A Suitable Tailor

Last weekend, sitting on the floor of my living room, drinking tea and attempting to gain a little respite from the sun, my friend received an email:

‘A friend back in the UK is planning a low-budget wedding, and needs to get a wedding dress made. She’s asking my advice on whether to get it made up here. What do you think?’

A good question. Getting clothes tailored has been a re-occurring theme during my two year stay in India. The concept of affordable, personalized tailoring as an everyday service – completely unheard of back in the UK – has always appealed to me. So why was my gut reaction to the email to think ‘don’t do it!?’

My quest to find ‘the perfect tailor’ has been something of a holy grail. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in those early days in Noida, I reveled in the whole experience: trekking off to the fabric shops, browsing through colours, patterns and designs with friends while sipping on chai, choosing a neck design from a well-thumbed brochure and finally being measured. What’s not to enjoy?

When a week later the day came to pick up my clothes (a full kurta churidar set) I could barely contain my excitement. Nor was I disappointed when I reached the shop – it was ready! Only when I arrived back home with my friend did the realisation set in. While her suit fit like a glove, mine was near ridiculous: the top half sagging off my shoulders and wide around my chest, but tight around my hips, and the churidar barely able to be squeezed over my feet.

‘Maybe the tailor got confused’ my friend helpfully pointed out, ‘you do have quite thick calves … and your hips are wide in comparison to the rest of your body …’

Hmmm, not exactly music to my ears, but perhaps true. Three repeat visits back for alterations and I had a kurta that was perhaps passable. Strike one.

Eager to try again, a friend suggested that I had a much better chance if I found a shop-bought item that I liked, and then had it copied. Fab India kurta in hand, I optimistically returned. This time the results were admittedly better – this time it was uniformly large, as if made two dress sizes too big. ‘It will shrink in the wash, madam’. Yes, but sadly not that much …

Then came a bit of a lull – I got busy with my Hindi course, and moved across town to south Delhi. But for Diwali and my trip to Lucknow I decided to try my luck with my new local tailor, with similarly disastrous results (extra sad considering the lovely polka dotted silk I had purchased for the purpose). With a heavy heart, I decided that perhaps tailoring and me were not meant to be. What are we on now- strike three?

Only when I received three (lovely) sets of fabric as a Christmas gift did I get myself back into the game. This time I wasn’t taking any chances. A trip was made to INA market, and I purchased a few metres of cheap fabric for experimental purposes. With this in hand I made my way to the swankiest tailor that I could see in Green Park Market.

With high expectations (I’m an eternal optimist) I returned after the prescribed four days, only to find it wasn’t ready. I went back again after a week and then again a few days after that, and on both occasions was greeted with closed shutters. These posh places don’t have a lot of holidays. Between shop closures, my trip to Chenani and the three alterations needed to make the kurta fit the entire process took around six weeks. Thwarted again.

By this point I really had given up (I’m an optimist, but I’m not stupid – maybe I really am just a bizarre shape that no tailor can contend with). Perhaps unwisely though, when buying some leggings in a cloth shop in Green Park Market a few weeks later, I couldn’t stop myself asking the million dollar question: ‘I don’t suppose you know a good tailor?’
At this, the shopkeepers eyes lit up, and he clicked his fingers, beckoning his young son towards him:

‘Madam – I have one. You won’t find it going alone. Follow my son.’

Completely wrapped up in the intrigue of the situation, I duly followed the small boy, negotiated my way through the residential streets behind the market, and came to an unmarked door, where I was unceremoniously deposited.

Feeling slightly giddy by this time, I rang the doorbell, and was greeted by a friendly looking auntie type, who ushered me inside. Slightly skeptical of the fact that it just looked like someone’s living room, but reassured by the experienced-looking tailor she introduced me to, I nevertheless decided to try my luck, and left one of my suits to be made up.

What beautifully tailored suits, madam ...

Result! Can you believe it? Three days later I picked up a beautifully stitched kurta set which (wait for it …) actually bore a perfect resemblance to the shape of my body. Since then I’ve had Auntie-ji’s tailor make three suits, all of which have been great, and she’s even taken on the task of altering my previous disasters. When on occasions something isn’t made quite right the first time, the changing area (read: family bathroom near the living room) means that it’s easy to show the problem, and adjust things there and then, without multiple trips home. I haven’t tried any western clothes yet, but that might just be the next experiment.

