I hang clothes and things on my body. At first there hadn’t been much to hang, just my childish shirts and trousers and the flowered cotton frocks my mother insisted on. English frocks, she said. Lovingly designed by her and cut and sewed by Gouri di of the busy little dressmaker’s shop on bare, unvarnished Rashbehari Avenue, which harbored no trees.
My dress hangs there.
Her Tehuana dress. Red embroidered bodice. Full skirt. Beautiful distractions worn over three or four pairs of socks and a brace for a bad back. No flowers in sight. Elaborate urban disarray, skyscrapers, a profusion of trash and smoke, an island in the background of steely sea and a shadow of Libertas, hand raised.
American women of the Depression lived in dark housedresses and learned to mend corsets and underpants and stockings. An ocean away British girls were learning to do without stockings, new underwear and sanitary napkins.
Frida painted her reality. She was in New York. Her heart was in Mexico.
I spend a lot of time looking at clothes in shops. And not just clothes. A certain kind of bright, feminine aesthetic is very attractive to me. I peruse old fashion magazines and while away afternoons at auction houses and boutiques and used bookshops to surround myself with their beauty. I see them and smell them and touch them and sense their reverberations on my skin. And I buy things that erupt in a charm that nobody else sees, that I imbue with meaning that exists only for me. I buy them and find places for them in my closets and on my shelves and the wide granite counter in my bathroom.
Bowls, figurines, postcards, strings of beads, feathers, perfume in unusual vials, pigments for the lips and cheeks and eyes, dresses and skirts, scarves and unserviceable lingerie.
There they exist peaceably, never moved except for weekly dustings. Clothing never worn, swaying from contraptions that serve especial purposes. Light winter things on slim metal. Eveningwear crowded together on padded satin. Businesslike shirts on polished wood the same color as me. A shimmering arsenal.
That is what I mean for them to do. Be.
The school was in a convent, a utilitarian annex joined to the nunnery where the real life of the establishment played out. Every morning the nuns prayed in starched habits and the girls in their white blouses and blue pleated skirts that had to hang exactly two inches below the knee. A Horlicks jar full of coins sat on a shelf in the office lobby, collecting fines from transgressors whose skirts were shorter, who wore no slip over their brassiere or had dirty fingernails. Moral Science (Mondays and Fridays) was the principal lesson of the week and the nuns, who were called Sisters, like nurses, delivered sermons on the immaculate conception and the resurrection, and the evils of lust and homosexuality, masturbation and fornication. The girls had a pocket dictionary hidden in a bathroom cubicle to look up the meanings of hard words. And sometimes, girls kissed girls in that same bathroom. Or a victim was singled out.
You sure you haven’t got three tits? Show us if you’ve got hair. I dare you.
Dilli borders. Ghaziabad on my side of the street, Noida when you cross over. Indian summer. Blinding days. Torrid nights. The office is air-conditioned but the shared flat is not. Eight girls live in three bedrooms (three, three and two) and share as many bathrooms. You paid more for the room with twin beds and en suite separated by a practical metal nightstand. The woman-with-a-baby who cooks and cleans sleeps on a mattress on the dining room floor and gives new tenants the lowdown. There’s a litany of house rules. Rent was due on the fifth of each month. If you lost your house keys you paid for a duplicate. You packed your own lunch and ate dinner at the table. You were allowed to cook, but you had to get your own utensils. No meat. No tea or coffee was served, but you got juice out of a carton a couple of times a week. If you were eating out you called the help and notified her; wasting food was “wrong”. You never brought boys back. The only men who ever crossed the threshold were garbage collectors, the electrician or the plumber. You never left used pads in the bathroom. You just wrapped and tossed right away.
There’s a good deal of snack wrappers and hair swept out everyday, and plenty of washing. There are regulations here, too. You bought your own detergent (and shampoo and soap and lotion) and stowed it away in plastic containers under your bed, where you also stored the snacks you got from home and the high heels worn on Saturday nights (Saturday nights are extraordinary; round brushes, makeup and chunky costume jewelry appear from impossible hiding places and transform these ordinary women into glamorous, slightly frightening glitterati). Leave anything on the inadequate little shelves at the two by three mirrors (one to each bedroom) and they’ll be stolen in a heartbeat.
The balcony, mercifully, is deep enough for a drying rack, which is hung brazenly all the time with underwear just-washed by hand – bikini briefs, bras, slips, camisoles, shapewear by Jockey and Clovia. Thick cotton or easy nylons appear all week and lacey diaphanous pieces on Sunday. Discolored and threadbare and mildly perforated. Stained with acidic ooze and sex. Also nightdresses (washed every two wears) and bathrobes (never washed). The life of bodies on display. I know everybody’s sizes, I know about the diffidence of stunted breasts and distended bellies, of the comfort of light nightgowns in the damp heat. Everybody knows mine.
