My darling green lights all the way till your destination,
Thank you, thank you for overwhelming me with email responses last time! I guess you ARE reading this after all, and now I feel less like this newsletter is reaching your Updates or Promo folder and being deleted unread. I have a few newsletters like that, which I subscribe to, that is, and I feel so bad that the other person is going to see that I’ve unsubscribed, but I’ve just… stopped reading it so they all pile up unread and lonely in my inbox. I’m a little late with this edition, but like fine wine, it aged nicely.
My mum likes to tell the story about how when I was twelve or thirteen or thereabouts, she couldn’t take me shopping for new clothes without also asking my best friend at the time, we’ll call her Osha, to come along with us. “Because if Osha disapproved, you wouldn’t wear that outfit ever again,” she says now, rolling her eyes, “It was easier to just plan a trip where Osha could come along.” I remember some of these expeditions, I think. My thirteenth year feels like one someone else lived, and so it is pretty much removed from my memory. It was a weird year for me. I was trying so hard to fit in that I forgot to also live. And so, like sands on a beach, my memory is completely wiped. A few days stand out: trying on things in a big shop, watching Osha’s eyebrow quirk, her mouth turn either up or down to indicate approval. We all wore versions of the same thing, after school that is, after our uniforms, and so it should’ve been easy enough but I didn’t trust myself to get it right.
Clothes did not give me joy for such a long time that I’m sometimes surprised by how much I love them now. Clothes, fashion, all areas where I could fail. I wasn’t cool enough, not hip enough, not teen enough. This was the 90s, we all wore versions of skinny jeans and big oversized t-shirts. This was what we wore all the time, summer or winter, to parties or to the movies. In the winter we’d wear baggy sweaters instead of t-shirts but the principle was the same.
Right now, in 2021, I have a few favourite dresses, I sometimes run my hand back and forth across my dresses hanging in my (sadly overcrowded) cupboard because I love them so much. A few things I will always be drawn to: flared skirts with fitted waists, interesting cuts in pants and skirts, where you look like you’re a samurai or something, prints that are fun, but also not ubiquitous, so crows, yes, owls, no. Dresses that combine Indian prints with Western cuts, with a special emphasis on ikat and kalamkari, although these days I am drawn to the idea of a nice bandini frock. This is new to my thirties, suddenly discovering Indian fabric could make pretty dresses. In my twenties, I lived exclusively in western wear, recently doing a closet turn out I discovered a stack of beautiful kurtis, all tailor made for me, that I grew out of after only wearing them once or twice. (They have all gone to good homes.)
But when was I aware of clothes, of how they were more than just something you slipped on to go outside? Shorts and t-shirts for playing in, pretty frocks for parties, lehenga-blouses for weddings? Everything itched, nothing felt as comfortable as stripping down to my petticoat and underwear—in the ‘80s I wore a thin cotton petticoat under my school uniform, it was apparently a common practice—and staying in that till dinner time, no matter how raggedy I looked. I’ll never forget a friend of my mother’s, who I’d never met before or since, by the way, encountering me like this on the front balcao thing our house from our brief Trivandrum years had. I was an exceptionally snotty child, allergic to everything, nose constantly running, mouth a little open so I could breathe, and by this time I had been in my petticoat for hours, so imagine me, slightly grubby, (short) hair standing on end (my mother did not know how to deal with curls so boy cuts were the norm of my youth), shiny trails of snot on my arms and on the front of my top, and this man, who is pretty well-dressed, at least showered, looks at me, and his lip curls and he looks away which is a very man-like thing to do, a woman would have been kinder or at least considered who I was. I’ve hated him ever since, but you know, looking back, I don’t know that Adult Me meeting Child Me on the porch wouldn’t have had the same reaction.
