Pleated Dreams

by Rubaiya Chowdhury

     As she hummed an incoherent tune, Asiya glimpsed at the mirror. Looking past the grit and murky stains and innumerable bindis of variant shapes and vibrant colors stuck on it like some unnamed constellation, the sixteen year old looked at the reflected image. She was halfway through draping her sari, working her way slowly through the pleats.

     Left and fold, right and fold. Repeat.

     Her delicate hands carefully worked through the fabric, each fold a conscious step, to ensure that each pleat was precisely the same as the next one. 1…2…3…4…5. Not one too many. Not one too few. She carefully raised the pleats with her left hand and bent down to straighten the sari, the chiffon cascading down to the floor in a whirlwind, the folds lost in the bottom of the fall.

     Chiffon saris were always so troublesome to wear, she sighed to herself.

     It wasn’t that long ago that she learned the art of sari draping. To her it seemed like only the other day she was running around the backyard of her village home in a green cotton frock that her mother had sown for her. She made it two sizes too big so Asiya could grow into it. Yet, Asiya was more fascinated by her mother’s saris. She had once snuck her ma’s wedding sari out of the trunk when she was taking her afternoon siesta, and draped it haphazardly on herself. It was a red Benarashi katan with golden threading, probably the cheapest in the market, but to Asiya it was the most beautiful piece of cloth that ever existed. Ma had woken up early from her nap that day and slapped her when she found one of her most prized possessions out of its sacred shrine. A couple of hours later, she had pulled the sobbing 10 year old to herself and began to gently drape her beloved red beauty on her daughter all the while murmuring how little girls shouldn’t wear saris. She said it made them look older than they need to be. 

     “People will give you nazr, my child. You will have plenty of time to wear sari when you get older and are married.” But she kept on draping the piece of cloth. 

     “But what’s wrong in looking older, ma? Isn’t growing up a good thing?” Asiya had asked, a little timidly, anticipating another smack. 

Her mother had smiled. 

     “Ki dorkar?” What’s the use, she had said. “It’s not always good to be a grown up girl in this world.” 

Asiya didn’t quite agree back then but decided to stay quiet. It wasn’t everyday she got to wear ma’s red benarashiafter all. 

     “There! All done! Oma eitoh dekhi ekta laal tuktuke bou!”

     Asiya had giggled. She always wanted to be a red bride.

     Asiya chuckled to herself as she remembered the incident. She wondered whether ma got the sari she sent her for eid. Or if she left the package unopened, like last year and the year before. She hastily stopped herself from thinking about it and focused on the task at hand - her very own sari that she was draping. It was a vibrant yellow with prints of large blue ornate gerbera daisies at the borders and anchal, sparkling with specks of glitter all over. The color made her dusky complexion look brighter, like the color of milky tea. But that is not why Asiya adored it so much. She had bought it with her own earnings for Eid from the market nearby, beating down the shopkeeper’s demand of 1200 TK and paying only 450 TK for it, she thought, smiling. This yellow sari was like a piece of sunshine in her otherwise dreary wardrobe of hand me downs.

     As she tucked in the pleats in her petticoat, she looked up at the mirror again. The blouse, blue like the daisies, was elaborately designed. The sleeves were short with stylish ruffles and the back was quite low cut with two strings tied attached to tie a knot. The strings had two colorful baubles in the end that fell playfully on her spine. Asiya surveyed herself critically, her gaze falling on her small paunch in an otherwise petite frame. She sighed. Those daily cotton candy ventures with the other girls would have to stop or she’d be in trouble soon. This cotton candy will be the bane of her existence. It ruined her life once already after all. 

     Asiya remembered that day vividly. She was sobbing hysterically clutching her mother’s anchal, refusing to go with Michael uncle. His real name wasn’t Michael, but that’s what all the villagers called him as he lived in the big city and wore the flashiest clothes. Michael uncle had convinced his cousins, Asiya’s uncles that he would take care of her and get her educated in one of the biggest schools in the city. Ma didn’t want to let her go, but with her father now dead, her uncles demanded that they be obeyed. Besides, Asiya’s ma should be grateful to Michael babu for being so generous. Who else would be foolish enough to spend money on a girl’s education?

     It was only when Michael uncle told her that the big city had an abundance of cotton candy did she stop crying. Her eyes went wide as he described cotton candy stands on every street that she could feast on everyday. Asiya only got to have these magical sweet clouds during the yearly summer fairs held in the nearest town or when her baba had gotten them from his occasional visits to the city. Now with baba gone, who would get them for her? So she decided to go with this disco man to the land of cotton candy.

