Neha Rayamajhi is a social worker and a storyteller from Nepal. Born and raised in Kathmandu, she currently resides in Boston, Massachusetts. Her work revolves around decolonial politics, diasporic nostalgia, and joys of re-imagining an anti-oppressive future. Neha holds a Master’s degree in International Development and Social Change from Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts. Find her tweet @NehaRaySays
At the time and place I lived as a little girl, all little girls were designed to love the same small things:
1. White Rabbit Candy,
2. Stickers, and
The candy had to be creamy. The stickers had to be sparkly. And the frocks had to be pink. Purple or blue were accepted but nothing compared to red ones with frilled bottoms and bow-tied ribbons on the backs.
At ten years old, I had an ample access to the first two treasures of the little girls’ wish list. I also had a closet filled with denim pants, khaki shorts, cotton kurtas, and oversized t-shirts with the faces of Bob Marley, Che Guevara, and Ganesh all smiling too keenly. My wardrobe had too many clothes for me but not a single frock.
Whether I wanted frocks because I found them beautiful at that time and place or because that time and place decided that I had to find them beautiful is still an unanswered query. What I do know is that I genuinely and very gravely wanted to own one.
A frock was not just a piece of garment for us. It was a status symbol. It was a beauty mole. It was a ticket for little brown girls to transcend to a world where little white girls with rosy cheeks and blue eyes lived in castles, danced with fairies, and grew up to be queens; all while wearing pink frocks, or sometimes purple or blue ones. Since eyes and cheeks could not be traded in kindergarten bathrooms or bought at even the fanciest malls, their dress was our only access to citizenship of that fairy tale.
I would make subtle suggestions to my mother.
“They are ugly, uncomfortable, and expensive,” she would roar back. And would continue to remind me how Disney princesses are not the standard of beauty for us.
I would make stronger demands with my father.
“We will get it next month,” he would gently promise, only to be interrupted by my angry mother who would then follow up with a list of bills that had not been paid yet.
My hope of conquering the wish list would fade away following these trials. It would drown down amid the strong stench of vodka, screams of a failing marriage, and scenery of disappointments disguised as dirty dishes and unopened envelopes on the kitchen counter. I was never getting a frock.
One divine September, however, God, the English one from my Catholic School, intervened. It was time for our Christmas talent show, and I was picked to participate in a play about butterflies. Like most of my classmates, I wanted the role of the beautiful flying creature with silver wings, dialogues, and dance routines. But Sister Margaret said I was too tall and my English was “too bad,” so I had to accept the part of a voiceless flower standing in the background. I consoled myself by remembering that this was still better than having to stand behind a choir or curtains, which had been my only two experiences in talent shows so far.
So I was happy with the upgrade.
Moreover, the flowers had to wear pink frocks for our role. No exceptions. I remember the joy I felt when Sister Margaret handed us a note with those instructions. I remember vowing to be the best flower ever to have stood in the background of that auditorium.
I pretended to sulk with the rest of my classmates who, despite being the right height, had been shoved behind as voiceless flowers just like me. The five who were featured as beautiful butterflies were the same five who were featured for everything else in the school. They were girls who resembled the God this institution worshipped. Light skin, light hair, they even had the ability to pronounce their S correctly, unlike most other Nepalis in and outside this convent. It was an injustice even to the ten-year-old me, but justice had to wait. I needed this pink frock.
Like most middle-class parents of that time and place, my twenty-nine-year-old guardians were not going to question the decisions made by my school. This school specifically, founded by missionaries who were believed to have sacrificed the comfort of their first world only to serve their God via us—here—in our “undeveloped” third world. These evangelists were selfless representatives of the better world, a place without wars or dirty children on streets. A place with hot water straight from the faucet and ice cream flavors unknown to the rest of us. They were better than us. And we did not question those who were blessed bigger than us. We followed their orders. All the little girls of that time and place knew this rule. All the boys, little and big, of that time and place knew this rule. All the angry mothers, and fragile fathers, and sick grandparents, and rich uncles, and poor aunties of that time and place knew this rule. So this flower went home happier than usual that day and handed the note to my mother. She grumbled and then nodded her head.
