The A-Z Series: This series of short articles explores how familiar objects from everyday life embody concepts and values dear to the urban Indian middle class. It takes a light-hearted and humorous look at how objects shape our wants & desires, lives, and lifestyles, ultimately making us who we are as a people.
I have been a part of this family for a long time. I had come here when Yamini’s parents got married 20 years ago. In my time here, I have seen clothes come and leave. I now rightly see myself as a keeper of memories.
Yamini often organises her clothes/kapde into four piles. No piece of clothing stays in the same pile forever. Sometimes, a thread or a button comes loose. Sometimes, a small tear becomes too noticeable over time. Clothes thus shift from one pile to the next rather than being thrown away.
The first group of clothes for Yamini is that of occasion wear. There are store-bought brand new clothes in this pile, but those do not feel too special to me. For a connoisseur of memories like me, one piece stands out: a beautiful purple lehenga that Yamini’s mother fashioned out of her old Banarasi wedding saree. It had a big stain from being kept inside boxes for too long. It did not feel right to throw it away, so her mother repurposed it.
The other pile is that of everyday college wear. A few pairs of jeans here originally belonged to Yamini’s cousin sisters, although she does not admit that to anyone for fear of being seen as uncool. Some of her own clothes are now in her younger sister’s almaari. Yamini often complains that the paisa vasool mentality is embarrassing. But it’s these layered memories that excite me, as clothes change hands.
There are home-wear clothes or ghar ke kapde, of course. These old clothes are no longer fit to wear outside. They are still lovingly kept to make the most of their value. Maybe their colours do not shine brightly anymore, maybe they have a slight tear that Yamini’s mother has mended. Sometimes, so many personal memories spill on a piece of clothing that it becomes impossible to wear it publicly. Like when Yamini’s father taught her to change car tires and her t-shirt carried the memory. She happily wears it at home now.
There is the last category, one which I have mixed feelings about. It comprises clothes that will be repurposed into pocchhe ka kapda or a dusting cloth. This is their final stage of life. They will still be used at home, but ultimately they will be thrown away forever. Yamini happily metes this treatment out to clothes gifted by men who broke her heart. Don’t get me wrong, I feel happy that she is happy. But when clothes become pocche ka kapda, they no longer have memories attached to them. They become this fabric of nothingness, with no personality in them. I often advise old kapde/clothes to hide under piles of new ones. It is difficult for me to let them go when they’ve been under my roof for so long. Perhaps the family could find a way to reuse them again?
I have heard that in Yamini’s village in Rajasthan, old clothes and scraps are often used to make a thin bedding mattress called gudra. In other small towns, there is a group of hawkers that collect old cotton clothes and give steel utensils in exchange for them. Don’t they call this sustainability and recycling these days? I think these are wonderful ways of keeping clothes and memories alive.
I’ve been worried for myself, too. My shelves seem small, my Godrej steel doors have been creaking more, and I have more scratches than I would like to admit. But I often tell myself that the Indian middle-class is good at postponing goodbyes. Almaaris like me can be refurbished too, I think to myself. Then, all feels well again.
(Hamsini Shivakumar is a Semiotician and founder of Leapfrog Strategy. Khushi Rolania is a senior research analyst at Leapfrog Strategy.)