Cover Art by Fartashia
Natasha Japanwala is a writer from Karachi. Her essays and reportage have appeared in publications at home and abroad, including Dawn, Al Jazeera America, The Independent, and The Washington Post. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.
I can close my eyes and picture the inside of my Nani’s wardrobe with a precision I can’t my own. Her wardrobe as it was all the years she was alive, before we started clearing it out. Her kurtas were long, soft or starched, sometimes in bold colours and other times in paler tones. She loved patterns, a diamond or circle of embroidery stitched onto the back or framing the neck. On the lower shelves, she had her saris, folded and pinned away for evenings, in dimly lit rooms or starry gardens, chatter-filled parties, the volume of them fading with the decades.
I started taking them away long before they were mine for the taking: a navy chiffon, sprayed with shimmering bits that catch the light; a black chiffon she says she bought in Paris and had printed with pink flowers in Bombay, when it was called Bombay; a geometric splatter on satin that my sister and I fought over and that I won in the end. The saris, which have had their own migrations, hang beside a herd of fast, transient things: jeans already chafing at the thighs, a wrap dress that can’t lose its sweat stains, uninspired button-downs with the collars losing their ironed fold. My own clothes don’t make sense to me anymore: they’re a series of attempts to fit into a look I never recall choosing for myself. There’s no arc to my stylistic choices, no character.
I was charmed, growing up, by Nani’s commitment to her own style — or maybe that’s my own regretful, remorseful way to say I was dismissive. She ignored trends, and with pride. She selected her own material, tailored it according to her own consistent wishes. She took care of what she made for herself, through washing, mending, preserving. Stepping into her clothes now, I step into a feminism I did not recognize or appreciate all the years I had a chance to express admiration to her. A timeless feminism, grounded in an absence of wastefulness, of abundant resourcefulness, an early turning away from the systems that I now know cause so much harm, to the earth, to its people, to me. There is a principled sense of self underlying her sartorial choices, a sense of self grounded in strength, and that shone through her beauty with an easy confidence that was inviting instead of intimidating.
I am cautious of taking her clothes down from their hangers, afraid I will stain them somehow, afraid that a spin in the washing machine or a trip to the dry-cleaners will rob them of her smell, her essence. There are stories her clothes have seen that I don’t know: they have held her, through all the places she lived and visited, seeing all the people she knew and loved. And what did she think and feel on all those days she gathered me in her arms: what was she worrying about or fearing, or longing for or praying for? Her clothes held all of those waves too.
How much there is in a single wardrobe.