A senior colleague and I were arguing some time ago. He insisted you should only wear what you were comfortable in, while I held that it was important at times to be wearing what everyone else was. I should know.
Appa being the sorts who, seeing me dither between two dresses, would tell the shopkeeper to pack up both, I’d always been reasonably well-dressed till I moved from parental largesse to earning my own living. The said living was decidedly meagre. When you’re waiting for a parental cheque to get you your dinners in the last week of a month, you definitely don’t beg for new clothes.
That was probably the shabbiest period of my life (though I must say present times could provide serious competition!). But I only realized it when, two days after we were married, the husband and I visited a friend of the Ma-in-Law. She appraised me critically and said with great hauteur, ‘We were very relieved to see you had got yourself proper clothes for the wedding. I’d feared you would make a laughing stock of us.’ A bride of two days cannot retort to a jibe like that, but the cruelty of it still stings me. Which is probably why this outpouring.
A couple of years later, the husband and I were in Delhi. The newsmagazine we had joined had just been launched and there was a party to celebrate it. Two decades later, these things are commonplace, but then I was feverish in my anxiety: what would I wear? For I had walked out of the labour room every kilo intact, plus a baby in my arms. None of my clothes fit me. Finally, I plumped on a salwar-kameez I had acquired post-baby. In the best Jaipur tradition, it was hot pink and turquoise silk.
Imagine my horror when I waddled into a room full of people set out in Delhi’s summer best — crisp cotton chikan in mainly white, interspersed with a couple of pale greens and mauves. Even the men wore white and cream! I fortified myself at the sangria bar, ensconced myself in the darkest room I could find and wept my heart out.
The first thing I did after that awful party was to save up for a chikan outfit. To this day, I believe firmly that I must have one crisp white outfit in my wardrobe at all times. You cannot survive in Delhi without one.
The next challenge was the family occasion. The Ma-in-Law has two-thirds and then some of her family in Delhi. So I often find my wardrobe stretched to the limit, flitting from wedding to funeral to family party. No matter which option you’ve hit from the three above, you can be sure you are being evaluated from every visible angle. And on a journalist’s salary, there’s no way you can afford one kundan necklace, let alone a new one for every wedding.
I’ve worked my way around the weddings by investing in a couple of diehard silk saris. The trick, I discovered, was to avoid zari at all cost and buy styles no can put a date on. You can get away with only a reasonable dent in your wallet. But you can end up, like I did, creating a furore in a multi-level sari shop in Ernakulam because I was insistent I wanted a traditional Temple border silk. The fashions that year did not include traditional Temple borders, and the salesgirl serving me multiplied to a full bevy, scurrying to find me a sari I would put my money on. I would swear the floor manager was happier than me when they finally unearthed my perfect sari.
Funerals are more tricky. What you wear could mar you for life. After the first family funeral, I’ve learnt to keep a whole stock of dupattas, in various assorted colours that would put you to sleep. They cover a whole gamut of sins. I’ve also learnt you don’t wear crisp, glowing white the way they do in TV serials. And that to wear a post-box red T-shirt and still be invited to be a pall-bearer, you have to be born into the family, or at least a son-in-law!
Of course, the twist comes just as you think you know it all. Some years ago, at a school (the husband’s, not mine) reunion I attended in the de rigueur crisp white chikan, I found everyone and his wife in uniform black trouser suits. But by then, I had the years and the experience to toss my head and say, ‘Will you just look at that herd mentality! Black in a Delhi July – ughhh!’ What goes unsaid is there’s no way my backside can – or will – walk into a pair of form-fitting pants.
First published in The Financial Express.