Artwork by Misha
I am eight when my mother signs me up for swimming classes. In a dingy corner of Zainab Market, she holds up a navy blue one piece swimsuit to my back. I carry it in a transparent plastic bag, with a matching set of goggles and a swimming cap. The girls’ changing room is behind the pool. It has three small cubicles with yellow doors, a large tiled bench in the main area, and a scratched mirror by the front entrance. Inside, nine eight year old girls slip into their swimming costumes. Some run into the cubicles and lock themselves away, but most of us gather in the center of the room and disrobe in front of each other. My costume clings to my body in a way none of my other clothes ever have. I catch a glance of my protruding belly, stumpy legs, and round, chubby face in the mirror. In the reflection, I can see another girl changing behind me. She’s wearing a purple dress and battling with the zip in the back. She catches me staring and asks if I can lend her a hand. So I do, gingerly grasping the zip between my thumb and forefinger and dragging it down her back. When I’m done and she’s pulled down her dress and pulled up her costume, she turns to me and smiles. Once class is over, and it’s time to put on our regular clothes, she holds open the yellow door to one of the cubicles and asks me if I’ll share it with her. I walk into a changing room and walk out with a new friend.
I am twelve the first time I see another woman’s breasts in person. They belong to my khala and she is showing them to my mother. We are sitting on a floral bedsheet in my khala’s bedroom when she suddenly asks my mom to look at a lump on her chest. I get off the bed, expecting my mother to ask me to leave, but as I near the door, my khala simply instructs me to lock it. She snakes her arm out of one sleeve and then the other before lifting her shirt over her head. Her breasts are encased in a beige lace bra. They’re large; larger than my mother’s and most definitely larger than the insignificant buds barely protruding from my prepubescent chest. At school, my teachers glue together pages on reproductive anatomy in our textbooks. But at home, on a floral bedsheet in my khala’s bedroom, I watch my mother remove a beige lace bra with ease and feel her sister’s breasts for lumps. It is the first time a grown woman has removed her clothes in front of me. It is the first time I realize I’m going to be a grown woman too.
I am fourteen when my grandfather starts wearing the same shirt to every meal. He is in his eighties and the Parkinson’s which began as a slight tremor in his fingers has now progressed to the point where the journey from hand to spoon to mouth is increasingly challenging. My grandmother offers to feed him, but he insists on keeping his hand and spoon and mouth to himself. He decides to wear the same shirt to every meal instead — a plain grey kameez. It collects every slosh of coffee, each drip of salan, and all the flakes and crumbs and grease of old age that slip through. My grandmother washes it liberally, but over time the stains harden and solidify. My grandmother buys new kameezes, invests in special spoons, and cooks less greasy dishes. My grandfather wears the same shirt, uses the same spoon, and demands more oil in his food. When he dies several years later, a stain ridden grey kameez is the only possession my grandmother throws away.
I am in my last year of middle school when girls start using a code word to tell each other their bra straps are showing. The word is ridiculous and banal; an attempt at secrecy. At first, we whisper it to each other or pass it out on notes whenever a strap makes its presence known. Whenever and wherever it is uttered, bra straps are quickly, quietly, wordlessly tucked away. The word is so powerful it makes them disappear without even speaking of their existence. Soon, we’re saying it out loud in conversations, during classes and breaks, until everyone, including the boys and teachers, know what it means. The word has become so powerful that it announces the appearance of our bra straps, declares the presence of our breasts, screams their existence. And no one stops us from saying it. No one polices our attempts to police ourselves. No one wants to take on the job of minding our bra straps.
I am eighteen when my grandmother starts helping my grandfather put on his grey kameez before meal times. He is no longer able to dress himself. Every morning, behind the double doors of their bedroom, my grandmother buttons his shirt, pulls up his pants, combs his hair. When he heads into the bathroom, she follows. On Friday mornings, she lathers his face with shaving cream and delicately removes his beard. It is hard work, she complains, when a man can no longer dress himself. My father hires a male attendant, someone to help button shirts and pull up pants. But when he gets dressed in the morning, my grandfather insists that the attendant remain outside the double doors of the bedroom. When he heads into the bathroom, only my grandmother is allowed to follow. He allows the attendant to lather his face on Friday mornings. He allows him to comb his hair, shave his beard, trim his nails. But my grandfather does not believe the act of pulling up pants can be trusted to a stranger.
I am twenty one when my closest cousin decides to get married. I spend a summer drifting through bazaars and boutiques with her. We search through piles of cloth, lace and applique. We scroll through countless Instagram pages of bridal wear, hunting for the perfect designs to copy. When the tailor finally sends us a mountain of stitched suits, my cousin lays them out on her bed to admire and try on. Her clothes are beautiful. Each piece is perfectly fitted; the colors ravishing, the embroidery meticulous and precise. But each piece is also made for the presence of others. Her sarees have pleats that need to be tucked. The lehngas have blouses with hooks far down their backs. Each suit has a dupatta that has to be pinned in place. It’s almost like the clothes know there will be other hands to tuck and hook and pin. It’s almost like the clothes demand companionship. It’s almost like the act of dressing is an invitation.
I am in New York when my grandfather contracts the virus that will eventually kill him. I fly home a few short weeks before a pandemic carries the virus across the planet. He is already in a hospital bed. He is already too far gone. When he dies on a Friday afternoon, my grandmother stands next to the hospital bed and wraps a strip of gauze around his head. She is trying to coax his lifeless mouth close before rigor mortis sets in. Her fingers deftly stretch strip after strip around his head and knot the bandages under his chin. But each time, without fail, my grandfather’s mouth falls open. Please, just let me do this one last thing, she begs before beckoning me over to help. Together, we awkwardly and clumsily secure his mouth shut. My grandmother steps back, satisfied. It is the only moment we are allowed before nurses arrive with a stretcher and whisk him away. My father has made arrangements for my grandfather to be sent off, properly, and it is only proper that his body be prepared for burial out of sight. It’s what he would have wanted, we are told. So, on a Friday afternoon, my grandfather’s body is undressed, washed and wrapped by hands that hardly knew him, and all I can wish for in that moment is that someone had asked him to share a changing room with them when he was eight.