Blouses.


I am not showing you my bare back without reason. I promise there is a story. Many moons ago, when I was a little girl, sleeveless blouses were revolutionary and scandalous. In my middle class upbringing, the idea of women showing their bare arms or wearing the saree in a way that the midriff shows was a big taboo. So what did my gorgeous mother do, despite the hushed whispers and raised eyebrows? She bought and wore sleeveless blouses. She wore it with style and grace laughing at all the snickers and criticism.

I, however, never ventured to wear sleeveless anything because my arms were like two thin sticks growing up. Also I was timid and conformist despite my firebrand mom constantly urging me to be confident. When I wore a saree for a special occasion, I always wore blouses with “airhostess sleeves”. When we went to get blouses tailored in my childhood/youth, the tailor invariably asked if we wanted airhostess hata (sleeves). That style was adopted by the stewards of Air India, the only international government airlines of the country. The sleeves of this particular style of blouse were long, the back was severe and covered. A saree, which is 6 yards of fabric, with an airhostess style blouse, if properly donned, could cover every inch of the woman’s skin. It was all very propah, professional and may I say, severe? When I left India in the mid nineties, I came away with that one style of blouse in my head and in my suitcase. I knew no other.

Unbeknownst to me, India burst into the fashion world with its textiles, talented designers, bold cuts, fusion designs and subsequently blouses for sarees saw tremendous improvement in terms of variety and cut. I was completely unaware of all the changes, being far removed from any kind of fashion. One year, I went back home and needed to get a couple of blouses stitched. I sought the help of my fashionista cousin sister. My little cousin took me under her wings like she always has since we were children when it came to fashion. She is a gorgeous woman who really knows clothes and style. Since she was probably 4 years old she had a pronounced sense of fashion and make up which only improved with age. She was tireless in her efforts to bring me up to snuff with make up and fashion. “Didi, wear your hair this way.” “Apply the kajol that way, it will showcase your eyes better.” “Use brown liner instead of black for a natural look.”… so on and so forth. She always urged me to color my hair to hide the white that are getting prominent each day. Except last year, when I went home and she saw my silver highlights, she approved. These silver strands in black hair is the popular trend, I was told. I felt elated to finally have her approval in matter of fashion!! My reluctance to learn how to apply make up did not deter her from trying, bless her heart!

Anyway, she took me to this tailoring shop called Senorita near Hazra road in Kolkata, gave them instructions on the type of blouse she wants for me, sat in a chair and started her scrutiny. The attendant listened to her directions and called the tailor to take measurements. The tailor who walked in was a man. I gulped! A man will be taking my measurements for a short, tight-fitting blouse? After the first few seconds of unease, I relaxed. He was a professional and knew what he was doing without making me feel uncomfortable. Then I yelped! I felt his measuring tape going way down my back, seeking permission from my sister where to stop, which meant how deep the cut of the back of the blouse was going to be.

As his tape went further down my back, I exclaimed, “No, no! Not that much! That is too much exposed. Stop!”

Now, I wear short dresses, shorts and I often wore my sarees in the past to show off my midriff and flat stomach (also a thing of the past). I have no inhibitions about showing my legs so why not the back? You have to understand, someone who wore severe blouses all her life and covered every inch of her back, this deep cut was indeed scandalous. I don’t know why such inhibitions (prudery?) about showing my back while I show my bare legs with no qualms.

Both my cousin and the attendant of the shop, however, paid no heed to my protests, promising me the cut at the back was classy and just right, very fashionable and not exposing any extra flesh that does not need to be exposed. I gave in. And you see the result.

100 Day Saree Respect


I was made aware of this celebration of sarees on a social networking site. Women posted saree clad pictures on Facebook and told a little story or memory associated with that particular saree. I believe the notion was to highlight the elegance of this beautiful ethnic wear and boost this industry. One particular friend of mine wrote beautiful memories with each and every saree she wore. Not only did she look beautiful, but her stories made a fascinating read and her sarees, to me, became much more meaningful. Stories and memories inter-weaved within the threads – what a fabulous concept.

My sarees are well-loved but not much worn. They stay well guarded in a closet in my basement as I live my life in jeans, trousers, sweaters and shirts. Sometimes I harangue my husband to take me out on dates so I can drape one of my lovely sarees. Swim meets and baseball games get in the way. So when I open the closet that house my sarees, I stroke them longingly and make plans……one of these days I will wear this one or that. And then the weather turns frigid. However, the hope remains – next spring, next summer, next fall. In the mean time, I acquire more sarees. They come bearing love – love of my mother and father, my sisters and brothers (cousins), my aunts and uncles from home.

Two of my sarees have a story or memory with my mother that I want to share. I had heard the name of a saree store called Byloom in Kolkata. I had seen photos of sarees bought from Byloom. Their texture, design, color combination seemed different, unique, more to my taste. Two days before I was scheduled to return to United States, my mother and I decided to pay a visit to this saree store and see with our own eyes what the hype was all about. The plan was to simply pay a visit, look at their wares and then turn around and come back home. My suitcases were full, and my purse was light. I had a little bit of Indian money left in cash and I decided to take just that with me. I took out my credit cards along with my debit card and left them at home. If I did not have plastic, I would not be tempted to overspend. Wait, why was I thinking of spending? My suitcase was full, right?