That weekend my mother came home with a fancy shopping bag, still grumbling. This time about the bulk of plastic wasted on one little dress. She preferred using old newspapers to wrap up new things, even presents, and did not pay attention to how her habit was my source of embarrassment at every birthday party I attended outside her house. I nodded, still happy. At least, the frock was here and mine.
A frock was here but it was not from the wish list. What came out of that bag was a plain cotton dress stitched with my mother’s stubbornness, and on sale at a smaller shop near the mall. It was a salmon-colored shapeless piece of fabric with no frills on the bottom or ribbon on the back.
“It is a shade of pink and made locally,” she said with pride.
“Thank you,” I lied with my heart and hope both broken.
Monday morning, I awkwardly opened my handwoven woolen bag in front of girls with polyester backpacks bought at Nike and Disney outlets. I hung my head low as I showed the dress to the class. Murmurs waiting to explode into laughter followed; the same kind that followed me at birthday parties outside my house.
“Ask your parents to get another one,” Sister Margaret said, “Something pretty, like the one Bella wore in Beauty and the Beast.”
“But Disney princesses are not the standard of beauty for us…” I grumbled, incomplete and unconfident.
One weekend before the talent show, an aunt dropped by with some left over biryani for my brother and a bag of her daughter’s old clothes for me. And in that bag full of my cousin’s preteen memories, I found the frock, pink with ribbon and frills and additional glitters embedded across the bright nylon fabric. I had finally been granted access to the world I wanted to be in. I had arrived.
That night at the show, I gave my audience the best flower they had ever seen on stage. With my face covered in foundation three shades lighter than me, I smiled and swayed with fifteen other flowers who looked as uneasy as the pink blush smeared on our brown cheeks. None of us complained. We looked like royalty who belonged on T.V. My frock was uncomfortable to wear. It was heavy and too tight. The gaudy glitters made my shoulders itch but I forgave the intrusion because they also made my chin up. I looked like royalty who belonged on T.V.
My father sat in front of the stage, among other mothers with his legs crossed clapping calmly. My mother stood in front of the stage, among other fathers with her camera flashing as loudly as their claps. Later all three of us went for ice cream. I did not like ice cream but I did not complain. We looked like a family that belonged on T.V.
I wore that frock again a couple of times until one day it mysteriously disappeared. I wore the other dress many times more. Whether I did so because I feared my mother or loved her is still an unanswered query. But what I know is that it made both of us happy.
Every now and then when I miss my mother, I think about that frock. Not the one I wanted at that time and place but the one she wanted for me then. I think about how simple it was to slip into it, how it stood out among all the other dresses, and how comfortable it made me feel. And I think how those were the lessons my mother was trying to teach me; simplicity, resistance, and self-love.
My mother, a difficult woman, like every other woman from any time and place—women who are brave—was the first feminist I met. She was also the first decolonial activist, the first environmentalist, and the first of very few genderqueer fashionistas in my life. And like many other leaders, she also carried layers of ugly that reduced her position as a hero and a mother in my eyes. Nevertheless, I loved her always.
Time did a trick on both my frock and my mother. The first ripped away with years, and the latter lost her values with age. Wars of various nature do that to people, they rip you apart and leave you lost. These days when I call her, she will remind me how all the little girls from that time and place are happily married now, and if only I dressed more like them, then I would find a husband and hence, happiness too. She will brag about my brother’s salary and suggest how if only I quit my teaching job and work for an oil company, I would be rich and, hence happy too.
“Why do you have to be this difficult?” she will ask me. And I will say nothing except bring up Boston and how white people here never feel the cold like we do.
“How is your roommate?” she will ask halfheartedly. And I will say just fine instead of reminding her that she is asking me about my wife.
We will pause for a few seconds, and she will grumble about my father and then her health. She will complain about the pollution in Kathmandu and then the failure of the Nepali government. And right before we end our conversation, she will whine about the presents I send my little niece.
“It was too plain,” she will say. “Send her something pretty, like something from the American T.V.”