Interview with Meghna Prakash

Meghna is a published poet who has been writing as a freelance journalist for various publications such as Swaddle, Indian Express, etc. She is the founder of Poetry Dialogue and an advocate for mental health.

What impetus made you come up with the name “trigger warning”?

I am a survivor. I find a lot of things in my world triggering; things that other people don’t put second thought into. So, I have written these poems from a really personal space of catharsis, of somewhat processing my trauma. That’s why I came up with the name trigger warning.

With this book it’s like you are entering into my world, you are going to see what triggers me, you are going to experience this roller coaster with me. So, that’s basically how the name came about. I am instinctive like that, and when the name happened, it just felt really right, like yes! – this is the book, this is me, I am navigating my journey with mental health through it, and this is my safe space of thoughts. But this book can be triggering for a lot of people because I am graphic in the way I write. So, it is also sort of a warning.

We’ve noticed that you’re a huge advocate for mental health, how do you think it correlates with your writing poetry since re-living certain experiences while transcending them into your art can act like a trigger itself?

Definitely. It can be very, very triggering, but I think people process trauma differently.

I have written a trauma guidebook very recently, with Kirthi Jayakumar of The Gender Security Project, we released it a few days ago. It’s a free guidebook, and it is going to be translated into different languages. So, I have interviewed multiple survivors to know their perspective, and what all triggers them, and to understand how they process trauma.

As for me, I have been writing poetry my whole life – since I was 4-5 years old. So, it comes to me very naturally. Also, at times to process some things, I write them. Then everything starts making sense because I realize how I feel about things. So, for me, it acts like a healing process.

I have also done poetry performances a lot of times, and people have cried, and they have told me that they relate to my experiences, and that means so much to me, because that’s the whole point of art, right? You can talk about difficult subjects, and you can connect with others while doing it.

One of the leaps in the poetry community in recent years has been of instrumentalizing trauma- Do you feel that there was ever a pressure to out your experiences of abuse or to inculcate them in your writings just because they would act like a relatability factor?

Yes! When I was younger, and the performance scheme had just started out, I had noticed that need for inculcating trauma and I did not want to fall into that trap.

For me it’s not about performances; I write for myself. Earlier, I also believed that I had to be sad to write, or I had to be in a bad mental state to write. But I realized that’s not it. You don’t have to be high; you don’t have to be drunk; you don’t even have to be in a bad mental space to create art. That’s a misconception, and that’s definitely not a healthy way to do it. At the end of the day, the more aware you are, the more energy you will have to put into your art and make it better – without having any feelings of self-doubt crush you.

I have also always personally felt that I write because I must write; there’s just no other way, and it makes me really happy. (And, to know that people like what I create means the world to me, but I won’t count on it.) I just want to create because I want to talk about things, because I feel strongly about a certain issue, and I want to create something that matters. I want my audience to engage with me; I want them to question me, or ask me why are your views this way on Kashmir. I want to have that conversation with them, and I think that it’s very important that we can open up for such conversations and debates. That’s what I like doing with my poems. I like inciting people. I like getting reactions out of them, but I don’t write my poems specifically for them.

What are your views on art as a political expression? Especially considering the recent cases of police brutality and minority suppression in both India and the west, do you think poetry as an art form has the power to cause material change?

I think if you go back and look into the history of poetry, it started as spoken word art before it became a written practice – at least in India. A lot of time it is seen as a way to create awareness around issues, we have always been doing that. It’s just that now when we are living in such difficult political times, where censorship of freedom of speech is at an all-time high.

We live in a democracy where poets are arrested for performing political poems. There’s definitely huge suppression right now, and I think this is a very important time for minority voices as well, to speak up. But at the same time, the majority also needs to talk about their issues, and other issues, because they have the advantage here. They should use this privilege to put their point across. It’s really important now, more than ever.

Your book is described to be confessional, personal, and deeply rooted in childhood trauma and abusive relationships. As a poet, how was the journey to find your own unique identity, accept your trauma and create art through those embellishments?

