Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Fancy Dress

To my great chagrin, thanks to Kevin from Vodafone (lovely boy, but patently from Mumbai rather than Stoke-on-Trent, for example), I discover that I’ll never be Mrs Caroline. He asks (on my mobile, what a nerve) for Mr Roland. He’s out, raking in the shekels, I say. Kevin says, “You Mrs Roland?” So I stop thinking wistfully of Deborah Kerr as Mrs Anna in The King and I. This is more Princess Michael of Kent, but without the tiara. India’s no place for a liberated woman, despite the “Empowering Women” lettered on the back of the tuk-tuk in front. Feminism isn’t scheduled to take India by storm until about the twenty-third century, and I can’t wait that long.
You can tell a lot about a person from the way they dress, and it’s not just whether their jeans are Asda or Armani, here. You can tell where a person’s from, whether they’re married, what their father does for a living, almost when their cat last had kittens – all from the way they wrap their sari. It’s a social code we’re not privy to.
Mumbai straddles the sartorial culture-gap. We stand still for two minutes, at the entrance to In Orbit shopping mall, and see men dressed in jackets over wrap-around skirts, and women with sequinned kurtas over jeans, as well as polyester trousers and saris. You could stand blindfold, in front of your wardrobe, and select any random, mismatched ensemble, and you wouldn’t turn heads.
The Maharashtrian way to wrap a sari requires a longer length of fabric: the final twist passes between the legs before being tucked in. It results in a sumo-wrestler culotte-style effect, which, in my humble vanilla opinion, is much less elegant than its undivided Gujerati equivalent. While we’re waiting for Mr Roland to try on a swathe of kurtas, in Fabindia, the assistant tells me that the divided skirt is old-fashioned, but her grand-parents and their chums still favour it. I’ve seen the sari worn this way, in Mumbai, I tell her, but only... and then I hesitate, because I can’t say what I need to say, without appearing judgemental. “By street-sweepers,” she finishes for me. She takes the words right out of my mouth, with a smile and a shrug. “More practical, for the physical work.” Too right.
The traditional outfit comes in three pieces, the fitted bodice, or choli, the petticoat, and the sari itself. You pay more, to have saris laundered, because of the length and the extra starch. In my book, a fourth element’s pre-requisite, a slender brown midriff. Indian ladies of considerable proportions walk about in broad daylight thus exposed, without twitching drapes and folds into camouflage for comfort. I can only assume they acquire the habit before they acquire the embonpoint.
Trouser-wise, you have two options. The salwar, or the churidar. These are essentially the same at the top end – about as slinky and fitted as the average binbag, with a draw-string – but the salwar ends in a neat cuff at the ankle, whereas the churidar goes on for another half a yard, tapering off to a point. My churidar is taller than I am, when I hold it against me. You have to thread your feet in, and all the extra length sits in rings at your ankles. “Churi” means “bangles” and “dar” means “like” – on me it’s inevitably more Nora Batty than bangles, but you get the drift.
The salwar-kameez, the long tunic or shirt, over the baggy pyjama bottoms, is like a tracksuit, but glossier. So far, so good - then they give you the dupatta, the stole, which sorts out sheep from goat, in a flick of beaded chiffon. Indian women adjust their scarves unthinkingly, as you might smooth back your hair behind your ears. We, in the West, are out of our comfort zone, with two yards of georgette slithering off our shoulders. When they wise up to the market, and set up evening classes in dupatta-fettling, instead of flower-arranging, for hopeless ex-pats, I’ll have my name down quicker than you can say khadi dhoti.