Tag Archives: fashion

The Venus Flytrap: Lipstick On The Ladder

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A personal essay I wrote a few years ago, called “Karaikal Ammaiyar And Her Closet Of Adornments”, took me everywhere from literary events in Brisbane to Lakmé Fashion Week in Bombay, went viral when it was republished online, and still brings me messages from women who see something of themselves reflected therein. It was about self-expression and self-concealment: specifically, how women camouflage ourselves so as to not be perceived as desirable and thereby attract undesired attention, much like the bhakti poet Karaikal Ammaiyar who prayed to be transformed into an unsexy wraith so she’d be able to wander undisturbed. But it’s time for me to come clean. At some point, that camouflage ceased to be armour. It became avatar. I began to overidentify, and my self-esteem sank partly from this. In my ongoing journey to reclaiming my voice, I faced an uncomfortable truth: gradually, being dowdy stopped being a choice and became the default. The weapon I uncap to fight back? A pen, of course – but alongside, lipstick.

Megan Falley’s poem “Ode To Red Lipstick” has many quotable lines, referencing history: from concentration camp survivors “thin as smoke, naked / everywhere / except for their mouth”, to Cleopatra. But one unusual detail stands out: “In post-war New York, butches could get locked up / if they weren’t wearing three pieces of traditional / women’s clothes.” A slash of lipstick was often the remedy, for queer women in pantsuits, to avoid arrest. The poem doesn’t say how many of them loved, or how many of them loathed, this. But what’s certain is that it was the preferred circumvention. No simple ribbon, brooch or barrette was chosen over a blazing mouth.

The dynamic young American politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who caused a particular shade to sell out when she wore it to a debate, said: “I derive power from my femininity. Any attempt to make femininity trivial or unimportant is an attempt to take away my power. So I’m going to wear the red lipstick. Other people’s attempt to say, ‘Oh, talking about lipstick is unimportant,’ [they are] talking about feminine expression being unimportant. That expressing yourself as a woman is unimportant. Don’t ever believe that…. [Wear] whatever makes you feel authentically yourself and like a badass. The only way that we’re going to move forward is by running as our authentic selves.”

For me, why it begins with lipstick is because colour on my lips behaves like a woman who refuses to climb up a ladder without taking along others like her. The alluring, vivid burgundy or scarlet on my mouth demands that my eyes too be painted, that my hair be opened, that my skin be softened and made rosy – and because of all this, how could I do anything less than drape myself in clothing befitting that effort, that beauty?

I find myself going to my own words from that Karaikal Ammaiyar essay, which come back to me now like a note from a wiser, younger self: “If a red lipstick is wonderful anywhere in the world, it is most wonderful of all on the mouth of a woman who has claimed her own voice.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 20th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Closet Full Of Ocean

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You’d imagine the indigo plant would contain a clue of what it’s capable of, but from root to leaf-tip, it gives little away. There are no blossoms like the vivid blue aparajita’s, for the indigofera tinctoria flowers in pinkish-purple. Its dye is made from its innocuous-looking leaves. When processed, they give forth a colour so potent that it tinges human skin, turns the hands and nails of those who prepare it blue-black like Kali or Krishna.

I read somewhere that ancient Egyptians wrapped their mummies in indigo-dyed cloth, and flicking through the accordion of hangers in my closet I can imagine why. To be buried in indigo, upright like a warrior. To be burned in indigo, so as not to wake suffocating within a grave (in indigo). To die in indigo. To arrive in the afterlife in indigo. The thought is so comforting.

When I see denim or a solid purple-ultramarine, I do not think “indigo”. I am technically wrong, of course. Indigo is what makes blue jeans blue. It has its place on the colour wheel. But to me, only blue fabric interspersed with white (sometimes an adulterated white, if the dye has bled) counts. Stamped repeatedly with a dabu hand block pattern. Swirled, achieved with batik wax. Or synthetic versions of the same – synthetic versions of everything, from the print to the dye. My eyes are fooled. My mind is calmed. The sight of indigo – that combination of soft blue and white – soothes me.

This is what Marco Polo observed about the production of Indian indigo in the kingdom of Coilum (present-day Kerala): “They have also abundance of very fine indigo. This is made of a certain herb which is gathered, and [after the roots have been removed] is put into great vessels upon which they pour water and then leave it till the whole of the plant is decomposed. They then put this liquid in the sun, which is tremendously hot there, so that it boils and coagulates, and becomes such as we see it.” European leaders of the 1600s were so envious of India’s monopoly on the trade that France had the death penalty for the use of indigo over woad, a yellow-flowered plant that also produces a blue dye. Germany spread a rumour that it was “the devil’s colour”. I touch my beautiful clothes and think of how neither threat would have persuaded me to give them up.

