That Dress

That Dress

That Dress 1920 1440 Sandy Kundra Verma

In advertising class, which is called mass communications so as not to appear frivolous, we discuss symbolism and brand metrics, consumer insights and aspirational products. But today the professor is a substitute, his name is Amir like the film star but he looks like a student. He grins at the class, which is arranged in ascending levels around him, a mountain in front of a man, and writes “ROLE MODELS”across the whiteboard.

Sundar Pichai is a favourite, Mukesh Ambani, Emma Watson, Robert Downey, Jr. even. Some say Sophia Vergara just to test him, but Amir knows who she is, he even knows Zoella which makes several people hiss anglophone and throw back a Sunny Leone. You can tell a lot about people from their role models.

Shoba and I are on the first bench, but we do not raise our hands, we never do—I don’t like to talk about things, and Shoba doesn’t do anything that doesn’t result in higher marks.

Mayim Bialik, Shoba whispers, do you know she is Jewish?

Unlike other professors, Amir moves around the room, joking, smiling, trying too hard. I lose track of where he is until there is a collective gasp in the corner. Amir skips to the front, points to a girl and announces: her mother.

The class falls silent.

The girl tells us haltingly that her mother brought her up all by herself despite no formal education or qualifications. Then she adds with sudden fire: “If I can be half the person she is, I will be proud.”I know then that I will never forget this girl, that years later, I will remember the way her face burnt when she talked about her mother.

“Unsung heroes,”Amir says, “can be a powerful cultural symbol.”We discuss heroes and role models, real and make-believe, and Amir plays an old TV commercial featuring an overworked daughter-in-law. “Can no one hear Rama’s cry of pain?”cries the family patriarch to dramatic music and a prominent product shot.

We don’t discuss the class later, except when Shoba says with a smile that is slightly altered, “Your dad is, like, a real-life hero, nah. He looks like a pukka film star.”

And I resist the urge to add: he only looks like one.

But we don’t talk about our families. We have known each other since school, Shoba and I, but we never discuss what happens at home.

**

He is home. His suitcase is open, contents spilling out on the floor: grey socks, mangy underwear with corners of shiny shopping bags visible underneath like hidden love-letters. He is home.

Ma scuttles around, straightening shoes, picking up his backpack, muttering about his lack of consideration. I do not help her. She hurtles like a hurricane and I observe her. She glares at me, then at the suitcase and it shrinks under her inexorable gaze.

“Hey, gorgeous.”His hair is reverse-swept to hide a balding patch, but he is still slim, still stylish. “Got ya something special from London.”I catch a whiff of his familiar after-shave and something not that familiar.

He picks up an unwrapped box from the suitcase with an Amazon tape across it, ripped apart but pressed together. He discards the box, pulls out a zipped case with a Canon logo and I feel pinpricks rise up on my arms, of course he has gone and done it, of course he has, I know exactly what it means but you see it is not just any camera, it is the EOS 5D, 30 megapixels, 3.2-inch touchscreen. I had been checking its specs for months and of course he knew that.

The Amazon box has exposed a shopping bag underneath, bright yellow with “Selfridges”on its side. There is something black and lacy spilling out of it. Suddenly I want to take a picture of this scene: the open suitcase on the floor, the glossy yellow bag with a black lacy thing spilling out over his underwear, his hankies, the iPad with his electronic pen; I want to put the picture on Instagram and Facebook, I want to tag him and Ma, get a hundred likes and a thousand comments.

Ma closes the lid of the suitcase, snaps its locks shut and carries it out.

“Thanks, Dad,”I take my camera to my room.

**

The last few days of college. Some people have already got jobs, others are applying for postgrad degrees, mostly in business studies. When a big envelope arrives, people cheer and hoist their friends over their shoulders. Broken light from harem windows makes patterns of shadow and light on the faces on top, but the faces below are dark, they haven’t got any big envelopes but they are still cheering. Loud and louder.

My camera captures it all.

“What about you?”Shoba asks. She has landed a consulting job in Singapore; everyone is jealous of her but of course no one admits it.

The Literary Society has a magazine called Colours. They take one look at my camera and appoint me as a photographer on the spot. I don’t mind. I say that I would develop the snaps in my neighbourhood studio at a discount. They ask me where I have been hiding all these years.

“Here,”I reply.“Right here.”

At home, I play the images again. They mean something different at home from what they do in college.

A clinking startles me. He is home. Of course he is. He is home, he is at the bar, his turtleneck and jeans are slept in, the whisky bottle is open and he is pouring out a scotch. He raises his glass to me. I see a splintered image through the crystal and think: it’s happening again.

“Oops, I forgot. I got yerrr something else also.”

He takes me to his room where the yellow Selfridges bag is on the floor, the black lacy thing still spilling out of it. He pulls the bag and a knoll of black lace slinks out. He tries to gather it but it proves difficult to control, it slips from his grasp.He tugs, a thread snaps. Finally, he crumples it into a ball and chucks it into the bag.

“Another gift from London. Ta-dah!”

He shakes the bag and the lace hisses at me, impossibly black, impossibly smooth, a lover’s breath in my ear.

Dad smiles like he knows what I’m thinking, so I pull the black thing out.

It opens like a negligee, but feels heavier. There is a “Diane Von Furstenberg”on its neck, a smooth satin belt and a deep neckline that I should not be wearing at my age.

“It’s a wraparound,”Dad says, and I do not like the way he says it.

A strange fragrance emanates from the dress, a mixture of perfumes from London’s high-end department stores, not exotic, I tell myself, just an unfamiliar mélange.

“Cost bloody 500 quid,”he coughs.