So, in answer to my friend of a friends question … maybe you can get your wedding dress made in India. But you might have to wait for a few years before you find the right fit …

Painful purchasing in Primark versus sublime spending in splendiferous Sarojini Nagar

This Festive Season (notice how politically correct I’m being!) sees two thirds of the Cheesecake trio temporarily back in their British homelands. I had an uneventful journey from Delhi to Heathrow, during which I realised with some embarrassment that I’d already seen ALL of the Hindi films offered as in-flight entertainment, and then took a sleeper train up to Edinburgh. Yes, a sleeper. A British train with beds. But no, there were sadly no samosas and tragically nobody was screeching ‘chaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiii!’ at all hours of the night.

I’m now home safe and sound and there have been no major developments in my fair Scottish city. Oh, except one – we now have a Primark. Slap-bang in the city centre, Edinburgh residents now have access to four floors of morally questionable – but super cheap! – clothes, shoes and accessories. Hurrah. The thing is, though, I haven’t been able to inspect much of this because the shop’s so busy it makes me want to die.

‘But wait!’ you cry. ‘Aren’t you used to shopping in Delhi? To squeezing through the Old City’s bazaars like vacuum-packed sardines, with all those beggars and angry aunties and men with groping hands?’ The answer is yes, of course. But the truth is, shopping in Scotland annoys me much more than shopping in India.

Why? Well, there’s the incessant queuing, for a start. Nothing is more frustrating than standing in a line for hours – often while being simultaneously aurally assualted by pre-recorded blastings of ‘cashier number six please!’ – when all you’re buying is a pair of socks. Then there’s the customers with children. Either they run around demolishing everything, or they sit screaming in gigantic pushchairs (or ‘travel systems’ as I believe they are now amusingly called) which take up entire aisles. Staff are trained to be sickeningly friendly, even though the falseness is almost always obvious, and shops are now getting so big that you’re not just confused anymore; you’re actually lost.

Shopping in Delhi’s markets is less mechanical and much more human. One of my absolute favourite places in the city is Sarojini Nagar market, where factory rejects (of well-known Western brands; even Primark, actually) end up in great, crumpled heaps, waiting to be discovered – and ironed – by bargain-loving, but fashion-conscious, Delhiwallahs like yours truly. Sure, it’s busy, and yes, there are plenty of screaming children and a few lurking gropers, but the atmosphere is fun and the stallholders are enthusiastic and – mostly – genuinely friendly; powered by paan and regular refils of garma garam chai.

‘Woh wala dikhaana’ – ‘show me that one,’ is the line to use. The stallholder will then take a comically long metal pole to lift the garment at which you’re pointing (on its coathanger) and hand it to you for inspection. He will use encouraging English phrases like ‘size good, madam’ and ‘very nice quality’ and then inform you that the price is 250 rupees. You will scoff in mock disgust and, with a pained expression, tell that stallholder that you’ll offer him a hunded bucks, and not a rupee more. Then, after a minute of two of dramatised arguing, you’ll most probably receive a hefty discount and be handed your purchase in a small  polythene bag. Then you’ll move on to the next stall and repeat the script.

Of course, for some people, this kind of shopping will sound terribly time- and energy-consuming, but I suppose it depends on what you’re used to. I admit that Delhi markets not only terrified me in the beginning, but they completely boggled my mind – there was so much language and acting required for each transaction that shopping was quite an ordeal.  But now the impromptu conversations are a fun part of the experience, and as well as the bags of bargains, you come home with a satisfying sense of achievement too.

So I’m glad I did my Christmas shopping in Delhi because there’s no way I’ll be braving the high street in this city! And by the time the January sales are underway I’ll be safely back on Indian soil. Yay.

PS Merry Christmas, lovely readers!

(Photo borrowed from Toastwife, via Flickr)

The Quest for Blue Shoes

Blue shoes. Yes. Why, you ask? Well, simply because I feel they do justice to a good pair of blue jeans. The quest, however, began a long time ago, on a very hot and sultry day in Khan Market. M and I walked into a store to find the ‘perfect’ pair of blue pumps, but Alas! They were (as M pointed out) “… almost a month’s rent, Udita!”

From then on, I’d scoured every post and non-post market; dragged everyone from parents to friend to acquaintances into this quest. It’s hard to find blue shoes. Period. Oh, lots of the spangly ones, mind; with all sorts of shiny things on them. But staid and semi-formal, pretty blue shoes… no Madam!

And so it went on for months until this last Sunday, when we ended up in Khan again, revisited all the shoe shops and ended up at the ‘perfect pair’ store again! What was beyond budget 3 months ago remained so even now. And so, my lovely girls convinced me that come Christmas time, they’d send me pictures of shoes from the UK stores, I’d choose, and they’d buy them for me (insoles and all)!

