By Ila Ananya
Today I am wearing my black jeans with a tight white tank top. On top of it, I’ve put on a sleeveless indigo tie and dye blouse that I’ll never wear without something under it because it’s too short, and my room full of mirrors has taught me to think of my legs as the trunks of apple trees.
I moved into my cousin’s room when I came to Bangalore and she left for Bombay. My friend S likes to come home, stand in front of the mirrors, pull at the sides of the top she is wearing, and smile. Amma had bought me this blue top when I was ten. I’m twenty-one now, and I don’t know why I still fit into it, but I do. I’ve matched it with a bronze bracelet, one of those spring ones, that I’ve wound around my wrist, just above the light green polka dot rubber band with a torn bow that I leave on my hand because I like to tie my hair with it occasionally. Mostly I like to leave my hair untied, because it comes up to my elbows, and I have odd loose telephone-wire curls like Amma used to have. Before I leave home, I’ll slip my feet into light brown ballerina slippers and straighten my black watch that I never remove.
On some days, there’s a woman in my head who throws together a mix of clothes, and I want to be like her. She’s the woman who told me to pair my black tank top with Amma’s old block printed cream shirt with oddly loose sleeves of a weird in-between length, above black jeans and the same brown chappals I’m wearing today. Then she told me to ruffle my hair so that it looks messier than it usually does, and run four fingers through it down the centre before flicking my hand to the left, so that the parting that my hair has fallen into since I was six disappears. I dress like this when I’m going to meet my friends at a pub. On the way there, it begins to rain, and my hair gets wet and sticks flat on my head and along the sides of my face. It dries in an unruly bush that I only notice when S and I have had too much to drink, and we steal V’s phone when she is in the bathroom, to take pictures of ourselves for her to keep.
My aunt has an expression when she is combing her hair in front of a mirror. I’ve seen the same expression on A, her daughter, when she pulls back her curly hair and ties it into a bun and you are forced to look at the centre of the spiral tattoo on the back of her neck. Their mouths are slightly open, eyes narrowed. I think it only comes when you’re getting dressed carefully and meticulously, thinking only about the lipstick you’re applying, and whether your olive-green pants match your loose cream sweater, and your large silver jhumka-like earrings match all your clothes and the gold kolhapuris on your feet. The first time I noticed kolhapuris were on A’s feet. She has long thin toes, and her red nails looked more like vermillion because of the straps of her gold kolhapuris. I went to Commercial Street and bought a pair of blue kolhapuris soon after.
In school, I’d refuse to wear any clothes with ruffles or bright colours. I wanted to be able to play basketball, and climb over the little hill we called The Jungle that the boys were always disappearing into. In my second standard class photograph, we are sitting on the grass that we otherwise roll in, and I’m wearing a yellow t-shirt with shorts – in the sixth standard class photo, I’m wearing a purple fake Nike t-shirt with blue capris – in seventh, I’m wearing a blue t-shirt with cargo pants and sandals. The connection between the colour of my clothes and climbing rocks was obvious to me then, because pink meant girly, and girly meant I couldn’t jump high enough to pluck imlis from the trees, or play basketball, and clamber up rocks. When I left to boarding school and my friend E joined a girl’s school in Hyderabad, she started to wear eye-liner, and I was secretly jealous that she had the guts to.
In the seventh standard, I read Kavita Daswani’s A Girl Named Indie, but didn’t tell anyone in school about it. On the cover of the novel, Indie is wearing a short green tank top and white pants. She is wearing a yellow beret and has strapped a colourful cloth bag across her shoulder. Indie, whose name is Indira, but calls herself Indie because she lives in the US, wants to be a fashion reporter. I re-read every description of her getting dressed, just to remember which shirt she matched with which skirt, and what jewellery she wore with which lehenga, in the same way that I flip through fashion magazines, and pick out the most stylish clothes, with a mix of really really wanting to wear them, and knowing that I never will. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever get used to the attention that clothes get.
The woman in my head has begun to appear only recently. I first noticed her when I was walking back to the main road to catch an auto home after my first day at work. I was smiling a lot, because I felt like I could get used to this and still be happy. She walked behind me and held my shoulders back, and pulled me up by my neck to straighten me out. I was wearing my blue jeans that I have learnt to fold outside instead of inwards because I liked them short, like the length of skinny jeans I can’t fit into. I first noticed skinny jeans on A. They make my legs look longer, because now my ankles are clearly visible, and there is no chudidar-like bunch above my feet. I want to wear an anklet, but I don’t own one. On top, I was wearing a white t-shirt with a deep neckline, and over it I wore Amma’s short jacket with ikkat-like patterns in green, blue, and pink. My aunt said I looked like a journalist, but I’m not sure what that means, because I think she said it in the same tone that people talk about jhola-wallahs.
In college I had told myself that I should just dress the way I want to, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It meant that I would wear earrings that matched my clothes, and t-shirts that weren’t black and faded, and would stop buying red checked shirts that Z and S dismissively say look the same as the ones in my cupboard. I have chains and rings that once belonged to Amma that I wanted to wear but wouldn’t, because then it would show that I had paid attention to my clothes that day, and I didn’t want this.
I didn’t want to listen to the tone of surprise in which people said I looked different from the boring dresser that they have always known me as, because really, there were so many other conversations I’d rather have been having instead. I would wear lots of black t-shirts with blue jeans and rubber chappals to college, that my aunt couldn’t stand seeing me leave the house in. I imagine her to be as horrified as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie sounds when she writes in Vogue about seeing students wear rubber flip-flops to university. Instead, I’d notice what P wore, and how she did her eyes and lips, and cut her hair, and wore chunky jewellery that looked carefully picked. It was also the first time I saw N, and realised that I only want to wear saris if I can wear cotton ones and throw them on in the casual way that she does, without careful pleats and matched blouses.
Nowadays, I think about what I’m going to wear to work. It doesn’t look like I do, because on some days I pull on something and imagine what earrings I could match with it, before putting on the earrings, looking at myself in the mirror, and quickly changing it back to the plain studs that I have always known. S is very excited and wonders if I dress up for work every day in the way that I didn’t in college because we also had a dress code then — will you take pictures of yourself every morning and send them to me, she says. I’ve never told her that in college, I’d sometimes go out of my way to look like I didn’t care about what I wore, and that I cared about other things — important things, that I still can’t name.
When S and I went shopping, I stood next to her as she pulled out clothes and handed them to me. I made a face at the pinks and at the dresses. She sat on the floor in the trial room and kept telling me that my aunt would be so happy with my new clothes. I bought the pinks and the dresses. I have already worn them, and my aunts tells me that they bring out the colour of my skin. One day I will tell them I’ll never care about the colour of my skin, and that there is a woman in my head who tells me what to wear.
Tomorrow, I will wear a black tank top with a long white shrug that comes up to my knees, that I call a kimono, even though it isn’t one. I’ll match it with my black jeans and orange rubber chappals, because my brown ballet shoes have given me shoe-bite.