Then I think of the hands who plucked the leaves, who stirred the vats, who pressed carved wooden blocks onto the fabric, who measured and cut and stitched it (even if it’s not true indigo, it’s not without exploitation). I think of the Indigo Revolt of 1858-1859, and of the environmental effects of processing or synthetic pigments. I think of everything we know about the labour that goes into possessions we see as “the small things” or self-care. Even the way this textile comforts me comes at some cost.

How disquieting to know it is impossible to be in this world without somehow being violent. Contemplating this, I reach into the calm of blue and white undulations, a closet full of ocean.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 22nd 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Not In Your Nightie

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After several months of keeping this fashion policing under wraps, news leaked that the village of Thokalapalle in West Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh, had proudly and privately instated a dress code. According to this village sanghama-ordained decision, women are banned from wearing nighties during the daytime. Only the ill are exempt, and those who violate the ban face a Rs2000 penalty. Tattlers benefit, with a reward of Rs1000. Since the ban came into effect, village elders claim that women have indeed stopped wearing nighties outdoors between 6am and 7pm, as no ban violations have been reported. Sarees and dupattas have made a comeback on their streets.

Consider the average nightie – ankle-length, sleeved, with a modest collar. Often in less than attractive patterns, sometimes with frilled panels on the bustline that have an additional concealing effect. In fact, the nightie is the definition of dowdiness. It signals a woman who would prefer to be at rest, but is also simply too busy to get changed. To many, the nightie is also the definition of comfort. Wearing one is a subtle declaration of disinterest in dressing up, and of putting one’s ease first. It’s interesting how piqued Thokalapalle citizens reportedly said that the sight of women in nighties in public “inconvenienced” others or made them “uncomfortable”. The women’s convenience is the inconvenience, and their comfort causes discomfort.

It’s not difficult to imagine women going about their daily business wearing nighties. The clothing brand Pommy’s even developed an entire advertisement series around this motif. In it, the actor Devayani defused a variety of conflicts by appearing on the scene donning the utterly domestic nightie. But seeded within the hilarity of these commercials was a powerful statement. In each clip, Devayani asserted with a sweet smile that she was the “kudumba thalaivi” (the head of the household). The nighties conferred that confidence in her. The clincher? The final tagline: “engum engengum” (everywhere, anywhere).

No women from Thokalapalle have spoken up yet to say that the ban is oppressive. Honestly, they probably have better things to do and more pressing battles to fight. But those from the village who have talked to the press paint a uniformly eerie picture. They say that it was younger women from self-help groups who made a decision to “honour their traditions”. They say that everyone is happy. They also say that wearing nighties to go about public quotidian activities, like shopping for groceries, visiting temples, doing laundry or picking kids up from school, is “not good”. Why? They do not say.

All patriarchal societies have restrictions, overt or subtle, on what women can wear. In Thokalapalle, it’s nighties. In Chennai, it’s shorts. Thinking over how this plays out in different places is interesting. To my mind, a nightie is probably the furthest thing from lingerie. But to someone else, who remembers a time when anything other than a saree was shocking, a nightie may be loaded with other signifiers. It’s absolutely wrong to tell women they can’t choose their wardrobes. But there’s something worth observing here, about how desire and style have complementary semiotics, and how sometimes these break taboos, and sometimes reinforce them.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 15th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Worn On The Sleeve

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There’s a scene in the heart-wrenching 2008 film Frozen River, in which two impoverished women who smuggle people across the US-Canada border bring a dead baby back to the parents it was separated from. One of them drives, instructing the other to hold the baby close to her body so that the corpse will not be cold when they hand it to the mother. Something miraculous happens, somewhere between the warmth of the jacket the child is wrapped in, the skin it is close to, and perhaps the familiar sound of a heartbeat.

For some reason, news of US First Lady Melania Trump travelling to and from a child detention centre wearing a jacket with the words “I really don’t care, do u?” (sic) reminded me of this movie, and this scene in particular. It does not matter that she reportedly didn’t wear it inside the centre, one of several where children separated from their families at the US-Mexico border have been detained. Many of those children don’t understand English. Some of us, watching, do. And we do care, but the message wasn’t for us, either.

