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Looking outside, seeing inside

sea-green neon light signboard on a door showing white hippie glasses neon.

When I was 11, B was 20-something and getting married to her Tamizh boyfriend of many years. She was beautiful and elusive, and I knew her as the young daughter of my parents’ friend. She’d been in the US with her boyfriend for many years now (both of them might have been living together), so when she came back to get married, it was an event in the lives of everyone who knew her. She held restraint in everything she did, and I’m certain that she was the first woman I truly loved. At her mehendi function, I couldn’t stop looking at her. She smiled, but not fully. She looked beautiful but didn’t look directly at you, and her clothes – her clothes were of the exact shade of someone who knew they were beautiful and didn’t have to try very hard.

B was only the first of many women I fell in love with – I noticed their smiles, and memorised the smell of the exact Nike perfume they used. Some of them folded their sweaters slightly differently, others had perfectly styled hair and carried it off with great confidence. I compared their thin legs to my larger ones and found myself in a space of both envy and desire; I was never sure if I wanted to spend all my time with them, or if I looked at them with greed and envy, trying to soak everything in before we weren’t around each other anymore.

In comparison, my clothes have always been simple – black jeans (no blue or anything), and different kinds of tops. In Bangalore, where I have grown up and lived my entire life, my world has little room for considerations about the things to wear or not wear. When I began my Master’s, I used to wear only t-shirts from Papa’s sports store. Those round-necked ones that all looked alike. Sometimes, I’d go to the closest Planet M outlet and buy cool Marvel ones also. All this stopped when I went to Delhi and looked outside of myself for the first time. This is not to say that I was so deeply self-involved till then that I didn’t care about others, but only that I cared so much that there was no point in comparing my clothes to those of others. How could I ever be like them?

This luxury was not possible in a city like Delhi, while I was staying with extended family. Everyone was sure about what they wanted to look like: what looked good, what was okay and what was really not okay. Leaving home in rubber chappals: really not okay. Buying a beautiful, expensive, shoulder-ache-causing sling bag: quite okay.

I once walked into Fabindia in Khan Market and began looking for kurtis to wear to college. The sales woman there looked past me in the trademark way that some salespeople do: like you are not worth their time, like yahaan se niklo please (please get out of here). She didn’t say anything, of course, but I stared at myself in the changing-room mirror and discovered that I looked at myself very rarely. I was perceiving other women, but very rarely thinking about how I was being perceived. When I saw women, I was very clear about what I was looking for, but I didn’t know what anyone was seeing when they looked at me.

I was able to change things slowly, and I began to put some thought into the clothes I wore. My 15-minute morning routine slowly expanded to accommodate my eyeliner and the perfume that I never forgot. I began pairing my kurtis with scarves and became very particular about the footwear I allowed myself to pick. Once on a trip to Jaipur, my heart collapsed into itself when I came across the silver jewellery market in Johari Bazaar. My mother, who has been in a chaandi (silver) phase for the last 20 years, has taught me how to bargain very well so I picked two long earrings for myself. Danglers, we used to call them in school. I promised myself to wear them often and regularly, envisioning a self who was different.

In my head, I could see a woman who carefully picked out earrings every morning. Each one perfectly complementing the rest of her outfit.

But it never happened. Each time I wore the earrings, I felt like I was trying to be someone I was definitely not, and the awkwardness took away any joy from who I was trying to become. But I didn’t stop trying for a while. I kept my earrings in a white and purple cloth bag and looked at them every now and then. The image of myself was separate from the one I was trying to create, and it became clear that I would have to work twice as hard to arrive at any sense of self.

Irrespective of everything I tried, it was easier to look at other women; to dive into my memory of L and derive joy from that one outfit she would keep repeating. My own clothes always disappointed, for I held them up to the standard of deep love that I held for others.

I returned to Delhi recently. I was going there for the first time after completing my MA, given the pandemic and other problems that had kept erupting. It had been over three years, and I knew what my biggest problem would be. Three days before the trip, I opened my cupboard and found that everything inside looked different. I was reminded of how old each shirt was, how each one reminded me of a woman and a feeling she came with. It’s now clear to me that my persistent back and forth with women has placed me in a position where I find that my own clothes are all just pieces of a larger archive I’m slowly constructing: an archive of the women I love, a half-hearted attempt at mimicking what I love.

There is some discomfort in this thought. I teach my students every day that we must be the centres of our own worlds, and yet it seems that in my lifetime of loving women, I haven’t learned how to love them and myself.

The slow climb to learning this involves many malls and markets, some online shopping and experiments with thrift stores. There is an art to looking at yourself and finding love there, but it’s something nobody teaches you.

Cover Image: Photo by Zuzanna Adamczyk on Unsplash