My cousin sister Manisha is getting engaged this Saturday. When I first heard the news, I promptly made a public statement at dinner that evening, declaring that I was going to wear a lehenga. A proper lehenga. Amma smiled quizzically, what d’you mean by proper, she asked. Taking a deep breath I replied, not Fabindia.
He sat us down, emphatically insisting that he will open every one of the coloured packets we showed even the slightest interest in. Each time, before delicately spreading it out, he’d flap it vigorously in the air like a doormat, sending buffeting winds of cloth dust in our asthmatic direction. Heavy borders of shimmering embroidery stood out against the wispy chiffon blues and greens, huge mango designs ballooned over faint patterns. He suggested this combination with that, assured us that the red dupatta would be “ekdum fatak”, with the black lehenga draped across his arm.
I eased out a light blue skirt from beneath the ever-growing pile. He watched me do that and asked if I’d like to try it. But… it was semi-stitched right? He laughed, waving a hand dismissively the way he did at our 2500 rupee budget–koi problem nahi hai, aap idhar khadi ho jaye please? I obediently khadi-fied. Wrapping the skirt around my waist, he whipped out a peach coloured belt, and in deft, swift movements slapped it over the skirt and velcroed it into place with one firm swipe. Then, swirling the dupatta around me, he tucked one end into my skirt, swung the other over my shoulder and – pausing to strategically position my arm – looped it to fall gracefully from my wrist. You could hardly tell it was semi stitched at all!
Unfortunately we decided not to buy anything from that first store, and so apologising sincerely for having made him unravel all those lehenga ‘sets’, we backed out onto Commercial street for some fresh air.
A proper lehenga. A full-fully jillbila lehenga with gold glitter and everything. Brightly coloured, made of thin, fine material. Like the ones in Bollywood movies. Haan, you know that song Ghagra? Or or, the song Radha from that waste Alia Bhatt movie? Like that kind of lehenga.
What’s wrong with Fabindia lehengas?
Well… they’re dull. No they’re not. Okay okay, not dull, but… you’ll never find neon colours there. A puzzled sigh. A pause. So just the colours then? Um no, the glitter. You want glitter? Yes, the jhimki. I smile stupidly.
We walk into the all too familiar Fabindia store and the shop attendants smile recognition. I saw this one skirt here last week when I came with Hema, Ma was saying, it’s like a lehenga only. She turns to the shop attendant, it was purple I think. The one with some sequins? The lady sifts through some piles on a wooden shelf. I look around, and spot a kurta with the same mismatched block print pattern as the one on our cushion covers at home.
Aah, it was like this one. See Shalom? You can wear this with that orange top you wore to Sujata’s wedding, it’s quite a bright colour isn’t it? I shuffle near her shoulder, Mmhmm… She bends to pull some palazzo pants out.
I spot a string of fairy lights near the display window, each LED glowing within a cube made of dyed palm leaves. When I had asked to buy it once long ago, Acha said I could make them at home. Why buy handmade when you can have homemade.
You know Shalom, you can wear these with a long kurta. That’s the magical thing about this pant, it looks like a skirt from far. Why don’t you try it and see?
We walk out.
We were watching Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani on TV the other day and as my parents wince at the massive Jaipur palace they look at me and laugh– “Haha Shalom, this is you in a few years huh?”, “Hopefully this will pass like that Barbie-doll phase!” says Acha, “Will you make your boyfriend look like those guys in the Manyavar ads? Rang jama de!” my brother teases.Yea yea, you guys can laugh. But I’m not going to have some NGO type small gathering of only close friends in the middle of the day and all.