Thus placated, we metro-ed along to Lajpat Nagar. Why, you ask again? That’s enough material for another post, so we’ll skip it for now. And in the market, in an over-crowded store, teeming with people, M pulled out the loveliest pair of blue (well, turquoise really) shoes. Solemn approval from S followed, the size was quickly handed to me. D said “Pretty and quirky, suits you.” And the deal was sealed. The shoe was mine, for only Rs 500. I could fair hear thunder and lightning. I had butterflies in my stomach… oh like first love 🙂

 

PS: I can pout for some other Christmas present from the UK now!

The weight of the world on my shoulder

A woman is never without her handbag. That may sound like a huge generalisation (actually, it is a huge generalisation), but the point I’m trying to make is that, for many of us girls, the need to lug tons of stuff around with us wherever we go is, for some reason, incredibly strong.

Why? Maybe keeping a few belongings with us makes us feel secure. Or maybe we just don’t wear clothes with enough pockets to stash our money, bank cards, keys, phones, books, pens, make up, hairbrushes, umbrellas, emergency sachets of chilli flakes (oops, I didn’t mean to say the last one!)… And perhaps it’s not just practical things we carry around – I, for one, will admit to keeping a few sentimental knick-knacks in there somewhere.

The bag itself, as the vessel in which to store all this stuff, is pretty essential then. It must be big enough to hold everything (but not too big), with sufficient pockets for organisation. Every woman has her own specific criteria when looking for a new handbag, so it’s pretty rare for a lady to let someone else choose an article of such importance on her behalf.

But that’s exactly what I did. Maegan has a really nice bag. It’s soft and maroon-y and real leather; big enough for a netbook and a small collection of Hindi books, as well as various other random objects of varying importance. So when she phoned me the other day from a posh boutique in Lajpat Nagar, saying she’d found the ideal bag (with 20% off!) and did I want her to get it for me, I trusted her to make the choice.

It was, of course, perfect. And on the bag’s first official outing (on the Metro), Maegan grabbed it off me, unzipped it and had a good rummage to see how I’d organised its contents. I was shocked. It was such an un-British display of privacy invasion that I was absolutely convinced she’d become Indian. Because, when you think about it, a woman’s whole life – her identity – is in her handbag. Looking inside is like unzipping a person and looking at her soul.

Which is exactly why, when we do get the occasional chance to root around in another lady’s bag, we enjoy it so much. There’s nothing better than indulging in our own nosiness. My friend Miriam, a Canadian writer and part-time Scottish person, has ingeniously tapped into this concept with her ‘Handbag Series’ on her blog. Featuring a few men as well as women, it allows us to anashamedly snoop around in other people’s lives. She has, of course, already ‘Handbagged’ me.

So about that thing I said regarding women never being without their bags. That’s not always the case in India, or so I’ve noticed. Here, lots of women keep all their ‘valuables’ down the front of their kameez or sari blouse. I’ve seen ladies keep mobile phones, wads of cash, small change, hankerchiefs, house keys – the whole shebang – down their tops. Maybe that’s why my tailor always leaves a bit of extra space when she stitches my suits. I’ll have to try this desi technique sometime, I think. It would be nice to have the weight off my shoulder.

You know, (I’ll finish with a bit of random trivia) some say that’s why Gandhi-ji is smiling on our rupee notes; no other country’s women keep their money so close to their, erm, hearts.

As nice, and a bit wrong, as that is, I think I’ll stick with my handbag.

Fashion Musings

The history of fashion has seen several decades of revolution, rebellion, and change. There have been the Elizabethan and Victorian eras of flowing gowns, skirts, and corsets; the ‘30s of dainty frocks, summer dresses, and feminine charm; and then the ‘70s of hippie skirts, tops, and harem pants. India, however, has seen less drastic changes. The legengas and sarees of yore were heavier, agreed, but they are still worn in pretty much the same fashion even today.

In the last five years or so, however, there is one aspect of Indian woman fashion that I believe has been path breaking – the concept of ‘kurti-slacks’… what a breakaway from the dreadful monotony of salwars, churidars, and patiyalas. This outfit has found a customer base in every economic stratum, every age group, and every sub-ethnic group.

It gives the thin woman’s body volume and the heavier, bustier women can hide their extra layers of fat. The young wear it in vibrant colours and patterns, the older wear it with sober undertones of hue. Dress it up with a heavy, embroidered, sequined dupatta in the evening while you wore the same outfit to work without one. In summers, these are cooler than jeans, in winters they are a snug fit.

Market segments ranging from Rs 100 to tens-of-thousands of rupees have churned out millions of patterns and shades in the kurti-slacks combination. Seldom have I seen any other attire so universally accepted. One may own 5 pair of leggings and if, for each, they have 4 matching tops, that’s 20 outfits!!! Whoever came up with this idea, I wonder!

Photo courtesy: Susanna… http://www.flickr.com/photos/teadaze/