water, gasping for breath at times. I realize for the first time how much of my routine I have taken for granted – friendly faces of my colleagues greeting me every morning, chit chats over a cup of coffee, catching up with a friend in the evening, if I wished to. I have never been very social; you can call me selectively social at best. I have often chosen my company over a crowd. I have stayed at home over the weekend watching TV, reading a book or doing nothing. Though, over the years, I have made some good friends, developed deep bonds.

Selfie time with Sanchita

So, when the lockdown was announced, I didn’t think I would miss not having people around. A few weeks on my own, would give me time to do so much more, I optimistically thought. I am locked out alone, my family is in different cities, friends all over NCR. And yes, we are working from home, so I am connected with colleagues over Microsoft Teams, regular calls. I chat with family and friends every day over the phone or over a WhatsApp video call. That would suffice for a while, I had thought, but alas it’s so woefully lacking!

The social media that we have been so hooked to is getting on my nerves now. The endless posts on the virus, the lockdown, the efficacy of our political leaders. The social media pundits are pasting the walls with their advice or opinions, so keen to run the world from their laptops or handsets. The silly challenges that FB comes up with seem refreshing in comparison. The only good thing are the occasional humourous posts that make me laugh.

Hanging out with Chandana & Ray

The routine or choosing to follow the routine.  This lockdown has made it clear how much of that choice we have taken for granted. The human touch that came with the choice, be it a friendly nod or a deep conversation over a cup of coffee. For this lockdown has shown us nothing can replace the joy of being with another human being. No social media, or virtual platforms can replace the warmth of physical proximity. Social distancing, unavoidable though it is, comes with a heavy prize.

I do hope we remember this once this crisis is over, put our phones away when we are talking to somebody, take our minds of social media while we are having dinner with our family. For, being with the ones’ we love and care, is priceless!!

The art of saying it right!

Courtesy sites.psu.edu

Saying what you want to say. Being understood or perceived the way you would like to be. Therein lies the challenge of communication and it’s much more than mere words!

Elated Arjun after winning Draupadi in a Swayamvara returned home to the potter’s cottage where Pandavas were living disguised as Brahmins. Yudhisthir, the eldest brother called out to their mother who was cooking and said, “Mother, see what we have brought today.” Kunti, without looking up replied, “Whatever it is, share it amongst yourself.”

Another instance from Mahabharata, where Guru Dronacharya was wreaking havoc on Pandavas with his divine weapons. Arjuna, the only one who could hold him, refused to fight his Guru. Dronacharya’s only weakness was his son Aswathhama. Wily Krishna asked Bheema to kill an elephant with the same name and then convinced Yudhisthir to twist the truth, “Aswathhama hatha (and then he murmured) iti Narova Kunjarova (don’t know whether it’s man or elephant).”

Courtesy Pinterest

These are fairly well-known instances of miscommunication. While the first one is unintended, the second instance is carefully thought through and deliberated upon. In the first case, Yudhisthir assumed his mother would look up from her cooking before responding, while Kunti assumed it would just be alms or a wild animal that the bothers had hunted down. Thus, Draupadi ended up with five husbands. The second instance led to the victory of Pandavas in the battle of Kurukshetra. History is full of such instances.

Courtesy CartoonStock

In today’s context, where everyone has an opinion thanks to social media, and fake news or misinformation can be spread at the click of a button, communication has become even more challenging. It’s important to understand and be aware that communication is not just about what we say, it’s about how we say and to whom it is said. Expressions, body language, tone – everything forms part of the communication. Basis how the words are said or delivered, the listener or the audience comprehends them. The same words can be understood and interpreted differently by different audience, sometimes the interpretations may be very different from what the speaker or the writer intended it to be. Years ago, in English literature class, while we were critically analyzing Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale,’ our Professor humorously quipped, ‘Keats probably never even imagined that his poem would be open to so many different interpretations.’

Courtesy Frank and Ernest: Miscoomunication Comic Strips

An innocent statement can cause lot of damage if not addressed to the right audience. Remember Shashi Tharoor’s ‘cattle class’ tweet.  While ‘cattle class’ maybe a common enough jargon in the US, we sensitive Indians found it unacceptable. When you are a public figure or communicating in a public forum it is very important to understand and be aware of these sensitivities and nuances.

Today, technology has changed the whole game of communication. We live on social media where everybody is talking – expressing opinions, knowledge, wisdom or just showing off how cool their lives are. We often forget to listen, we forget the repercussions of the social media, the danger of exposing ourselves too much, of being interpreted in unfavorable manner. And what concerns me more is, while we are talking to everyone, we are forgetting to talk to the person next to us. Walking into a living room or a gathering where each person is focused on his phone or iPad is fairly common nowadays, especially among the younger lot.

I may be old fashioned, but nothing can replace a good chat with a friend over a cup of coffee or a heart to heart chat with a loved one. For it’s not just words, so much is said in between the words or even without. You can say so much just by looking into someone’s eyes or with a smile!!