The dress slithers from one hand to the other, slippery, amorphous. I run to my room, crumple it and throw it on the floor of my cupboard.

**

Miss D’Silva was the drama teacher and I would always get the heroine’s part. I was Alice, I was Sita. Miss D’Silva would plait my hair, soft fingers tingling the back of my neck. I stayed back for extra rehearsals, long long hours so that Dad had to come and pick me up. And the gentleman that he was, after he dropped me, he would drop her home too.

People began to whisper. Teachers would raise their eyebrows, friends would change the topic when I joined the group. But no one said anything to my face.

Jawaharlal Nehru once said that in this country only women are urged to have idols like Sita and Savitri, self-effacing and virtuous. Men had no equal idols like Harishchandra and Satyvavan. I do not know if Indian men, Nehru said, are supposed to be perfect, incapable of future improvement.

**

Ma is ironing when I come home. The television is on, an actress with garish makeup is wailing about her heartless husband. Did anyone hear Rama’s cry of pain?

“Can I see your pictures?”There is an infinitesimal pause between Ma’s asking and my moving, but I know she will pretend not to notice the pause.

Ma goes over the pictures again and again, asks me about lecture halls with ascending seats, how small the professor looks from the back. My mother has never been to college. Like that girl’s mother from my advertising class, my mother too has no formal education or qualifications. She is half the person she could have been.

Sometimes I wonder if my going to college without a second thought means anything to Ma, but we do not talk about these things.

Ma says she loves the pics, especially Shoba’s pic, her big bag of books, baby-face amidst a curly mop of hair. “But there are no pictures of you. You are so beautiful, just like your—”

“Yeah, Daddy’s girl,”I switch the camera off.

“My girl too,”she says in a soft voice.

My eyes fall on the ironing board. On it is Dad’s blue shirt. On the hanger are his black trousers. Ma pulls out a stray thread with a sharp snap.

This is what she does. She will iron his clothes. Polish his shoes. Dye his hair because even the parlour can miss a strand. Ma never misses anything. She will get him ready for the next one.

**

Only once did Dad bring a woman home. I was twelve and it wasn’t what you think. Ma was there and she told me to call her Aunty, but the woman didn’t look like an aunty. She wore a dress, her long legs were naked, her arms were smooth with clacking wooden bangles. Aunties were supposed to wear saris and mangalsutras, the mark of a married woman. This Aunty wore none of these things but she had a red bindi on her forehead, which was increasingly an amorphous symbol—it used to be worn only by married women but it was fashionable, so more and more unmarried women were wearing them nowadays.

Even now I sometimes wonder, was the Aunty married? The question burns inside me sometimes even now, on some days.

Ma brought out her best china. Four types of dishes, chicken and lamb and gulab jamun for dessert. Ma laid out the dishes on the table, told us that dessert was in the fridge, apologised for her headache and retired to her room.

My brother took one look at the aunty and slammed his door shut.

But I stayed. Daddy’s little girl.

Aunty gave me a tagline, “Mummy, Daddy, Nahnie, everybody loves a Jazzy!” I tilted my head and they laughed, Aunty touched Dad’s arm.

Afterwards, my brother got a job in another city. He told Ma that she could come and stay with him.

“Are you mad?” Ma said, “What will your father do?”

**

“Where did you learn photography?”Amir and I are arranging photographs under the Coloursmasthead.

“My dad, he’s in advertising.”

Amir nods. His hands brush against mine. They are not artistic hands; they are rough, abrasive hands. He places photos, asks for ideas, his Levis are tight, his legs long.

He catches me staring and smiles,“What are you planning to do after college?”

I turn away and tell him that I haven’t got any big envelopes.

“If you need a job, call me. I run a small set-up, but the work is interesting.”

I am about to laugh this bit of kindness away, but his hands are inches away from mine. I wonder what working next to him will be like, would our hands brush against each other, our arms, my foot against his…

“Are you coming to the farewell dance tomorrow?” he asks. “I’ll be taking pictures.”

I know Amir is married—the ring glinted at me when we met, a talisman against the devil. But does he have kids?

**

“Advertising,” Lata aunty would say as Ma bustled around, angry at offending cushions and chairs. “Everyone in advertising is like this.”

**

It is raining and a gaggle of denim is taking shelter under the bus stop. I concentrate on the rain, on cursing the weather gods, this mega-metropolis and its tiny busstop designed for sparsely populated Nordic countries.

Someone has etched two hearts on the back of a bus seat with the names: Hemu + Radha. Hemu and Radha have no civic sense. I scratch the hearts and green paint creeps under my nails till it hurts; blood leeches out of the wound, green turns purple.

When I reach home, no one is there. I will just try the dress on, I tell myself, it probably won’t fit. But I’m already thinking of the black pumps and Ma’s meenakari necklace that will go with it.

I grope around in my wardrobe, clutching at discarded denim and soft shirts. I pull my whole wardrobe out, throw it on my bed and the dress slinks to the floor.

My reflection is someone else, someone with taut hips, pert breasts, a delicate waist. How rough his hands will feel on my skin, fair hands on my dark skin.

I pull the dress up and it tugs at me as if it were doing the pulling. I tie the belt and it feels like it could fall at the slightest force of will. It falls into place and its hemline flutters around my knees.

I look older, sophisticated, something other than what I am.

“Kaamna.”

Ma is behind me. I haven’t heard her come in. I did not hear her open my door.

Ma’s eyes travel over my dress, the hint of cleavage, the fluttering hemline. There is a redness in her eyes and a silence between us, a silence so deep that I can hear children playing in the garden downstairs.

Header photography © Marie-Louise Eyres.

Share This: