Rajat Singh lives in New York, where he writes non-fiction. He holds an MA in anthropology and a BA in Latin, and is a staff writer for Kajal magazine. His work appears in the anthology Moving Truth(s): Queer and Transgender Desi Writings on Family, and is forthcoming on The Aerogram. (Photo credit: Nikhil Dhingra)
Buri Nazar aur Pait Bhara – The Evil Eye and a Full Stomach
Like the diaphanous chiffon saris that are the subject of his essay, Rajat Singh’s ‘Buri Nazar, Pait Bhara’ is a delicate exploration of the theme of want and satiety in the experience of one South Asian family in Boston. Writing of his mother’s sari collection, carefully stored in a ‘faded blue leather suitcase’, he examines the tenuous yet powerful connection between clothes and homeland. These beautifully-crafted saris link his mother to ‘an elsewhere’, a memory of her-self and of the past, just as her cast-off dupattas hold a deeper meaning for her now grown-up son. Ironically, though his mother fulfils her traditional role as nurturer by ensuring that her children are well-fed, she teaches them through experience that want/hunger – both economic and often emotional – is an integral part of their ‘less-than life’. As Singh sensitively demonstrates, the sari (or dupatta) becomes a powerful symbol for the projection of their fantasies.
Delicate chiffon saris slip past each other as raw silks scratch and rustle. Fabrics encrusted with beadwork catch against those thoughtfully embroidered with gold zari threads. Lying strewn across my mother’s bed, these saris are magnetic, attracting and repelling their sartorial neighbors. Some impinge while others glide away to safety.
They all lie hidden away in a large suitcase, closed off to light. Many are sheathed in clear plastic sleeves, bags stamped with the names of vendors in Delhi’s Connaught Place. As the envelopes crinkle and suffocate their contents, I shudder that my mother doesn’t have a more dignified way to safeguard what’s inside.
South Asian women like my mother, who came to America, care for these objects, borne in hard-sided suitcases when they arrived, or which they accumulate during trips back to the subcontinent. They iron all five yards for parties, shielding the sari from direct heat with a cotton bandana. During sparkling evenings of party gupshup, I remember guests scrambling to form the semblance of a buffet line and gorging themselves on crispy pakoras.
I always left these gatherings as a child, spent from dancing, unable to shake the emptiness eating away at me. The minute she returns home, my mother folds her sari, humming a 1950s filmy ballad, while my father sleeps, doused in Johnny Walkers.
A sari’s flat, unassuming shape conceals the powers it wields once it gets draped. It’s a plane upon which women project their fantasies. It’s a rectangular frame within which a woman makes and remakes herself.
But saris always deceive us. The moment a sari takes form upon the body is the moment a textile becomes available for thought and speech and the evil eye—for buri nazar.
In a fierce and vulnerable portrait of her mother, Carolyn Kay Stedman writes “about lives lived out on the borderlands, lives for which the central interpretative devices of the culture don’t quite work.” Mainstream narratives about diaspora have no place for the notion that my mother had married into a less-than life. It was she who taught me how to want.
My mother carefully layers her saris into a faded-blue leather suitcase at the same time that she keeps her old dupattas crammed inside a drawer. These scarves no longer belong to any Punjabi salwar kameez, their edges frayed, or their styles hopelessly outdated. If she wouldn’t wear them, then I’d appropriate her cast-offs, delighting in their mystical powers.
For a child of five, the dupattas were both fetish and fantasy—a mode of fabricating a world denied to me. A way of accessing a culture unavailable to me; according to Karl Marx, all commodities are mysterious things, embodied with magic. But Marx recognizes that clothes, in particular, are imbued with a strange significance. They can represent either promise or threaten to possess us, entangling modernity within a prison of seduction, mimicry, greed, and arrogance. In Capital, Marx condemns the modern notion of “commodity fetishism,” the process by which slaves of consumerism worship the magical properties intrinsic to objects and goods.
As I sifted through the troves, working with the scraps, I lent these silk fragments a new life, even if only for an afternoon. In this tiny world of my making,’90s Bollywood item-numbers played on loop. I tied a dupatta into a skirt and threw another over my head. But I fell short of the glamour and pathos contained in the song of my choice. In a haunting ode, Madhuri Dixit pines that her beloved has inflicted so much pain on her. I’d fallen under a spell of the dupatta’s doing.
I twirled in my make-believe world, away from the judgment of strangers, away from aunties’ raised eyebrows. There are no photographs of my queer, childlike indulgences. This would have given guests, peering into our albums, and the invasive pleasure of feasting on my innermost desires. I would have been left with a hot burn of shame in the pit of my stomach, prickling my insides. They were hungry to make me believe my world was somehow unbecoming and reprehensible.
To be seen might have been nice, or it might have been my undoing.
Women of the South Asian diaspora bear across the seas the sari’s countless silhouettes, the myriad shapes of what their duty and desire look like. Each sari they accumulate finds life in its potential to transform. A sari’s folded form—or slung over hangers in walk-in closets—deceives us when it cocoons and graces the body.
In The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes asks, “Is not the most erotic portion of a body where the garment gapes?” Where the text breaks is where the chance to reread begins.
Indian aunties always notice the detail of an exquisite pallu as it cascades over a woman’s shoulder. But as a child, I always lingered at the flash of skin between blouse and skirt. In this disjuncture resides the zero, as well as the source of desire. Here, we contemplate the intimate fragility of unclothed skin. This is the chasm across which women have traveled from home. In this flesh we see how mean, how humble, seems the human beneath. From this gap emanate both pain and possibility, both wear and tear.
For as long as I can remember, my mother has strewn her sari collection across the bed a few times a year and I’d kneel at the edge, my eye always drawn to those fabrics woven in a technique called dhoop-chaaon—“sunlight and shadow.” Holding the surface at a different perspective could reveal either bright or somber possibilities. In fact, as writer and critic Shahidha Bari notes, our modern understanding of truth is inextricably linked “to ideas of light, revelation, and disclosure.”
I never understood what my mother was doing as she sifted through the saris, yet here I was, struck with a portrait of a woman I only thought I knew. I now suspect that whenever she pushed open the suitcase, it was a brief respite to unwind time, to keep her life unchanged, to tie not another sari but her body to an elsewhere. Every rectangle framed a distinct memory. But beyond the borders of each was a life she yearned to know, either again or for the first time.
As saris spilled out, my eyes drifting across each one-of-a-kind design, I mourned for them; how miserable—these tapestries had to spend their lives trapped within a dark, musty suitcase. I longed that each creation would have a chance to be selected, worn, enjoyed, and admired again, their promises alighted.
Tegere, the Latin for “weave” (its root is connected to the Greek technē, meaning “craft”), gives us our word “textile”—as well as “text.” Sigmund Freud, who spoke of weaving dreams, argued that memories are “fabricated,” or in fact, spun (from the Latin word faber, “maker”). My mother made each her own, and what’s more, read each of them with the utmost care, projecting upon every one as if it were a screen, as Freud might understand it. On this visual plane, a story remained shrouded unless the layers were unfurled, unless light shone through the garment to play with the stories stitched within it.
“This one I bought in Delhi with your masi before I left to come to this country.” My mother pulled at a thread that had come loose off the edge of a Banarasi silk sari. Winding it around her knuckle, like Ariadne in search of the end of the thread at the end of the labyrinth, she gripped it tight and tore off a memory too inconvenient to keep.
Placing myself into these settings—ducking into crowded sari shops and exchanging pleasantries with sycophantic owners—required a strained effort, since I’ve never visited India; Indian-American children bellyached about these trips—and not just because they’d contracted stomach bugs. All the same, their parents had deemed these pilgrimages necessary for stitching together seams to kin that had frayed during the school year.
I resented the aunties who brought me kurta pajamas in crisp white khaadi cotton, their favors starched stiff with pity. I blushed red and hot when I was made to wear these gifts in front of them and pretend their generosity didn’t cost me anything—gifts as gifts-that-take.
All the same, I looked down on my mother’s saris, purchased a decade or two earlier. Not quite old enough to be considered vintage, these were texts best kept hidden. She made them look good. But I couldn’t shake the ache inside me. Our humble upbringing, my father’s tightfistedness, was our family’s humiliating, not-so-secret, secret.
For a woman who didn’t travel overseas after marriage, who had resigned herself to a simple life, unzipping a suitcase every now and then, was both her passport and her act of time-travel.
Next, my mother lifted a much heavier, carmine creation. “This was the sari I got married in.” I pretended to understand what that day had sealed for her, and ached that her own mother, in India with a brain tumor, couldn’t travel to see her daughter be wed. When she took stock of that sari, did she feel hopes tabled? A life truncated? I was too afraid to ask. Her saris held traces of the last occasion they were draped and admired. Scents stayed trapped within the fibers. The French have a lovely word, sillage, which translates as “the drift of perfume that lingers in the air in the wake of a person’s departure.” This suitcase was an archive of sentiments. A trunk for safeguarding emotions too dangerous to wear on her face.
But even growing up as a first-generation queer South Asian boy means being able to “seize hold of memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger,” as Walter Benjamin tells us. Most days I’m not strong enough to read the texts I’ve imprinted on my mother’s dupattas. Nevertheless, every memory of that pretty, awkward boy lingers, not fully banished from my mind. I hold onto these flickers of memory, risky as they are, on the off-chance I may one day want to reclaim an abandoned version of myself.
Mom and dad’s social calendar, as I made it out to be, was always filled. Saturday evenings, I finished my Looney Tunes TV dinner—devouring the gooey brownie first—as I watched my mother wrap herself in the soft armor of finely embroidered silk. I tried to fall asleep, my stomach full, and my mind awaiting their return.