Of birthdays, growing up, adding years, feeling younger & more…

Birthday girl 2019

Birthdays are always so special to me. Many a ‘mature’ people have often told me, “What’s the big deal about birthday? It’s just another day.”  For me they are a BIG deal, I wait for my birthday every year, for the wishes to pour in, the cakes, the gifts, even the FB wishes and videos. I subtly (and sometimes shamelessly) remind people about my upcoming birthday, lest they forget to wish. Passing years haven’t taken the sheen off birthday celebrations, I feel as excited as I did as a little girl. It’s not so much about a huge party or expensive presents, it’s more about being remembered by people you love, celebrating the day I came to this world, surely there’s something special about that day!

When I was a little girl, birthdays were about mom making kheer in the morning. I would be greeted with a spoonful of sweet kheer, new dress and maybe a toy. I grew up in a joint family, dida (dadi), kaku (uncles), pishi (bua) and cousins, besides my parents and sisters, would lovingly wish me happy birthday. There were no 12 a.m. celebrations then, birthday celebrations started in the morning. While my parents would get me a dress for my birthdays’, Namentu (my dad’s younger brother who was very popular with the children of the family) would indulge me with toys and books. Ranga pishi (my favourite bua) would ensure I got all my favourite sweets. Unfortunately, both Namentu and Ranga Pishi left us early and birthday’s or any other celebration has not been the same since.

Birthday 2018 in Agartala when my college friends surprised me

The highpoint of the day was about wearing a new dress and happily heading to the school bus stop holding Ranga Pishi’s hand with a bag full of toffees (Parle G or Eclairs). Birthday girls or boys would get special treatment in the school and that would start from the bus stop. Kids would wish me, give me flowers, I would handout a toffee to each child. On reaching school the class teacher would announce my birthday and the whole class would sing for me. After that I would hand out a toffee to each kid, close friends would get more than one (the birthday girl’s discretion made her so important that day). To think just one toffee could be so sought after!

Celebrations at office. I share my birthday with my colleague Abhishek

There would be small party at home in the evening. Mom would bake a cake, cook my favourite food. My best friend, few of my close friends and the whole family would gather for the cake cutting and the dinner thereafter. It was a simple homely affair but there was so much love and affection. I got cute little gifts like pens and pencil boxes which I cherished. Throwing a birthday party in a hotel or a restaurant, spending money on expensive gifts didn’t even cross our minds in those days. We were so happy blowing balloons, decorating the drawing room with coloured papers, being hugged and kissed and wished by everyone around. Those were the perfect birthdays!

After leaving home, midnight birthday celebrations in the hostel had its own share of fun and excitement. Friends and hostel mates would organize a cake, admirers would cue up with lovey dovey cards and sometimes flowers. Made me feel so grown up, years ahead seemed so exciting.  When I started working, I started paying for my own birthday dinners and throwing birthday parties, that was a different feeling all together.

Of course, birthdays’ away from home haven’t always been easy.  There were moments when I pined for more attention from someone special, felt people didn’t care enough for me and my birthday. But those are far and few, buried in the happy memories and excitement that birthday brings along with it each year. I have been blessed with friends who always take time out to make my birthday special, buy me gifts that I cherish!

And the best part is, even after celebrating so many birthdays I don’t feel any older. I don’t attempt to light up the cake with 40 something candles though. The glow of my happiness, youth, maturity and wisdom (that I have accumulated over the years hopefully) is enough for that!!

A Day in the Life of Sunita Sharma

A humorous take on everyday life by Chandana Dutta

Sunita hurried to the trunk at the edge of her room. She squatted and quickly took down the odd utensils kept on it. On one side of the trunk was a pitcher. She stood up and bracing herself against its weight, placed it gingerly on the floor. Not again, the top of the tin was pockmarked, with rust and wetness. Anyway, she was late for work and couldn’t dwell on these small things right now. She heaved open the lid, took out the polythene packet kept inside. She unscrewed her skull in a few movements, took out her brain and put it inside the packet. There! It was safe now. Till she returned from work a few hours later. What purpose would it serve if she carried it with her? Why use her brain for the work expected of her? Really, there wasn’t much to do anyway. In any case, now that she had left her dimaag behind, it wouldn’t matter if she reached late, or skipped working somewhere, or broke a glass or two, maybe put the clothes that were to be ironed in the fridge instead. After all, it was just another day.

She stepped out into the hot sun not bothering with the door. It wouldn’t shut, the wood had rotted away in parts and the entire thing was sagging. It would hold like this for a few days perhaps, maybe not. Never mind, there was hardly anything inside that could be stolen. The first house was just round the corner, hardly a couple of minutes. Now look at this idiot, how suddenly he braked. He clearly hadn’t expected her. What she couldn’t figure out was how these people drove, if he had just kept left, the entire dirt footpath was free. He could drive there. And here he was all ready to climb over her right in the middle of the road. These people in big cars, didn’t have the brains to figure out that people would be walking on the road. 

She opened the gate to the house. There, they had kept the front door locked, again. She rattled the handle. Then she turned towards the road, better to see who was passing by. Arre, they haven’t opened the door yet. She rattled the handle some more. God knows what’s wrong with these people, they can’t hear or what. Just then Mrs. Sharma from the other side called out, “Arre, Sunita, beta bell baja do. Tabhi to sunai parega.” Uff, this woman. What was the point of a calling bell when she could rattle the handle hard? Anyway, she did as told. The door flew open in just a minute. “Why didn’t you open the door sooner?” “I didn’t hear the bell at all, only once.”

