The two-frock childhood

My childhood was awesome, and then some. We were a piece of the big mass of the great Indian middle class. But the two frocks was more my Dad’s idea of what girls should be wearing in the 70’s. We were not poor, we always had plenty to eat, a roomful of books ( a household where books were a preferred choice than any other gift), holidays ( no, not to Singapore and Malaysia, but more like Bhopal, Osiaji and more local flavored places). Bengalis buy their new clothes during the once-in-the-year phenomenon called Puja. My mom, as usual, never had a say in the important matters of the family like what should I wear during the 5 days.

So, our standard process started with me sitting pillion on the cycle, and my dad, driving laboriously to our favorite seamstress, somewhere between B road and A road. He would stop outside her home and shout, Seemaji! at the top of his voice. She would come out looking terrified. Now, I must tell you something about her. She was very prim and proper, hair tightly wound in a bun, possibly widow or unmarried, never smiled, wearing faded cotton salwaar kamiz. You get the drift. Once she came outside, dad would ask her, pointing to me, how much material for her frock, she would look up and down at me and mutter some meters and then we would cycle down to NTC shop.

All brands, as per dad, were चोर and bigger brands महाचोर. So it was always NTC. He asked me to choose the cloth for my frocks, and I would pick from whatever little options I had. Then back to the seamstress. She would take measurements and then ask me for what kind of design I wanted. Now I was pretty unimaginative where fashion was concerned. Not having any access to magazines, no TV at that time, only idea I had was by reading books, Victorian books. So my choices were typically over sized, high neck, full sleeves, a lace here and a lace there, at least 4 inches below the knees, belts and frills in weird places. She also added some ideas from her minimal small town marwari experience and what evolved was something pretty OK, but then there was no other choice. And those few dresses had to last me for the full year till it was time for the next Puja again.

Now, since I had limited wardrobe, my attire at home was mostly a गंजी and bloomers, or frocks from past years which had moved above the knees and therefore, not suitable for public viewing.

I was into Athletics in school and was expected to wear something called shorts, which my dad would never never buy for me. When my sports sir told me, wear shorts and come to the ground, I went in my bloomers and he promptly sent me back home, he was more shy than I was. So, to find a jugaad solution, my brother’s old faded Mahesh school trousers came to the rescue, which fitted me perfectly and just needed to be made short enough to qualify as shorts.

As I grew older and started getting a monthly allowance, I started exploring other avenues like Bombay dyeing. And a tailor called Verma tailors who was the one person everyone went to in our town.

I had no exposure to readymades, jeans or trousers, national or international fashion, something which you may find hard to believe. Thanks to my bro, when he started working in Bombay, that is what it was called then, he started bringing me back stuff from fashion street. So in high school and college, I had a wardrobe with little more variations. I still remember my first and only vanilla jeans, that lasted all through my college years. I had a dreadful time with the zip that insisted on opening every time I would sit till I learnt by accident how to lock it. That was a problem that could not be shared with anyone, save my dad, who just told me I was too fat to fit into it.

In school, I also learnt to sew as part of the optionals and enjoyed it so much that I started experimenting on myself. Yes, I sewed my own clothes for a few years, frocks, tops and the likes. I was absolutely not great at it, just about passably ok. But I did get a little more variety, my own designs, now with buttons, and elastics, and embroidery, which was the fundamental idea.

My best friend gave me some exposure as she had relatives in Australia and my God, when I saw some of her stuff, carelessly thrown in the almirah. The material, the fall of the frocks, with my eyes wide open I would try some of her stuff, close my eyes, and feel like a fairy.

Before we lived happily ever after

Logically speaking, I should start with how I met and started flirting with my current husband. But that is for another time. Today I want to talk about some of the hilarious events leading to the inter-caste-marriage that we had. Remember that 90’s was a conservative period for the smaller towns in India and divorces and love-marriages were spoken in shushed-tones.

Once upon a time in 1988-89, Anuraag and I decided, we will get married. To each other. Some day. We did not talk about it at home, of course. Who does that? My mom, being a die-hard Bengali and strongly influenced by her peer group, when I was in III year, decided that it was time for some prospective grooms to meet me. I know there were people who helped influence her judgment about the girls-growing-up-and-getting-out-of-hand (and whose daughters wanted to do nothing in life except marry and settle down).  I thank such interfering bees from the bottom of my shoe, who have nothing better to do than match-making for all kids in the block.