Successfully managing the overwhelming yardage and tying a perfect sari was one part skill, one part lived history, and one part sheer luck. Fabrics either cooperated, or they frustrated her again and again. Muscle memory and expert fingers took hold of a tricky material and pleated and tied it into docility, into a graceful silhouette that was pleasing to the eye. Culture informed every deft movement, and within every woman was a repository of years of savoir-faire.
But anxiety that one of these three ingredients may have been lacking on any particular evening wasn’t a sentiment my mother hid well. If the job wasn’t advancing—if she was betraying her heritage or the sari itself was betraying my mother—a quick motion undid the garment and she would step out of it, undressing only to try the operation once more.
On the occasions I got to attend these parties, I watched Punjabi women peacock around in designer saris, carted back from their last trip to Delhi. They prattled on about their lives in stately New England colonials, soon emptied of their sons, self-important investment bankers, and marriageable daughters. These were older, bitterer women who had enjoyed middle-class lives in the decades after their families had made post-Partition Delhi urbane again. Still, they’d moved in favor of Western opportunity.
What had exile given them, their faces stiffened into sour pouts, their eyes intimating a quiet resentment?
As the anthropologist Webb Keane writes, “We drape ourselves in habit, competence, and constraint—with what clothing makes possible.”
My mother was less self-assured than the aunties I gazed at as a child. But as I stood at her pallu, clutching the hem, I smiled that she appeared braver than all of them. She reasoned it was either an evening with these women or an empty datebook. These were, after all, her husband’s friends’ wives—not hers. And so she donned her sari like chainmail and entered a minefield of nazrein and thinly-veiled blandishments.
“Meeeena,” the women cooed, “You’re looking so lovely tonight!” Of course, she did. She’d inherited from her own mother a level of taste benefitting from the long arm of high-ranking, albeit crumbling, British civility.
But these women bestowed compliments as markers of distinction. Their insinuations were clear. How is it possible you look even lovelier than I? As they spun their glistening web, desire, envy, longing, and indignation were all stitched into this silk matrix.
In Michel Foucault’s words, “I know very well what it is to be looked over by someone else from head to toe.”
My father refused to buy plane tickets to that dirty, hot, and corrupt country, and my sister, my mother, and I gave up asking to go. So she allowed her archive to allay her appetite.
The aesthetic trappings—indeed, snares—of Boston’s Punjabi social scene seem frivolous. But because of a long tradition of silencing South Asian women, saris configured the borders of my mother’s agency. No one has ever woven, could ever weave, a sari so beautiful it would silence all the other tongues.
“If the self is somehow experienced,” writes Shahidha Bari, “then perhaps there are moments when we strive to be seen and others when we seek a certain kind of invisibility. We wax and wane in the things that we wear.” The most diaphanous saris, spun in the lightest chiffon, then, must be the truest. A generation of Indian royal women, beginning most notably with Maharani Indira Devi of Cooch Behar, abandoned purdah in the 20th century. As their interactions with the British Raj intensified, they adopted the French taste for flowing pastel chiffon in their own saris. The style remains popular to this day.
Thin enough to see through when held up to the light, in the chiffon sari lies a strength, despite its fragility. What has to appear effortless, however, is the sari’s perfect execution—ironing, pleating, and tying it. Keeping the entire operation from slipping to the floor in a heap embodies quiet discipline. For Bari, “the power of the right dress necessarily comes only rarely, like hard-won self-knowledge, the shining truth of which cannot stand too much scrutiny.”
To ignore, then, the material reality of the clothed body as an object of our gaze or as the subject of our want is to delegitimize our desires as inherently constitutive of our humanity. In clothes, we are subject to wear and tear. And so it is that we are and we become.
The wild Urdu poet Miraji composed a nazm (a poem in free verse) in 1942, in which a female narrator describes the ebb and flow of her desire to be seen. The poem’s opening line seems fitting to end with here:
Main yeh chahti hoon ke duniya ki aankhen mujhe dekhti jaayen – “I want the world’s eyes to keep looking at me.”
Today, I’ve outgrown the dupatta drawer. But I still want the world’s gaze to follow me. At the occasional party, my friends will petition me to perform my rendition of a courtesan’s lamenting song-and-dance from Bollywood cinema. Over drinks, I once let on that I’d perfected this highly stylized performance alone in my college dorm room.
More than once, as I sip my tequila, I refuse my friends’ pleas to let them enter my circle of joy (the refrain Miraji repeats in his poem is “masarrat ka ghera”). Eventually, though, I give in, sinking gracefully to the floor and gesturing toward the closet. Someone brings a sheer stole to complete my outfit. I oblige them with fabricated resignation. There are only a few pictures of me on Facebook – a beguiling smile, a graceful flick of the wrist – and the dupatta slipping, like an autumn leaf, from my head.