Sunita went about collecting the plates and glasses off the table. Once everything was placed near the sink, she would begin washing. “You’ve placed those glasses right at the edge Sunita, be careful.” “I work every day, don’t I know what to do!” She had perfected the art of ignoring these women right from day one. They were always saying something or the other, none of which made sense. The “Main Balak Tu Mata Sherawalian” ring tone shattered the silence. It must be her mother. She always called at this hour. She half-turned to pick up the mobile and crash went two of the glasses. “What happened,” Bhabhiji rushed up from her work table. “Just look at these stupid glasses, they were in the way. Anyway, only two broke. Mai saaf kar doongi.” Bhabhiji fled back into her room overcome by her emotions, she closed her door. She would now probably need some alone time to regain her equilibrium. Why do they even use glass, I tell you? Steel’s not good enough for these people. Anyway, her mother must be wondering why she hadn’t picked up the phone. She might just think something had happened to her daughter. By now frantic, she must have called practically half her family with details of their missing child. “Arre, Amma, kuch nahin. Just two glasses, they broke. I cleaned up before calling you back.”

Very soon, oblivious to where she was, and what she was meant to do, Sunita and Amma were discussing just about everything under the sun. Lachmi the tailor had to close his shop for a few days because they couldn’t find his wife. Three days later they figured out that she had left for her mother’s, just two villages away with her brother who was passing by. Of course, in all the rush, she had simply forgotten to tell her husband. Sunita’s younger sister, who lived in Timarpur in the big city, was running a fever, 99.8 or so. But surely that called for a few injections at the local doctor’s otherwise how would the fever go down? Poor thing, she was always so weak, especially now after her fourth daughter was born, and a fifth, god forbid it should be a girl again, was on its way. But then the brother-in-law was doing so well, working in the shoe shop in their neighbourhood. Never mind, if he had to leave by 8 in the morning and return after 10 at night. Still, it was the big city and a shoe shop at that. And how well her sister kept the kids! Each time they visited the village, they were all dressed prettily in identical hot pink gauzy lace frocks. Of course, the lace would bite into their innocent skin and keep them itchy and irritable all the time but they looked so pretty. Oh, and then the news about Bare Chacha. Bare Chacha worked on a farm in the village. The owner’s daughter’s father-in-law’s pet dog was unwell. Very weak. And needed as many blessings as possible. Would it be possible for Sunita and Jamai Raja to join everybody at the village for a path and bhandara? Bare Chacha would be so upset if the family did not rally around full force. After all the dog was such a pet of the entire family. How could anybody not feel the pain? Surely, collective prayers would help. Why not, Sunita could easily skip work for a few days. After all, this was such an important occasion. Surely Woh would also feel the same way.  

Finally, the dishes were done and Sunita had to call off. She would call back again soon after talking with her husband about their travel plans. They could easily take the night bus. Luckily they could just buy the tickets when they boarded.  

Just as she was about to leave Sunita realized that she hadn’t told Bhabhiji anything. She turned back and opened the door. “Kal se nahin aoongi Bhabhi.” Bhabhiji somehow lifted herself up from the chair and tottered out on her weak legs, completely drained by this news. Perhaps she would also benefit from some collective prayers for her own mental health and well-being. But what was one to do? One must accept one’s fate, whatever it may be. “When will you return?” “I can’t say anything right now. The dog might get better but God forbid, someone else might fall ill, or get married. I’ll let you know when I’m back finally.” Sunita flashed her a happy smile, adjusted her saree and exited. It had been a successful morning half after all. Come to think of it, there wasn’t really any need to go to the other houses. After all, if she was to leave soon, she would need to pack, right. In any case, they would find out soon enough.

So, she was back again at her door, having jauntily owned half the road. Dare someone drive over her? Why should she walk on the footpath when there was a perfectly decent road already to be walked upon?

Once back inside her room, she headed to the trunk. She took down the utensils once again, the pitcher as well. Once again, she cursed the wetness and the rust on its top. But then there wasn’t enough time to think about it right now. She unscrewed her skull and put back her brain. Now she could think properly. She took out the lone jhola inside, put in the two sarees she had and a set of clothes for her husband. Not much else there. This time she put her utensils into the trunk. Locked it. Her packing was done. In fact, they could leave as soon as Woh was back for lunch. She lay down on the chatai. And switched on the radio. Bliss.

Chandana Dutta, Founder-Member of the outfits Akka Bakka and Renge Strains that work with Art and Creative Writing with children and adults, has been Assistant Director for the publishing wing of Katha, a pioneering organisation in the field of translations. She set up the publishing outfit Indialog of which she was Chief Editor. She was Editor, Indian Horizons, a quarterly on art and culture published by the ICCR, New Delhi. She translates from Hindi and Bangla into English. She holds a Ph. D. from the Jawaharlal Nehru University.