Women definitely win the clothing lottery in India. Salwaar khameez come in every color of the rainbow, styles from calf-length dresses covered in sequins and swirls to thigh-length plain tunic tops, and you usually buy all three pieces at once. If you do get separates at a mall, or go to a “matching store” to get your dupatta (the scarf normally worn backwards around your neck, tails hanging down behind you), even a male clerk will not let you purchase pants that don’t go with your tunic, or a scarf that isn’t an exact match for your pants.
The dupatta can be worn five or six different ways, used to cover your nose and mouth when the air is dusty or exhaust-ridden, wrapped over your hair if the auto-rickshaw ride is windy, and at a pinch, doubles as a hand towel or even kleenex. And as long as your pants cover your ankles and your top covers your rear end, you’re dressed correctly.
Sarees are a little trickier, and Western women tend to wear them several inches too short. However, they make a great bonding device. At the beginning of the day, I put on my saree and step into the world looking as if a seven-year-old has wrapped a present. Women approach me, almost immediately, and say, “Your saree, it is not quite…”
If I look pathetic and say, “Can you help me please?” I am whisked into a semi-private corner and strong fingers firmly re-pleat, re-tuck, and re-pin me until I can hardly breathe and my saree is correct.
The rest of the day, women murmur to each other, then shyly approach me, “Your saree, very nice.”
I say “Thank you!” and ask about their children.
This knowledge of clothing does not make me kind. It makes me a judging judger. I see a Western tourist, walking down the street with her boyfriend. She is wearing American-style leggings—skin tight, no bunch of extra-long fabric around the ankle—and a waist-length racer-back tank top, with a shawl thrown futilely over her chest. I think, really?
There are much fewer cows roaming the streets in Mumbai. I miss you, cows.