Some style statements are literal. Propaganda through fashion – and specifically, through styles created by private manufacturers not directly affiliated to governments – is not just for those in the public eye, as Ms. Trump’s own $39 Zara jacket is an example of.

During World War II, textiles with lively prints were produced in the US and UK with concealed messages. An attractive red dress with black and white patterns donated to the FIDM Museum, Los Angeles, sewn in the 1940s, says in reversed writing: “There’ll Always Be An England”. Its wearer would be able to read the text when examining herself closely in the mirror, but would likely walk by countless people who did not catch its hidden message. In Japan at the same time, omoshirogara kimonos, depicting scenes of war and victory, were worn privately. The fabric was sometimes used as the inner lining of kimonos worn outside. India’s khadi movement was a public display of political sentiments. Charles Dickens’ novel The Tale of Two Cities features tricoteuses, women who knitted the names of those sent to the guillotine into their purls. Historically, women in the spectator seats of executions were indeed known to knit. Among their goods was the Phrygian cap, which unlike a crown was a symbol of democracy.

Zara didn’t just make a random jacket put to strategic use, for in the recent past it has also used anti-Semitic and white nationalist motifs on clothing. Neither did Ms. Trump, whose image is carefully crafted, just throw on an outfit. It’s the kind of thing an obnoxious teen might wear to dinner with his parents, except that on her and on this occasion it was more like Cruella de Ville’s Dalmatian fur coat.

Here’s a tiny consolation: in 2017, Turkish shoppers discovered notes sewn into Zara attire by unpaid workers hired by a factory which also made Mango and Next products. These notes brought attention to their plight, shared by workers worldwide. Some opinions are worn on the sleeve; but some truths are sewn into the seams.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 28th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Laying It Out In Lavender

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“When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple” goes the famous poem by Jenny Joseph. Well, Aishwarya Rai is just 42, old only by the punishing yardsticks of the entertainment industry. She looks fabulous, but wouldn’t be forgiven if she doesn’t, or if she looked beautiful and aging. On the red carpet at Cannes, she appeared whimsical, winking at the camera in a lavender lipstick like it was the most natural thing in the world, while the world itself looked on aghast. The often-forgotten title of that poem is “Warning”. In it, a woman trapped in a conformist lifestyle promises to misbehave in her elderly years, and wonders if she should start practicing; she begins with wearing purple.

Why is a woman putting on a cosmetic so temporary that she’ll only have to blow her nose once into a tissue to have most of it come off the subject of debate? “Debate” was a word actually used in headlines (why were headlines made because a woman wore a cosme… never mind). In one article, several inquiring ladies gave the shade a shot and found that that particular lipstick, by a brand that Rai is an ambassador of, does not retail in India. Their trip to two stores seemed to yield no equivalent, which led them to concoct the colour themselves through mixing white and purple eyeliners with a concealer base on their lips. They didn’t like the effect (their photos don’t have too many smiles, which may have made a difference).

Which brings us to this ridiculousness: how does white eyeliner exist when a lilac lipstick, which is stunning when offset by the dark skin of so many Indian people, can’t be readily found? For local manufacturers and franchisees, my sapodilla skin is probably the swarthiest tone they consider. My even more dark-skinned friends must either fork out several thousand rupees per product for elite brands like MAC or Inglot, or forego skin cosmetics altogether. Similarly for more deeply pigmented colours which will stand out on an array on eyelids and cheekbones and lips. This isn’t simply about whether people can afford it, or even a hyper-ethical question of whether any of us should wear makeup. Beauty standards are enforced by diminishing not just diversity, but self-esteem, as envisaged and enacted through self-presentation.

Here’s the thing: Rai may have made ill-advised fashion choices in the past but when it comes to this lipstick, my guess is it was neither faux pas nor advice. Some L’Oreal executive would have held out a palette of options and suggested a baby pink to go with the floral print on her dress or a bright scarlet to go with the blood-boiling rage against the system. Rai wore violet because she wanted to. Maybe her child liked it. Maybe she was making a subtle homage to the queer rights movement, whose emblematic hue is purple. I’d like to think that the Jenny Joseph poem was the most plausible reason. After decades of being micro-managed and body-shamed and made complicit in the way other women are manipulated and devalued – through a pastel smile, was she issuing a powerful warning?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 19th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: Love, Loss, And What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi

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The muse writes back, and is far more generous about the marriage than the artist was. Maligned in ex-husband Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton, model and culinary savant Padma Lakshmi tells her side of the story, along with a handful of comfort food recipes. Love, Loss, And What We Ate opens on a promising, often evocative, footing.

