When I was a child, I used to close my eyes every night, wishing desperately that I would wake up as someone else.
As I grew older, I started to express my identities through my wardrobe. For years, I wore close cropped hair and what is considered ‘masculine’ clothing. For one whole year in my late teens, I wore no other colour but black. For my 20th birthday, I gave myself a nose piercing. The year I was a graduate student in the grey city of London, I wore bright colours, gigantic earrings, and bindis.
In other words, I stopped wishing I was someone else and started actively becoming those people.
As is the case with so many of us, easing into my own skin has never been simple. Today, as a journalist and an activist who secretly writes fiction, lives with chronic illness, loves and is loved by two cats, and is drawn to kathak and ghazal and thumri, I try to remind myself about a few things every day. That becoming is slow. That it’s not only okay, but important to fail repeatedly. That my work doesn’t begin at nine and end at five, but is clutched into my palm at night as I sway into sleep, and stretches slowly awake beside me every morning.
An old friend I haven’t met in some years asked me recently, “What is it that you do again? I cannot keep up with you.”
These are the things I do for love and money, to keep body and soul together, to stay independent for as long as I live, to serve a community and to be useful to other people. I work for a small non-profit as an editor and a writer. I edit a small blog where I commission other people (mostly women) to write about their disability, and their sexuality. I copy edit a longform imprint on gender, sex, and technology. I write and report for mainstream news websites on gender, culture and human rights. Sometimes, I will take on a freelance assignment or two — this means covering literature festivals, going to the outskirts of a city to meet with families and police officers, calling up government officials and lawyers for quotes, for stories, for interviews. I do my best to stay active within queer and feminist collectives. I volunteer as much of my time as my body will allow.
This is the thing I do only for a strange, urgent kind of love: I curl into myself and feed the calm serious nine-year-old who once decided she would be a writer. I make fiction.
But I do this secretly, and with difficulty, deleting more than I write, worrying myself to the ground. My relationship with writing — all writing, but especially fiction — is bound up with anxiety. I censor and edit myself out of existence, so that Shreya the fiction writer is almost completely invisible.
In this place of struggle, of slowly trusting myself enough to stop self-sabotaging, of ignoring impostor syndrome constantly to try to convince myself that I can do this, there is only one way in which she-who-I-am-becoming manifests herself fully outside of my dreams — in my baroque wardrobe.
I know little about what’s fashionable or how to wear most makeup, but I paint my lips burgundy and crimson, line my eyes with gold, silver and cerulean. I wear twinkling bindis of all sizes, and faded floral boots.
On the last day of a conference I attended recently, I wore a halter-neck tea dress, a shade of lipstick that made my mouth look like Vampira’s, and pinned my favourite red flower onto my long hair. At an event during which I received a fellowship, I wore a small corset, a generous cream skirt, and long silver earrings from Dariba Kalan, a market in Old Delhi that’s been operational since the 17th century. A lot of my clothes are designed by my mother — a wide kalidar skirt, or several simple tops cut like blouses. I wear these as I write alone at home, hoping that some of the comfort I gain from my mother’s creativity will seep into the jagged relationship with my own work.
On days that I am fatigued, and feel defeated by my illness (and these are more than I can count), I wear my favourite amber ikat pants, line my eyes with kohl, pull my hair up away from my face and do my best to work. I wear an old, much-loved kalamkari kurta when I go out to report, and a shimmering red chanderi skirt to chant and dance in at Pride. To make up for the loneliness of my workday, I wear cloth earrings and huge silver necklaces, ceramic rings and thick anklets. Once I found the perfect ankh, and once the perfect hamsa — I wear them both around my neck, knotted in cloth or string. On my nose, I always wear a glinting silver ring.
I wear this exaggerated femininity lightly. I love burlesque and it is with a burlesque spirit that I approach my outfits, shrugging them off and putting them on as though they were costumes. My daily wear is just one step removed from full-on cosplay. This is one space in which I don’t take myself too seriously, so that I’m able to play and be inventive in a way that I’d like to with my stories.
Much of what I wear is inherited from a woman who I met when I was 20. She was the first serious young woman artist I’d ever met, and she left a deep impression. Over the years, as our friendship grew, became closer and richer and deeper, she began to give me things she thought I’d enjoy, many of them she herself had loved and worn for years. It is she who gave me a large ring shaped like a fish, heavy silver jhumkas, her floral corset, a long purple skirt, a Tuareg cross to wear around my neck, and a vintage dress she once discovered which has Mughal miniature paintings printed all over it. These objects are beloved to me because they are a reminder of everything that inspires me about this woman’s person and her work — and in her case, they are one and the same.
Of all the people I love, I feel that she is one of the few who sees through my fumbling exterior and comprehends the jewel tones that are just dying to burst through. I wear all her presents with love, like they are amulets and talismans that envelop with me some of her strength.
This teacher of mine, this distiller of beauty and grace, has become slightly more austere in her personal style as she has grown even more skilled at her work. (She’s still the most distinctly striking person in most rooms, both for what she wears and how she wears it.)
Perhaps one day, my own appearance will become simpler, as I will have become much more like she-who-I-am-becoming. Perhaps, I won’t need this flamboyance so much anymore. Perhaps, I won’t have time or patience or need for it, and perhaps, I’ll pour all of my selves into my stories. Perhaps. Or perhaps, I’ll keep wearing satin and khadi and jasmine perfume oil, silver and flowers and red lips, keep striding out with this jewel in my nose.