By the time we moved back to Delhi, I was a little older so less inclined to be in my petticoat—and I think we dropped the petticoat after those two Trivandrum years. Maybe Kendriya Vidyalaya (yes, but it was a good one in Trivandrum so everyone went there, especially all the Gulf children being sent “home” because of the war) (I will go more into my Trivandrum years in a later issue. T? or H is for Home?) insisted on a dress code? Who knows. I still accepted what my mum made me wear, my aunts sent what I can best describe as “baba suits” from the States. You know what I mean. We’d call them co-ords now, but they were very unflattering and extremely babyish—a set of matching shorts and a t-shirt with primary coloured art prints on them. I wore these, dear reader, till I was about thirteen or fourteen and should have really known better, until one day I rebelled and refused to put a single one on again. (In public. They made good nightsuits.)
But I was finally in a school where everything wasn’t all mixed together, as it were. What I mean is, I moved from the Montesorri where I had been temporarily lodged till they figured out what to do with me, where I was one of the oldest kids and so de facto, one of the coolest, to this big anonymous large school where I’d be starting out with all the other ten year old children. (See more on this school here.) I was at this time a supremely confident person, extremely sure that I was beloved and delightful and an asset to every community I belonged to. (These illusions were swiftly removed, for which I blame the sink or swim nature of large Indian schools, really. No one has time to spend with you individually or figure out what the best things for you are. Home schooling! Or in the absence of home schooling, somewhere small which may not have the best exam results but will light some sort of spark in your kid and not extinguish it.) Anyway, I was invited to a birthday party, and I went, dressed in my best frock (how else to describe it? It was actually very elegant. The style of that time was to have pouffy, birthday cake style skirts, the more ruffles you could slap on, the better. By contrast, this was an exceedingly simple style, which was already what was appealing to me, a straight dress in a floral print with a little lace around the hem and sleeves and a Peter Pan collar with a dusty pink sash around the waist.) because I wanted to impress the other children, and I was forming some nascent ideas about wearing nice clothes being a way to do that.
My mum dropped me off at the door and I ascended the stairs to find the whole party, all my class, people I had so far just looked at from a distance, and as one they turned to look at me, and I realised in that moment that they were a) all in jeans and t-shirts and b) were amused and scornful of the get up I was in. I almost turned to run, surely my mother would still be down there, but the birthday girl, with a graciousness beyond her years said, “Oh, you look very nice. Come in and have a cold drink.” I don’t think I ever put on that dress again, kind of sad because I was growing out of clothes so quickly, but after that it was all jeans and t-shirts and I realised I was signalling, “Hello! I am like you!” to all the kids my age as they signalled me back. This is the thing about fashion, about clothes. If you have a practiced eye, and you enter a room, you can probably tell who you’d most like to be friends with versus who you might not wind up talking to at all. I can’t also deny that in an extremely class and caste conscious country like India, it was a way of the elite upper caste English educated types to have a code and a club and a way to keep people out. Obviously this is a thing that the privileged are doing all across the world, but in India I think it took other vicious forms besides just saying, “This is my Louis Vuitton bag.” We all go to Sarojini Nagar, for example, (for non-Delhi readers, that’s this large open air export surplus market where you can buy lovely things for very cheap.) (I wrote a guide to it, pre-pandemic, which I suppose you can still use post-pandemic.) but even the stuff you buy at Sarojini can have a class/caste tag. Cheap polyester stuff is a no-no, or anything shiny or anything, basically, that looks like it was mass-produced with big flashy prints. And so the red velvet rope goes up and divides the masses.
I dressed to fit in for most of my life—up until now. In college, I made the smooth shift to Fab India clothes—boutique-y Indian wear with big block prints, all very expensive and all claiming to “bring Indian culture back.” You could tell a Fab India kurta from one you might buy at your regular market a mile away. The cuts and colours were different. Fab India relied on these block prints, large unorthodox designs placed on indigo blue or scarlet backgrounds, in straight cuts, made to be worn over jeans instead of a salwar or a churidar. My aunts would sometimes send me stuff from Hyderabad—they still do to this day—and I had to say, “Not shiny, not shiny!” until they got the drift and started to appeal to my taste.