NGO type. I think that is my greatest grudge against Fabindia. I remember when my father’s cousin got married in Dubai. My whole family turned up at the wedding looking like we’d just walked in from some Krishnamurti school function. Which is okay if it was one of our alternative education, organic food, freelancing artist type friends getting married. But for a wedding where the bride was a born and brought-up Bombayite from a super affluent Bora muslim family? A wedding where there were lamps floating in the pool and rose petals floating in wide brass vessels full of scented water? A wedding which went on for three days with a Sangeeth and a Mehendi, complete with the long, colourful dupattas flowing from the ceiling? Not to mention chandeliers that hung from trees? For a wedding like that to wear Bata’s best footwear and Fabindia’s curtain prints… Oh hell no.
And it isn’t okay for my cousin’s wedding either. There are 6 of us girls on my mother’s side and all of us grew up on Shah-Rukh-and-Kajol movies. Now finally one of us is getting married! The sisters in Mumbai (and will someone explain to me why, oh why, I can’t say cousin sisters?) choreographed a dance to the song London Thumakda from the movie Queen. While the rest of us in Bangalore and Hyderabad struggled to learn from their videos, Amma and her siblings had loud phone conversations – basically, 99% laughter. I bet my father’s cousin’s Bora muslim bride’s mother and her siblings never laughed. In fact they even choreographed a dance sequence of their own!
This time we enter a big store: Wow – World of Women. One with huge display windows and posing white mannequins. We say we’re looking for lehengas and as we arrive at the appropriate section, the salesman behind the counter takes one look at us and asks “Simpal chahiye?”.
We nod, yes yes, simple is what we’re looking for. He looks again and raising his chin, asks, “Aur budget?”
4000 ke zyada nahi chahiye, Amma says this time. He sniffs and turns to pull out a packet. We’re left to gather what we can through the plastic. Ma asks him to open it up and show us a few other colours. I point at one particular packet with red and peach coloured cloth inside but he refuses to bring it down. “Nahi nahi, 25,000” — he dismisses my small protest. Aur woh? I point to a pink and silver one. His mouth moves and I imagine him chewing paan and spitting it out before he grunts “28,000”. I raise an eyebrow and we wisely turn back to the shelf he stood waiting by. I choose a yellow and red one. It’s pretty.
You’re sure you’ll wear it again? On your school ethnic day or whatever I want to see you in this. I nod and thank heaven we have no ethnic day. I don’t want to hear that people-have-seen-me-in-this excuse okay? I nod again. Easy to say for someone who wore the same black sari to three family functions until an aunt called in advance and warned her not to wear it at the fourth.
I stand before the mirror and keep my arm poised. A woman attendant fixes the semi-stitched lehenga on with a black belt, also velcro. The gold embroidered border is so thick it comes up to my knees and the bottom of the skirt stands.
I buy Amma some lime-juice. She looks at the footpath and I know she wants to sit there. We’re near Meena Bazar, the display window filled with mannequins in lehengas. Keep walking, keep walking, Amma’s energy has suddenly returned.
The fourth shop we enter is Lals. The shop attendant welcomes us in and slipping behind the counter asks pleasantly “Simpal madam?” and we nod, now no longer bothering to take offence. The lehenga I finally select from him is neon green with a neon orange dupatta. It has a gold border and is sprinkled with tiny gold sequins. It’s bright and colourful and Bollywood. They take my measurements and get the blouse stitched for me within three days. It fits like a corset and I can’t lift my arms. But who needs to lift their arms anyway. It’s got clasps at the back, so some handsome young man can walk in when I’m struggling with it, offer to help and fall in love with me in the awkward silence that follows. The dupatta is light and fluttery. It cost 6 grand, it won’t survive the washing machine, and I doubt there’ll be another wedding for the next few years, unless I pay someone to marry me.
I stand before the full-length mirror in my parents bedroom. Amma’s adjusting my dupatta. Acha sits at his work table, turning in his chair to see me. “Mm…” he says and nods his head from side to side leaving the rest unsaid. Ishaan strides in all sweaty from basketball class, and freezes. Oh. The side-to-side nod. A pause. He turns to our parents.
Ma, what am I going to wear?
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