When my cousin sister was old enough she was confirmed into the Anglican church like her father before her. The rest of the cousins, ten of us, were all made to attend the confirmation. She wore a white billowy dress and her mother was beaming at how grown up her daughter looked as she ate the bread and drank the wine. The rest of us wore our sunday best and turned up at the church just in time. My grandmother, my mother and my other aunt were there, as well as other distant family members. When we were done eating the last piece of cake and drinking the last bit of tea from the steel filter that rested precariously on a plastic chair we all went back home.
Once I was home my mother began a tirade that focused mainly on how I was dressed that day. I had been wearing a thick brown tweed skirt that came just above my knees (a lucky find from Sarojini nagar that was still in great shape), a black sweater, black tights and flat black shoes. I thought I had looked pretty smart. My mother thought otherwise. She ranted and raved about how she could not introduce me to the other distant family members as her daughter because she was so ashamed of how I was dressed. She fumed and complained to my father who delivered the final blow by saying I looked like a ‘tart’.
I was in my first year of college then I think. Before my time in college I never had to worry about what to wear to school, we all wore our uniforms. Once I finished high school, what I wore was no longer dictated by the school and I could wear what we called ‘civil’ clothes. I usually only wore jeans that were two sizes too big for me with a polo shirt I purchased at a benetton. I had them in many colours. My parents had a problem if I wore jeans that fit ‘too well’ or sleeveless tops (I still feel strange when I put a sleeveless top on now). They always made me worry about how my clothes and in turn my body was perceived. They were worried I would be seen as if I did not come ‘from a good home with good values’. All this from a pair of jeans. They worried about the signals my body language would be giving out. My body was left to the ministrations of my mother as she dictated to me what clothing suited me and what did not. I was not allowed to grow my hair out for a long time. Every time I painted my nails she would have a cutting comment. When I decided to line my lids with kajal like the rest of my friends my parents had a problem with that as well. I never wore lipstick. One hot summer morning I wore a sleeveless top and had very faintly lined my lids with kajal. My sweat caused the kajal to smudge all over my eyes and my father who was driving home saw me walk ‘in that state’ and was ‘very disappointed’. I got a yelling from my mother later.
My parents always insisted that I wear only salwar suits because I needed to cover up. When I was to go to Delhi University to study my mother got four starchy salwar suits made for me.The material itched and the churidar fit too tight at my ankles. I hated them. I hated being forced to wear them even more. I felt I could not decide what I wanted to wear, or to have a distinct personality of my own that shone through a personal sense of style. Arms could elicit lasciviousness I was told, and I was not to encourage it with a sleeveless top. I could not show my legs because then I was a tart and I looked disrespectful. I couldn’t wear skirts or anything that hugged my form. My body was not mine to do with it what I wanted. I was to cover it.
All this was coupled with an extremely possessive boyfriend, now ex boyfriend, who did not like it if I wore anything too low cut.
Being in Delhi, away from the sartorial clutches of my parents, gave me the freedom to wear what I wanted. I found that when I was not forced to put on a salwar suit I wanted to wear them of my own accord. So much of what I wore, or did not wear was tied to my mother’s approval and fear of her disapproval. When I realised this I stopped assigning so much weight to what my parents thought was ‘tart-like’ and what was not. I began to wear shorts and skirts, clothes my parents would have been very angry to see on me. I got a job and I stayed in my academy during my training and I wore what I pleased, glad I could buy apparel with my own money. My arms, the appendages that caused men to salivate according to my parents and one very conservative college professor, I decided to sprinkle with tattoos. In scribbling my own skin I felt I was daring to stake a claim on it. Something this permanent was too audacious even for me. But I did it even though I knew my parents would find it gauche and have a billion and one things to say. They’d called me modnik, or weirdo or a prostitute. But they can’t make me wipe it off like kajal or change into something else.