Well, to continue the story, some ill-meaning neighbor brought a “रिश्ता” and I was asked to meet the guy. I, as expected, said NO. But maybe not loudly enough, because the family turned up officially to “see me” one evening. My mom begged me not to create a scene so I complied. This guy was tall and broad, his wrist was probably twice mine (remember you are supposed to keep your eyes demurely down- all you get to see is the hands and the lower anatomy of the fellow). Having decided his fate a priori, I went and say Hello and sat down to talk to him. No, I did not wear a sari, or take a tray-full of samosas and tea. My parents and his parents, delicately left us alone and went to the bedroom to talk. Though I could bore anyone with my incessant conversation, I was tongue-tied for a while and we made some formal talk, what do you do, where do you study, what are your hobbies kind. Then he asked me what do you want to do. And I saw light. I told him I wanted to be the prime minister of India followed by an 5 minute extempore of why I believed  I was right for the job (the gift of glib came handy).  After my nonstop nonsense, I never quite figured out why he was in such a hurry to leave.  My parents were so happy that we had so much in common to talk about- little did they know how I scared him away.

With that safely out-of-the-way, life continued sedately for a while. A few days later, I heard another name, someone else was again coming for the same ritual. The day is etched in my mind. My dad was shaving. Mom was laying out breakfast and said they were going to come in the evening. And I burst out- I am not interested. I don’t want to meet anyone. And she asked- why? In 80’s 90’s the standard question was whether I had a boyfriend and not if I was gay. I said I have someone else in mind.  My mom asked- who, Anuraag? So I said yes. And then the slow motion B rated Hindi movie scene started.

Dad paused his shaving for an instant and continued as if nothing had happened. My mom, sat down heavily, not knowing what to say. I left for college. By the time I came back, mom was in कोप भवन. Her first and strongest reaction was “How can you marry a non-Bengali?” In her mind it was clear that there were only two classes- Bengalis and the rest of them. And of course, Bengalis are the elite ones, how can anyone even think of competing with Rabindra Nath Tagore and Uttam Kumar, Shuchitra Sen, the literature and एकला चोलो रे and the rich history? How could I stoop low enough to give up the cultural heritage and other such blahs for matters of the heart? When I said it doesn’t matter to me- she could not believe her ears- are you my daughter? Is this the संस्कार that I taught you?  Her next problem was “he is so dark, your kids will not be fair” Really ! She refused to eat for 3 days, I was crying in my room, she was crying in hers. My dad was mediating and cooking dishes trying to cool and feed both of us. Mom actually told my dad- she can’t go to college any more. And my dad laughed- you can’t do that, she is studying engineering. In next 3 days I tried several ways to get her to see reason- listing all the pros of my to-be-husband, why Bengali-panti was irrelevant to me, how I intended to survive without माछेर झोल, finally the only thing that worked was – I promise I am not going to run away to get married. I will only marry with your blessings and then she broke her fast-unto-whatever and started eating. After a few days, things became quite normal at home, except for some taunts that came out of nowhere, which I did my best to ignore. Little did I know what was brewing in her mind.

When Anuraag broke the news at his home, his mom’s reaction was even more lame “नमक लाना हैं तो माँ से पूछता हैं कौन सा , चला हैं लड़की पसंद करने” and finally- right now focus on studies, we will worry about these things later- which was probably the sanest thing to say.  Her only issue with me was thatI came from a non-vegetarian family. Interestingly the fathers on the both the sides were very pleased with the liaison from day one – maybe it saved them some hard work of finding a suitor.

This episode I came to know much later – few years post marriage. My bro had come home for a week. He got all the juicy details from my mom, with her local flavor added. The whole family conspired behind my back and my big bro – decided to intervene to save the इज़्ज़त of his younger sister and मान-मर्यादा of the family. He went over to the Jodhpur court to meet Anuraag’s mom. (She was working as a judge). Her version of the story.  She got a note that Jhilmil’s brother wants to meet her. She came out, a trifle apprehensive. And my bro gave it to her straight “आपके बेटे ने मेरी भोली-भाली बहन को फसाया हैं”. She responded in kind – “तुम्हारी बहन ने मेरे बेटे को फासा हैं” Corny dialogues of the same genre flew back and forth till they did not have anything more to throw. Finally they mutually agreed to find ways to keep us away from each other (the fact that we were classmates in college did not help them at all). My bro came home, exhausted with the outburst, but since they were fellow conspirators, he also added “But they are a pretty decent and educated family. Maybe we should really think this through.”

It took the families next two-three years to think things through. I left for my post grad. Anuraag took up a job somewhere in Rewari. Both parties were perversely  delighted- now that the kids are away from each other- the infatuation will go away. They don’t know till date that Anuraag came every weekend to meet me at Delhi. After waiting unsuccessfully for a year for us to have a breakup, they finally yielded and the rest is history. Polite perseverance and determination worked wonders.

Ps. Some expressions only make sense in the mother tongue, hence I resort to it from time to time. Like आपके बेटे ने मेरी भोली-भाली बहन को फसाया हैं- is not at all the same as- your son is luring my innocent sister. Qed.

00144