She’s gracious through the recounting of her high profile marriage and divorce, compelling when talking about her early childhood and fiercely independent mother, and canny in her self-deprecations (“silly little cookbook”). Her descriptions of life within her grandmother’s kitchen are charming and familiar. Even a chutney of discarded citric rinds as a metaphor for how her grandmother dealt with the bitterness of marriage doesn’t ring twee.

So when a shockingly problematic streak shows up about a third of the way through the book, the reader who has rooted for her all along stumbles. The first trace of trouble is when Lakshmi extends her experience of racial discrimination as an immigrant schoolchild to her country of origin. For her to say that she is considered dark-skinned in Tamil society is disingenuous, to say the least. And she backs this with this bombshell: “my extended family urged me to avoid the sun… out of fear that my skin would darken to the shade of an Untouchable..”

While we’re still reeling at her word choice, we’re introduced to her second stepdad Peter, whom she hates. He is a “lower-caste” Fijian Indian, with a “crude, beast-like ignorance”. What follows includes references to his “stench”, his “ugly” Hindi accent, and “some inferior poni grain” he eats instead of basmati. She wants her mother to be with someone more “cultured”.

This vitriol is reserved for only for Peter, who is still her mother’s partner, as well as her own daughter Krishna’s favourite grandparent. By contrast, her mother’s second husband, whom she divorces when he doesn’t believe that a relative of his has molested the young Padma, is merely “pretty darn handsome”. The casteism, classism and colourism on display are guilelessly entitled, with neither self-reflectivity nor shame.

The author – well-travelled, well-heeled, well-connected, speaker of half a dozen languages and self-proclaimed bookworm – has no excuse for her lack of sociopolitical intelligence or conscience. At the very least, somewhere between her late partner Teddy Forstmann’s philanthropy and the Rousseau she thanks Rushdie for handing her in the acknowledgements, a little tact would have served her well.

Perhaps unable to recoup after this ethical failure, or perhaps because Lakshmi’s early style gradually gives way to a tabloid-friendly one, the narrative simply begins to bore.

And then she chucks another jawdropper. The first non-breast milk meal Lakshmi gives her daughter are a few sips beef broth at a hawker stall in Singapore. The result? Brahmin guilt. “I prided myself on how well one could eat following a Hindu Brahmin lacto-vegetarian diet. I had extolled its virtues on many occasions and truly believed in its merits. I know what had happened, while an accident, was also karmic retribution for all the bodies of animals I had consumed in my life and career in food”. Yes, really.

Who would have known that the saffron brigade had an ally in the glamourous Lakshmi, who without irony refers to her ex-husband as a “fundamentalist atheist” and to herself, repeatedly, as a “secular Hindu”? After watching the author eat everything from live snails to her own placenta, it’s the reader who’s left with a bad taste in the mouth.

Love, Loss, And What We Ate is really a book about men – a series of partners whose influence and guidance shaped Lakshmi’s life. She plays the ingénue often, and credits everything from her sartorial sense to her gastronomical savvy, and even this — her writing — to a lover. She does not memorably detail even a single non-related female friendship or mentorship. Most disappointingly of all, as co-founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America, Lakshmi speaks only about her experience of the disease, not the work of the foundation, or its impact. With the exception of her mother, she does not weave in other female narratives of struggle and success – be they on the catwalk, in the culinary world, or in any of the many spheres of her experience. Her feminism begins and ends with the desire to date more than one man at once – a desire she quickly regrets once she realises she doesn’t know who has fathered her child.

But there is a singular feminist saving grace in this memoir, and that is the other Ms. Lakshmi – her mother. Vijaya Lakshmi’s journey is a tale of its own, beginning with an arranged marriage in which the groom cheats on her on their wedding day, and a divorce after which she endures a two year separation from her child. Upon her arrival in the US, she takes her mother’s name as a surname, abandons her limited diet, dates and falls in love, has the courage to leave marriages, explores what the world has to offer, and even takes her daughter to a nudist beach. None of this is typical for her generation, and in the Chennai they still call home, it isn’t even typical for her daughter’s. It is the story of this dedicated nurse – who keeps fruits in the fridge for her terminal patients, and manages somehow to save enough money to give her daughter Indian vacations, skating rinks, and myriad pleasures – that is ultimately the maverick one.

An edited version appeared in The Hindu Business Line’s BLink.

