I have a secret: It’s black, gold-beaded, and hanging in my wardrobe. A small blouse and skirt set I picked up in an Indian mall in Australia, it’s a smart-casual Indian outfit, neat enough to wear to an interview but not a wedding, yet still dressed down enough for a trip to the grocery store.
Until I fell in love with this particular outfit, my Indian wardrobe consisted of wedding clothes: shalwar kameez, sari, and other skirt and blouse sets I’d either worn to a wedding, or as part of a wedding. These clothes, gorgeous as they are, are studded with enough bling to keep even the most inordinate rap artists and entourages happy. And I’ve been happy with that; the more formal the clothes, the less I can wear them in public.
I know, I know–I’ve written about envying my sister-in-law’s chest of sari, about eyeing the glimmering fabrics in the boutiques near my house. But these are clothes, like my own, to be worn to a wedding, surrounded by other women in similar fashions. There is no pressure, no chance to be stared at because the clothes do not fit. In wedding clothes, with a lot of eyeliner and bangles, I can pass for Indian–until I begin to speak, anyway. Now, though, my gold and black number hangs in the wardrobe, taunting me, daring me to slip it on everyday. I almost wish I’d never bought it (the operative word being almost).
Although it may seem like I gave in and bought my dress-noir on impulse (and I kind of did), I’d been thinking about adding to my wardrobe of Indian clothes for a long time. In our house, Indianness is about music, food, and language; I wanted my son, Mir, to get a sense of the everyday pretty that’s part of Indian life, of Indian art and life outside of the movies and the kitchen.
Granted, it might be hard to sell sliding into the perfect pair of jeans as an art form, but it is–it’s everyday art, one of the small, simple acts that contribute to a day. Where and how we begin, with jeans or a sari, sets the tone, the style of the day. And days truly are art, in picture and story: every one describes a narrative arc, with a beginning, a middle, a climax, and an end, a resolution of sorts. How we live them–with rushed, impressionist brush strokes or minuscule, carefully etched detail–varies from day to day.
Would a day spent in an Indian outfit really be different from a day spent in jeans? Yes. In jeans, I’m a mom, a writer, a reader, a runner, a blogger, a cook, a playground parkour expert. Everything and nothing is apparent at first glance. In Indian plumage, I become something exotic–the maybe white girl trying too hard in an Indian store, the foreigner just off the boat in the American one. Clothes–appearances–matter, regardless of how much we wish otherwise.
The question I’m left with is this: which experience do I want Mir to have most? Seeing the pretty in everyday Indian life, playing with mehndi, helping pound coriander seeds into powder and painting old calendar pages with turmeric? Or do I want him to see my discomfort in public, see the way people stare or hit us with the exotic card? Do I stick with the typical, jeans-clad mom, scooping sand into pails, using wet sidewalk chalk in lieu of turmeric, cooking macaroni and cheese with nutmeg instead of curry powder?
There is, I know, an in-between place, a way I can give Mir everything I want–everything he should have–but it frightens me. Because I know what’s holding me back is more about my lack of validation than his. I am not confident in a sari, or a kameez, or any Indian outfit without Indians around me to say I should be; I am not confident in my Indian cooking unless my parents give their seal of approval, even though we have different tastes. I know that to give Mir the everyday pretty I want us to have, I need to suck it up, put on the clothes, and walk outside with my head held high. Fortunately, I have a little time to get used to the idea: the smell of snow is in the air in New England, and it’s too cold to wear my black and gold number outside.
In the meantime, I’ll practice at home. After all, if clothes make the man, perhaps they can make the Indian, too.
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