My mother and I are both geographically challenged so after asking at least 3 people for directions we arrived at the store. The last direction was asked right in front of the store, so when the gentleman who pointed to the store right across the street and gave us a strange look we felt slightly embarrassed. We walked in and promptly got lost again. This time we lost ourselves in colors, patterns and texture. The salesladies were amazing at their job, the colors were splendid and rich, the textiles smelled of home and comfort. I, not a fashionista or lover of clothes by any means, was hooked. My mother, an impulsive shopper and an ardent admirer of fashion and clothes, was miserable. I had instructed her not to bring money. We were just going to look, remember?

We had never done better math in our lives!! I bought a saree for my mother. That was it, I had money (cash) for that – parting gift to my mother before I left India. And then the salesladies did their magic, “Didi, look at this color on you!” They draped a pink saree on me. Three of them came over to ooh and aah over it. My mom joined in. Then they found a blue one, a little more expensive. They double ooh aahed over it. My ma joined in again. The oohs and aahs went up exponentially with the value of the sarees – just an observation. I was calculating fast in my head. I had two days left before my flight departed, no one would make blouses for those sarees. I had to buy ready made blouses for them. Groan! More calculations. Finally, when I had hardened my heart against amazing sales pitches, when I had closed my eyes against the splendor of colors, when I had shut my ears to my mother’s berating at making her leave her money at home, I headed to the cashier with my grumbling mother in tow. I told the cashier I bought some stuff but I had X amount of rupees. I was not savvy enough to calculate the sales tax in my head so I may not be able to buy all that was being packed for me. He smiled politely and said they accepted credit cards. “Ummm…I am not carrying my credit card!” I mumbled. My mother, I think, growled.

As the cashier tallied up my purchases, I realized I held my breath. Fortunately, I had enough money to pay for it all with about 15 rupees to spare. Feeling buoyant and happy we sailed out of the store swinging our bags. And we laughed joyfully. The memory is not about having enough money to buy those sarees though. The memory is about getting lost with my mother, hearing sales pitches with her, being admired by her, being scolded too and finally laughing giddily over our joint naughtiness. I am not sure I have rightfully penned the day, the story or the feeling. My mother and I were more than simply a mom and child that day. That day we were co conspirators, we were math whizzes (somewhat), we were rule breakers (rules created by us), we were quick planners, we were fast shoppers, we were fellow gigglers, we were happy bag swingers. We were perhaps more friends that day than parent and child. We were also hiding some tears behind our laughter at the upcoming goodbye. It was our last show down before the curtain of years fell till we were together again.

On her birthday, this memory stands out. Happy birthday, Ma! Here is to many more years of rule breaking, bag swinging, saree conspiring, and of course mindless laughing after being naughty. We Bengalis do not say “I love you’ because it does not need to be said, I know. This Bengali has learned to say it anyway. Moreover, she loves to say it.

I love you, Ma!

Here are the sarees, which have this precious memory!

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Tease worthy.


If I hear any didactic speech about not having Facebook envy I will be very angry. A few friends went back to my city, Kolkata, to attend not one but TWO weddings of mutual friends. I had invitations to both but I could not make that trip. That thing called life got in the way. Instead, I did the next best thing, I hung around Facebook and kept track of their every move. They made it easy by documenting their every move on Facebook also. I am pretty sure, their aim was not only to keep us connected but also to evoke envy (in a fun sort of way, of course). They were wildly successful at that. I was so envious that I glowed green – Hulk like.

But this is not about my Hulkness. This is about Bengalis, their culture, their city…..and last but not the least their pet names or dak naam. The boys were primarily named Buro and girls Buri during my parent’s generation. Buro in Bangla means old man, buri? You guessed it, old woman. Why would anyone call little babes, Buro, Buri is beyond my comprehension. Perhaps because of the ‘child is the father of man’ concept, or the resemblance of a toothless child with toothless old age. I don’t know!

When I was growing up, girls were called some form of ‘mother’ in our vernacular, and boys – father. Different variations of ‘Mam’, Mummum’ Mamoni, Mamon, Mammai and boys were Bapi, Baban, Babai so on and so forth. My parents, however, called me Piyu. Piyu has no particular meaning really, it is how a particular type of bird’s call. Piyu is a bird song. How beautiful and ethereal is that concept? When I met Sean, he called me by my pet name too. I liked that. However, Americans pronounce the letters P and B with a puff of air which Bengalis do not. So Sean’s Piyu became Phiyu.

Fast forward to our wedding afternoon. The beautiful ceremony in the morning was over. My desire as a little girl was to wed in a gorgeous white dress. Having been born in a Bengali family I always knew that would only remain a dream but it so happened I married someone from not only outside of Bengal but outside of India. And in that man’s culture and religion, women did marry in gorgeous white dresses. However when the opportunity arose, I opted to wear a saree. Not a ravishing red one like a Bengali bride wears but a gold and black one. After the ceremony and reception, Sean and I changed into something more comfortable to socialize with the family and eat catered Indian food for dinner. I heard Sean calling my name as I was changing out of my saree: Phiyu, Phiyu!
And I heard my sister-in-law exclaim, “Sean!!!! Don’t say that to her! How terrible of you. Saying that to your new bride on your wedding day!”

I came out of the room and gazed at both their faces blinking foolishly, clueless as to where the conversation was going.

Sean was also perplexed.

“What did I call her?” He asked.

“You said PHEW. You bad man! She does not stink! You have a terrible sense of humor!”

Both Sean and I burst out laughing. He explained that is my pet name and no, he was not referring to his bride as a stinker. We all laughed.

This post started with Facebook envy, went on to talk about Bengali pet names and ended with a story of my life long time ago. Thank goodness I write for myself 🙂 ! I am quite purposeless, even in my writings!