“Karaikal Ammaiyar And Her Closet Of Adornments”

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I’m so very delighted that my essay on femininity, fashion and exile, “Karaikal Ammaiyar And Her Closet Of Adornments”, from the anthology Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories (HarperCollins India/Hardie Grant Australia), has been republished in The Ladies Finger. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it.

Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories

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In “Karaikal Ammaiyar And Her Closet Of Adornments”, I write about personal style as a mode of self-expression, and self-concealment. I write about the pleasure of the perfect drape, the passion of red lipstick, and the heartache of living in a time when beauty and power cannot always co-exist. This essay is in the new anthology Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories, edited by Catriona Mitchell. The book is out now from HarperCollins in India, and Hardie Grant in Australia/the UK shortly.

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TOI iDiva: “Are women now becoming unafraid of controversy?”

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The question posited to me was “are women now becoming unafraid of controversy?” My short response is straightforward: “when have we ever been?” Afraid, that is. To look to the likes of the poses and performances of Veena Malik and Vidya Balan as signifiers of a bolder, less diffident womanhood is woefully ignorant of historical facts. There have always been controversial women. From the revolutionary (Phoolan Devi, Irom Sharmila), to the attention-courting (Kamala Das, Protima Bedi) to the free-spirited (Amrita Sher-Gil, Akka Mahadevi), there is a very long legacy of evidence that upsetting the acceptable is hardly a cutting-edge phenomenon.

And isn’t it very curious: why does controversy, when it comes to women, so often come down to sex, or more banally, the wonderful but ultimately reductionist arena of clothing (or lack thereof)?

Which brings us to the question of what the function of controversy is. Is it enough just to titillate? There’s probably nobody out there who doesn’t, as a voyeur or a vendor, love a good scandal. But if all one has to do is undress – well, how very boring.

What about subverting the system? I.e. does appearing topless on a magazine cover with an incendiary tattoo free other women to do the same, or does it merely elevate Veena Malik to certain celebrity, without a positive trickle-down effect on the freedoms of other people? Controversies come in two categories: the contrived and the accidental. The first stirs up the sensational on purpose. The second becomes notorious not by design but because it surprises on more complex levels than the obvious.

Some months ago, I began to wear a certain sartorial item that I had long admired. That I was turned away from two stores when I tried to purchase the said item should have given me a clue about what was to follow. Still, purchase it I did, for myself, for no reason other than that I found it beautiful.

The humble metti, nuptial toe-rings, were by far the most subversive thing that I – doyenne of firetruck-red lipstick, leopard-print thigh-highs and strapless sari blouses – had ever worn.

“What next? If thaalis were ‘pretty’ would you wear one too?” snapped someone.

“You’re not supposed to!” exclaimed another. Such a simple condemnation. Supposed.

“It suppresses sexual desire by way of the reflexology system,” rued one who found the whole idea disappointingly regressive. (“It’s not working,” I deadpanned.)

“Now there really is nothing left that will entice you to wed,” tsk tsk-ed one more.

These are some of the reactions that came from my own friends – free-thinkers, free-lovers, free-wheelers one and all. I noted the discomfort in the taciturn glances of strangers too: diverted interest (“this chick’s taken”), curiosity, and most of all, confusion. I do not, after all, look like I’m married – which is to say, I do not look like I am marriageable. The suggestion, then, is that I am one without being the other. Cue the collapse of logic in a certain moral universe. Which, if all sartorialism is semiotics, is precisely the effect I’m going for.

I’ve learned something very interesting as a result of wearing this most conformist and conservative of ornaments. It is that, contrary to what Audre Lorde wrote, perhaps the master’s tools can in fact dismantle the master’s house. True dissidence is rarely ostentatious. It occurs not at the level of wanting to be seen but on the level of deciding to – simply, guilelessly – be.

One last question: if the essence of controversy lies in shock value, are we perhaps just too easily shocked?

An edited version appeared in Times of India’s iDiva supplement today.

The Venus Flytrap: Doing The Sari

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Dresses may come and dresses may go, but there’s nothing like a sari.

This isn’t the story of how I fell in love with a difficult garment. I’ve never struggled with the sari, not the way I struggled with the bindi (which you can see I’ve fully appropriated), not the way I struggled with dark skin or with dark moods, or anything else with a similar gravity, the congenital weight of things beyond one’s choice. No, there was never a time when I thought that the sari was anything but prime plumage. Watching women wind lengths of cloth around themselves was where I learnt the meaning of the word “covet”, the floreo of pleating fingers the thing that must have mesmerized me into dance. There is a photograph of me at about three years old, wearing a miniature approximation in yellow and green, a fake nose-ring, my grandmother’s wig and an aigrette of pink flowers. I am not cute, I am coy, guilefully aware; at this age more so than at any other, the sari’s magical transformative effects on my demeanour are evident. The image is nearly prophetic. Somewhere in my baby brain I had set my sights on what I would grow up to look like, and through tube tops and sundresses, through denim and leather, that was exactly where I wound up arriving. And I was born knowing the sari signified, above all else, arrival.

