I have never been a more curious spectator of the sartorial idiosyncrasies of the women living in our community in Calcutta, the city where my parents now live. I do not live in Calcutta anymore, not since the last six years, and this is perhaps why little things that did not stand out earlier tend to do so. I am an outsider now. I see things that I had never noticed before. Let us take the nightie, for example. I have never seen something that has popularized itself more than the nightie has. The women of the extended family still remember my dida (grandmother) for her unconventional modernism. Dida has been gone for 13 years (maybe more), and is more of a distant memory for me. She would be close to ninety if she was alive today. Every female acquaintance of hers remembers her for, no, not her unconventional outlook or her lack of prejudices as a sign of modernity, but the fact that she owned and wore nighties. Yes, I have distant memories of that too, of the time when I was five years old. Dida would take a shower late at night, after finishing the chores, organizing food in the fridge and cleaning up the kitchen, and emerge in her green and white nightie, smelling of Boroline and Cuticura talcum powder. She would switch on the table lamp by the bedside, take out her collection of books and magazines, and read for the next few hours until I hugged her and fell asleep. Now when I talk about my dida, an epitome of a modern woman in the family, I am talking of no flimsy sheer Victorian secret. Victorian it was, covering her from head to toe, full sleeves and a high neckline. There were no laces, frills, or buttons, but a pair of strong fasteners securing the nightie, which was pure heavy cotton, the stuff you use to make heavy curtains at home. You could not see a square inch of bare skin below the throat, even if you tried to. The nightie was a companion for a few hours at night, emerging from her wardrobe much after everyone fell asleep, and vanishing much before anyone else woke up. Every morning when I woke up before seven for school, she would be back in her sari, preparing for the morning puja. Yet she was a modern woman, as the women of the extended family teased her, perhaps with a mix of jealousy and hypocrisy in their voices. The nightie was her id to modernism.
The sight of the nightie is so common during my annual visits to Calcutta these days, but sadly, nothing like the sight my dida made, reading by her night lamp, her face glowing in the soft yellow, a nightly sight, almost a figment of my imagination because I have never ever seen her in a nightie in broad daylight. My parents live in a community interspersed with buildings five stories high, and during summery evenings, it is a common sight watching women, mostly elderly, prancing around in the terrace of other apartments wearing a nightie. They are seen doing every possible activity- taking evening walks, drying the chilies and mangoes for pickles, haggling with food vendors and salesmen, socializing with other women from adjacent apartments, untangling knots of the nylon rope with frayed edges tied to a dirty little piece of bag, also known as the “bajaarer tholi” that holds the keys to the entrance door, or conversing with anyone who has some information about the missing maid. I am yet to see an elderly Bengali woman from Calcutta who does not own a few pairs of sleeveless nighties. She takes a shower during summery evenings, dabs a generous amount of talcum powder on her visible upper extremities, including the armpits, and takes a stroll on the terrace. Hanging lards from the biceps or an endowed physique have never been deterrents. The term nightie is a misnomer, for you can easily find women performing a good portion of their morning chores in nighties. The milkman brings milk, the maid arrives and leaves, the newspaper guy delivers newspapers, the salesmen continue with their unwanted solicitation, the mailman delivers mails, and random strangers ask for “dada” (usually the husband), to which they have to crane their necks out of the windows and iron railings of the balcony or the stairs from the fifth floor and scream, “dada barite nei” (Dada is not home). The nightie remains a faithful accompaniment, never leaving your side.
When the hemline is too low or the design perhaps a tad too modern, a dupatta, usually sheer and gauzy, is used as an accompaniment. I have seen so many women who feel no hesitation stepping out of the house, even as far as the “moodikhana’r dokan” or the “kirana” (a small shop in the locality selling groceries) for some potatoes and lentils, or venturing out to the nearby “mishtanno bhandar” (sweet shop) for some evening snacks of “shingara- kochuri”. A dupatta makes the nightie more official, almost as if it was never a nightie in the first place, but something more formal like a business suit. Or a swim suit. For I have seen nighties with dupatta in pictures all the way from the beaches of Puri, Digha, Pondicherry, and the southern shores of the country. Honeymoons, wedding anniversaries, birthdays and threading ceremonies, you name it. The nightie wearers are no lesser mortals; they are entrepreneurs and social networkers. The owner of Jasmine Beauty Parlor (“we have no branches”) in our community is often seen threading, waxing, snipping, and giving orders to her subordinates wearing her deadly nightie-dupatta combination.
I do not know if they are women of the modern strata in Calcutta. I do not know if they frequent pubs or shake a leg in clubs. These mashimas and boudis do not go around giving driving directions to their chauffeurs, cocktail in hand. Yet this seems like a strange form of liberation for the middle class Bengali women, liberation from the bondage of wearing something strictly Indian, a compromise between the extreme westernization of the miniskirts and jeans and the eastern sari. When the mailman rang the bell one afternoon, I was about to get the door in my tee shirt and sweatpants (that barely reached my knees) when my mother instructed me to don a nightie on top of what I was wearing. Confused, I wondered how ridiculous that would look, when I realized that it was the obvious choice over the somewhat contour hugging fabric I was wearing. I never donned that ridiculous combination of a nightie over sweatpants, much to her consternation.
Living outside Calcutta for the last six years, I got used to seeing and wearing different kinds of nightwear, those that were restricted to the sleeping quarters and were not worn during conversations with the neighbor or the salesman. I was meeting my newly married ex-colleague, Mr. Basu, during a certain business trip to the bay area in California. I was a little lost in their parking lot, and Mrs. Basu, who had recently moved from Calcutta, kindly volunteered to step outside and show me the door. I was parking my car when I saw the silhouette of a newly married lady in her mid-twenties emerging, an unmistakable silhouette of someone wearing a nightie with a dupatta thrown in. I smiled to myself as I realized that I might have left Calcutta years ago, but Calcutta hasn’t left me yet. I imagined a dozen bandhni-printed nighties bought from Dakshinapan in south Calcutta making their way across the Pacific Ocean as a part of Mrs. Basu’s wedding trousseau. That was when I realized the power of the nightie, the almost all mighty.