     Asiya’s eyes glazed over. She hated herself for being so naive back then. But what maddened her more was her inability to give up her damn love for cotton candy despite it all. That pink piece of cloud sure had some kind of black magic, she thought to herself. 

     Carefully holding the open end of the sari, she folded the piece of cloth. Left and fold, right and fold. Repeat. She made sure that the pleats on her anchal were perfectly aligned. Then, like an enchantress waving her magic wand she whirled her hand so that the sari enveloped around her, hugging her soft curves. She cautiously placed the folds on her shoulder and readjusted it again so that it wasn’t too short. As she bent down to arrange the bottom of the sari, the anchaltumbled to the floor. She bristled in annoyance.

Chiffon saris were always so troublesome to wear.

     The first day she wore a chiffon sari was a disaster. It was only her second week in her new home when she was handed an ugly neon green sari and was ordered to wear it. They jeeringly told her that an uncle wanted to see her in it. It was clearly old. Who knew who it belonged to. Asiya had tried draping it on herself but in vain. With each fold, each crease, she remembered how meticulously ma had draped the red benarashi on Asiya. How did ma do it? Didn’t ma say she was too young to be wearing a sari? Then why were these people making her wear one? An hour later, she sat in a stupor amidst the sea of neon green, gasping in exhaustion and despair. For the first time in her life, she hadn’t wanted to wear a sari anymore. Someone had come in and hastily wrapped it around her and sent her to the uncle. He had told her she looked like a big girl.  

     She definitely came a long way since that day, Asiya thought to herself. She carefully arranged back her anchal. The pleats fell in soft steps over her barely noticeable breasts, accumulating at the shoulder in an elegant fold. Pinning it up would keep it in place, she thought. With gentle grace, she pierced the fabric with the rusty safety pin, cautious not to damage the fabric too much. She straightened to admire her handiwork. Not a bad job, she thought to herself, pleased. She chose a small blue bindi from the millions on the mirror, and placed it in between her brows, her already kohled eyes staring back from underneath. All she needed was some rouge and she was good to go. As she stood there combing her raven mane, she wondered where Chandni was and whether she could borrow her new pink lipstick to wear before they all left to spend the day out. They wanted to have some fun before business began in full swing from the next day after a slow month. She was rummaging the drawers of her small wardrobe looking for the cheap perfume they all shared, when the door opened. Madam was standing there in a vibrant new kameez and a whole lot of makeup.

     “You have a client”

     “A client today! But mad-“

     “Don’t argue with me girl. It’s Eid and clients are generous on such occasions. He’ll be here in 5 minutes.” She left, shutting the door before Asiya could say anything else.

     Letting out a deep breath, she scoured the drawer till she found the cheap perfume. Slowly, she spritzed some on herself and put it back. She wondered if her friends would leave without her. Did she have enough time before the client arrived to quickly run and beg them to wait? Khadiza apa on the next street had promised them shemai if they arrived early. She did not want to miss out on apa’s famous sweet dish. 

     Asiya stood in front of the mirror again, surveying herself for the final time. A heaviness weighed over her as she took a deep breath and steadied herself for a performance she was all too familiar with. 

     A man entered her room at that moment. Amir was an old customer. A pudgy bloke in his late forties, he had a daughter her age. He was still in his new Panjabi and prayer cap, reeking of atar. He eyed her, from her blue bindi to her blue flowered border, but that’s not all he saw. His gaze penetrated the translucent yellow till she could feel it burn her skin. She shuddered inside. The older girls said she’d get used to it, but even after three years, she still recoiled secretly every time. Perhaps, it would dull down after another three years. 

     She smiled sultrily. “Eid Mubarak, jaan. To what do I owe the pleasure on such an auspicious day?” 

     “What’s Eid without a bit of sugar, eh?” He leered at his own joke. 

     “Why, won’t your bibi serve you sugar after a month of abstinence?” She laughed. 

     “If only! The bibi is too busy taking care of the rest of the family to serve me anything as usual,” he said pitifully. 

     Always playing the victim, she thought to herself. Men disgusted her. 

     “Besides, Eid is for new and shiny things, Radha jaan. Not old discarded items,” he guffawed.

     Asiya’s skin crawled with every word.

     “Well, then you’ve come to the right place,” she crooned seductively. 

     Her heart sought her ma’s anchal to hide behind. 

     She sauntered towards him.

     He let out a satisfied growl and yanked the sari from her shoulders.

     She gasped inwardly as she heard the material rip and the fabric fell to the ground. She bit her lips as he pulled the sari apart, the yellow lying like scattered buttercups; her half an hour’s worth of work undone in under a minute.

     Chiffon saris were always so troublesome to wear. But so easy to undo.

SPRING 2020

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