As a writer in India, I was following a generation that thought—quite literally—that if one paid attention to one’s clothes, one could not be taken seriously. A woman writer had to be many things, but fashionable was not one of them. The first few times I made forays into public wearing a dress instead of a sari, lipstick on instead of an un-made-up face, I was one of the only people doing it. I saw the way they reacted to people like me, people who they thought were too frivolous to be Real Writers, only good for talking endlessly about fashion. Luckily, that’s changed, and if you ever go to the Jaipur Lit Fest, for example, you’ll see all these amazing clothes, all these shiny people—many saris, yes, for a lot of people, a sari is still a way to say I Am Taking This Seriously, but also many dresses, like mine.
At our wedding, I dressed down, like I always do. I wanted to still feel like me, despite all the trappings around it. I did my own hair and make-up, fixed up my own wardrobe. At our reception/wedding party, I wore a dress and heels, and was comfortable all night. Maybe all of this can be dated back to the one October evening when I went to my classmate’s house and found that dressing up was bad and dressing down was the way to go. Maybe that’s informed my fashion choices ever since? I don’t know, I’ve never liked fuss, I like to dress well, but I like to be comfortable, and comfort often wins. In my underwear drawer, I have two sets of those slimming underwear things which I have worn a grand total of three times. I kept buying high heels, thinking maybe this time I’d be a high heel person, but I’m really not. In Delhi’s coldest months, I abandon fashion altogether and stick to ski pants and a ski jacket. I look like the Michelin Man, but I’m toasty warm, and that’s all that matters. (Which is why I like the summer, not for the punishing heat, but because I can dress in all my pretty, but completely inadequate clothes.)
Finally, a couple of years ago, I discovered the tailor down the road from our house would do pretty faithful copies of clothes I liked, if I gave him the material. Suddenly, I was discovering creativity in clothes even, not just stuff I’d bought, but stuff I could turn into whatever I liked. K, in the meanwhile, started experimenting with designing and printing t-shirts online, so between us, we had the custom clothes experience down. Few things make me as happy as seeing something I’d only imagined turn into something beautiful in real life. It’s almost as good as writing the perfect sentence.
Do you have something you wear that always makes you happy? Tell me about it.
Obviously, I only live on through your patronage etc etc and while this newsletter may not buy me any new clothes, I still like the clout so like, share.
I did a couple of Zoom panels this week if you’d like to listen.
The first was a fun discussion with Anuja Chauhan about her new novel and we veered into a discussion about pretty much everything else. That’s here.
The second was a talk with ARSD College where the kids asked me a bunch of questions about trolling, living on the internet and writing for a living. That’s here.
Links I Liked On The Internet!
This is an extra long list so I’ve divided it into SECTIONS, being thoughtful and mindful of your time etc.
My new Auth Couture column where I investigate fashion through writers is up. This time I decided to look at Agatha Christie’s pearl necklace (not dirty, a real pearl necklace) through the annals of time.
Very bad covers of classics made me LOL.
This is a good review of Lauren Oyler’s new book. I don’t link to reviews much, but this is good writing even if you don’t plan on reading the book.
You may have heard some murmurings about how Substack (the service I’m using to send you this email) is secretly evil but here’s a take I agree with. (I haven’t given it much thought tbh. It’s useful and free for me unlike others that start charging after 1000 subscribers or whatever, and aren’t all tech companies kinda evil in the end?)
An interesting look at who the characters in Harry Potter were loyal TO, and why that’s something we shouldn’t be desperate to emulate.
Ann Patchett on getting rid of her things.
Quarantine pods are falling apart.
A news website in Delhi fights back against the regime.
Inside Clubhouse, the iPhone only audio only app that everyone’s talking about.
How to use your anger productively.
Ten ways to get rid of mosquitoes.
That’s it from your friendly neighbourhood Spiderman. Speak soon!
Where am I? The Internet Personified! A mostly weekly collection of things I did/thought/read/saw that week.
Who are you? Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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