I fought to wear saris long before anyone thought I was ready for them, just as I had glued a faux diamond to my nostril for a whole year until I was allowed to pierce it at fourteen. In both cases, the redemption was instant: it was plain to see that my vanity did not dwarf me. Vindicated though I was, for a decade, I saved the sari for “special occasions”, motivated in most part by the time it took to drape one, and in some part by wiles: the knowledge that the garment conferred on me what I call deadliness – it (or I) could stop both hearts and traffic. I’m still careful about when I take it out of my arsenal, if only because in love and in war timing is everything, but I’ve also stopped treating it as sacrosanct. I suppose that happens once you discover how much more interesting it is to keep it on, while doing the thing that usually requires taking it all off.

Today I deal with my wardrobe, and by extension the world, with the maxim, “when in doubt, go with the sari”. There are sequin-strapped blouses for when upstaging the bride is the order of the day and demure, high-backed handloom weaves for when a disingenuous innocence needs to be affected. There are gloriously unaffordable inheritance silks, but these come with taboos: call me prudish, but there will be no kinky romps in anything that used to belong to my grandmother. For that: frivolous synthetics that fall easily, cling flirtatiously.

I know for some the sari connotes respect or codes of restriction. But more and more, this is what I suspect about the true nature of the sari’s timelessness. It has survived the ages because depending on the wearer, it may murmur or it may sing, but it always says the same thing: ravish me.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Porcelain, Lately

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I’ve been buying blue.

Not the blues – not music or depression, both of which I have in abundance. I’ve been buying blue in a very specific way – for weeks now, every item of clothing I’ve purchased has been in that colour. I’ve been buying blue clothing as though, well, it was going out of style.

To be precise, the theme is, overwhelmingly, blue with white. Everywhere I turn to empty my wallet as though that would detox my heartsickness, I am drawn to the lacing of those two colours. The cornflower blue sundress cut in a decades-old style that flatters women cut soft like me, the deep-necked casual top in a particularly vivacious Prussian shade, the long-sleeved blouse reminiscent of a kebaya – all of them sieved through with white in floral, psychedelic and paisley prints. Then there’s the tube dress bought off the street on a Sunday I suddenly found myself in Pondy, the lingerie, the saree I chose for my birthday with its electric cobalt so unusual I almost couldn’t find a blouse (but I did, of course).

Sapphire spiked with snowflakes. The sea and its foam. A certain man’s eyes the moment they find yours. Pick your imagery, I don’t care – I may be a poet but I am as much a bird known for my plumage as I am for my song. I buy it as though the colours are in season, like fruit or fads, or umbrellas in the monsoon – though the truth is I am working to the demands of an internal meteorology alone. I buy it as though there will be enough somedays to wear it all.

Why am I doing this? Dressing as if to declare I am porcelain, lately.

I met someone who reads auras. Mine was pinkish on the day we met, but I generally seem to carry a grey one, according to him, which is all the things you might think it might mean. “Wear bright shades,” the aura-reader advised, not having yet been properly acquainted with my infamously kindergartener sense of colour. “It will make a difference.”

I know this to not be true. I wore purple to my grandmother’s funeral, because she had liked that saree. My nails are never anything but red. I have a weakness for yellow ochre and fuchsia. If there is a colour I have not worn, it isn’t visible to the human eye. But it’s like painting a papier-mâché globe; all that’s inside is a burst balloon.

And this is what makes me wonder if, somewhere, it is the ocean after all that I keep trying to recapture. I know now that there are people who will manipulate the grief of someone in mourning. I learnt this the only way one can learn things like this. Six weeks after the funeral to which I wore purple, I took my grief to the sea the way almost everyone does – in their own ways, their own seas, allegorical and actual – hoping to be washed clean of it, and got caught instead in a undercurrent that slammed me back ashore: stripped, seaclogged, vomiting salt.

Not everything is a metaphor. But some things reveal a pattern, fractal though it may be. If I seek to wear the sea, it is only because the coast has disappeared.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.