For everything else – kurtas, tunics, shirts, jeans, trousers, skirts and dresses and sheets, but mostly the long flaming kurtas Dilli loves, kurtas bought at Lajpat or Sarojini or GK, sequin yokes and fluttery sleeves and threadwork at the hems, dries in two hours flat! – there’s the old semi-automatic Videocon that whirs tiredly night and day. Over it is a laundry schedule sellotaped to the wall, a timetable the girls have agreed to but often flout, and each of these violations is followed by pettishness, accusations, or full-blown blazing rows. A blouse needed for a Monday meeting forked out by someone using the washer out of her turn. A pair of white pajamas stained red from another’s bleeding skirt. Who put that skirt in with my lights? Thursday evenings are mine, bitch. In shared flats girls brawl over clothes. Girls go without speaking to girls for weeks. Girls gang up on other girls. In ours, vengeful commands are issued to the woman-with-the-baby-in-residence to not cook dinner for J, “she’s eating out tonight with the new boyfriend”, when she’s not.
My sober, hard-wearing pants and cotton tops – I own nothing vibrant or silky or diaphanous or particularly womanly – are done on Saturday nights, when the girls with boyfriends are out and those without conduct the management of their looks – nails are filed and painted, masks massaged into hair and elbows and knees scrubbed to remove dead skin and ingrown hairs. (I’m always in, because in my head weekends are designated days of writing. From time to time I’m able to put a few sentences down. When I look at them again I’m inevitably embarrassed.)
I eat out fairly often. Sometimes after-work parties transpire, and there are one or two men I am loosely involved with and go to dinner with in the same things I wore to work, which are easy to take off afterwards, when I like to concentrate on fingertips sidling along my thigh, unintelligible endearments moaned into my hair, my feeling of consequence and power and light abandon.
I check material carefully when I buy everyday clothing. I pick fabrics that resist wrinkling and surrender any stains to a solution of shampoo and hot water in minutes.
More than once after these vinous evenings I have forgotten to call and let the woman know. Then there’s been hell to pay.
Brown women, black women, yellow women, white women, poor women, Muslim women, disabled women, wealthy women, jailed women, working women, immigrant women, acquiescing women, protesting women, refugee women, pregnant women, virgins and prostitutes and wives and mothers and mistresses have had hell to pay.
Casual sexism. Serious sexism. Street harassment. Objectification. Foot binding. Crinolines and corsets and the underwired bra. Stilettos for extra leg length and Brazilian wax to depilate the pubis. Arsenic for pale skin. Maori face tattoos. Coiled brass neck and shin rings the Myanmarese Kayan men decided their women must wear. Chastity belts around the bodies of crusaders’ wives and daughters.
Dismissal. Slander. Libel. Lower wages. The glass ceiling. No wages for cooking and cleaning for families. None for childcare.
Witch burning. Objectification. Forced pregnancy. Feticide. Infanticide. Genital mutilation. No birth control. No healthcare. Honor killing. Acid attacks. Assault. Battery. A steady risk of rape.
2004. Thangjam Manorama found dead in Imphal. Bullet wounds on her body. Gashes on the legs. Genitals bloodied.
Indian Armed Forces have Special Powers. To rape, maim, kill.
A dozen Manipuri women strip in public. The papers said “disrobe”. Imas – mothers – carrying a banner inviting the army to rape them all. Offering their flesh in exchange for their daughters’.
Giant red letters on bleached canvas. A sultry day.
People will offer to send food. Take you out for coffee or an afternoon of shopping. Write you emails of solidarity. Tell you that you didn’t ask for it.
Between your six big meals and the sugary snacks you have at arm’s reach you consider suicide and settle for thin cuts along your arms. You shear your head with the kitchen scissors, drink too much. Live it all over again in strobe flashbacks.
It’s allowed, they’ll tell you. You got raped. An incontrovertible fact – evidence in the pelvic exam report – that has erected without your noticing it a firm partition between everything that happened before, and everything to come. The falling away of support and interest. Calls not returned. Advice. Talk to someone. Go away on a trip.
And at some point, somebody might ask if you were wasted. How well did you know him, really? Take control of your life. Stop playing the professional victim. You’re tough, right? A survivor.
The morning after I went to work as usual. There was nothing the matter with my ability to spot mistakes in copy. I ordered shapta for lunch and thought absently of the dress I’d worn, my one showy garment. The fancy satin rose at the left shoulder had come off. I’d put it in my handbag. A clever tailor could sew it back on. I told nobody.
Maybe I misunderstood. Maybe he meant no harm.
I once knew a woman – a friend’s grandmother – who had crossed over to Calcutta from Faridpur in Bangladesh. This was in April, 1971. Pakistani forces gunned down eight Hindu monks at an ashram in Goalchamat. Days later, over 300 Hindu men, women and children were killed in Bodidangi.
“We took the children and fled,” the woman said. “We had only the clothes on our backs.”
They walked for days, traveled on overloaded boats and the roof of a train.
They had a little land. Grain in the barn. She had gold earrings shaped like birds and silver armlets, her shrine for Satyanarayan, her hearth and a fresh rice-paste drawing of Lakshmi’s auspicious feet at the threshold. They stayed behind. In Calcutta she had no address for years, just the name of a relief camp, but she eventually wrote to her two married sisters in Cumilla and Rajshahi. If they ever wrote back their letters missed her.
Dhaka fell months later, in midwinter. Nearly 400,000 Bengali women and girls were raped in a systematic campaign. But we didn’t talk about that.
There’s not as much to do in Calcutta as in Dilli or Bombay. I know the streets and hole-in-the-wall joints where they fry fish filets on an open fire, the half-empty boutiques and the rigid mannequins in the windows, the signs in Bangla and English over courier service and sweetmeat outlets. I catch bits of flyaway conversation that I understand and I draw quick, unkind conclusions.
I have no job, so I kill time at an unpopular cafe, bringing a book with me, and a notebook and pens, in case I think of a phrase or a sentence worth recording. There are regulars who spend hours smoking in the roofed backyard, nursing espresso shots (made with hot water mixed into two spoons of instant) poured over ice. The men all have beards and unwashed hair and the girls, who are years younger than me, are tattooed and pierced within an inch of their lives. Everyone, including me, is in soft printed cotton, which is sensible given the humidity and the absence of proper ventilation. I don’t have the huge sunglasses perched on heads, or the feeble Osho sandals, or German silver and beads around my wrists and necks. They fit the description of flower children or the rich trying to look poor.
Quickly, casually, we befriend each other. Several times a week we meet in the smoky yard. We talk – or the men talk – about the artists they admire and projects they’ve been meaning to start; we are each trying to write or paint or make films and we have blocks. Soon enough I’m marked out as one of their kind, and I’m permitted to enter the busy place they’ve fabricated, where mutual confidences live and each person has roles they play reliably. Keeper of half-secrets, acolytes and followers, or competent listeners, which is what I am. We are clasts in a bright, unkempt conglomerate cemented by common tribulation, toughened but exposed to risks of humiliation and rejection. There’s safety in sticking together. We give up our preoccupation with individuality and slip out of our separate bodies in our heady rush to belong.
Passes are made (but not at me). Attention is lavished on the nubile girls, hookups hinted at. Perhaps I am past it. Perhaps my body, my way of preparing it for the world do not pass scrutiny. Should I cut my hair? Get my septum pierced? Possibly I’m too strident, too fat, too old for amorous adventures. I may as well be invisible, or enveloped in a burqa. I am like Chantal in Milan Kundera’s Identity. “Men don’t turn to look at me anymore.”
But I think my reality is closer to Alice Munro’s protagonists, ambitious women with plans of going up in the world. Women fettered by filial duty, going after the thinnest chances of escape from the lives they were born into, without any capital except cleverness. Girls disqualified from a chance at romance because of the brazen intelligence they don’t try to pass off as something more agreeable to a man.
A certain kind of seriousness in a girl can cancel out good looks, Munro wrote. I bought into the idea immediately. Remembering it in private moments of alarm brings me relief.
2023. Manipur is on fire again. The Meitei, who live in the rolling green Imphal valley, want “scheduled tribe” status, which means access to reserved college seats and government jobs. The Kuki are hill people, and they are afraid that their forested lands and their children’s opportunities will be taken from them. Over 50,000 Kuki fled arson and assault and murder through the summer. Half that number were taken to camps. A woman delivered a baby in a Churachandpur camp. There were no healthcare workers, no medicine, no clean clothes and not nearly enough food.
A Meitei mob stripped two Kuki women naked and paraded them down the streets of Kangpokpi. This has been captured on someone’s smartphone, and is everywhere on social media. Somebody has thought to blur the two cringing bodies on display. Hands behind their backs. Driven like cattle into a low field to be raped, in short order.
There is routine outrage, a proliferation of shame. The Prime Minister promises an investigation. His heart, we hear on television, “is filled with pain and anger.”
What happened when the Meitei men finished with them? Who covered them up? Who took them home?
I still hang things on my body. The dresses and skirts and blouses I have collected compulsively present themselves like forthcoming friends. To have so much choice brings on a faint guilt. I pull on tunics and trousers for work, comfortable soft jeans and plain tops for weekends of writing in a cafe – not the one I frequented when I was broke and newly returned home to Calcutta, but a cheerful place with good light, high ceilings and painted wood tables. The coffee is a dark roast and comes in thick white cups. Most days I can get about a thousand words down. This gives me a new kind of pleasure. I buy very little, and only the items that need replacing or replenishment. I have enough to wrap around my body, and more.