It is very interesting to put together a collection of poems. Through this book, I was also seeing how my trauma journey has been changing over a period of time. I was able to map how it is changing, and how I was processing the same trauma at the start, and compared how the process has changed by the end of the book.

Talking about poetry, I’ll say I live on poetry. Even with Poetry Dialogue, we curate poems for people daily; we create publishing opportunities for people, and I want to see so many people published. I want to see a lot of Indian names in international journals.

How has the journey of coming up with Poetry Dialogue been like?

It was a little scary initially because we didn’t know how to post; we didn’t know how to share people’s works in the right way. It took time to figure all of that out. But once Poetry Dialogue set into motion, it’s been growing since then.

I also did a little festival for everybody to come together. We had a great audience from all around India perform, and it’s been a phenomenal journey.

Language is extremely malleable and when writing about personal trauma, it’s imperative to weave your pieces in a sensitive, more careful manner- what tips would you like to give young poets who might be interested in writing about their own experiences?

I don’t think I want to give people tips for writing about their own experiences, because ultimately everybody has to find their own voice and their own style that works for them. Attheendoftheday, it’s just about being honest, reading a lot of poetry, and above all writing a lot of poetry. Other than that, there’s no magic; there’s nothing beyond that.

Other than this, I think it’s also very important to keep sending your poetry to journals. Like, my goal is 100 rejections a year, and when I get 100 rejections, I also get good acceptances. And, with every rejection I learn, I grow. I get to know that this poem is still a baby, and I need to nurture it more, solidify the particular poem. So, you either need to have a dialogue with yourself, or with a group of editors, because the idea is to work on the poem, and then send it to journals. That’s just how I look at my poetry, and so I don’t want to tell people how to write or how to craft their voice.

Lastly, we would like to know some of your favorite poems or poets who continue to inspire you.

I am currently obsessing about Anna Akhmatova, she’s a Russian revolutionary poet. I am also reading Arundhathi Subramaniam, Kamala Das, Mahmoud Darwish.

Interview with Rohini Kejriwal (The Alipore Post)

Rohini Kejriwal is a writer, poet, and curator based out of Bangalore. She is always up for a good story, travel, strong coffee, and the company of plants. She runs The Alipore Post, a curated newsletter and journal that promotes contemporary art, poetry, photography, music, and all things intriguing.

What impetus made you come up with the name ‘The Alipore post’

I’m a huge admirer of the India Post, I used to write letters as a child and Alipore was the place in West Bengal where we used to live. So it’s an amalgamation of the two.

Running an acclaimed literary and arts journal, you must’ve come across an age-sex demographic. Would you say that the current times are making way for young women to venture into the field of arts and humanities more than before? If so, who are some of your favorite young women writers?

There are a lot of Indian poets coming up, which is amazing, and what’s happening across the age groups. I am finding poetry podcasts by Sunil Bhandari, who is 59, as well as someone as young as Meghna Prakash, who is constantly doing fabulous work.

So, there are definitely many young women and male poets in the scene. I also feel that social media is allowing people to express themselves more freely, and there are actually people who want to read what is produced. It is not like the conventional publishing board, and it has its merits.

I feel like it is a very community-oriented kind of thing that is happening right now, with some structure of course, and it is really nice. So, everyone has their own aesthetic: someone is focusing on spoken word; people like me are working on art-lit poetry. So, it’s good, and it’s important to have such platforms which are helping in creating these particular niches for everyone.

We noticed on your personal doodling account that you love making ambiguous body figuratives- We are interested in understanding the creative aspect of it, where does the admiration for dandy and vague but equally human conception come from?

I have been on this trip of doing these- creative mornings virtual field trips. It’s the best thing that has happened to me during the lockdown. I even gave one of these workshops, it was super fun! There was someone who did this watercolor-meditation thing, and it was just like an art class with no judgment at all.

I think it’s just coming from this need to express, and playing with shapes – watching these forms emerge. There was one incident when I tried a still portrait, and I was really surprised by the effects. So, I am happy with it: Somewhere it’s instinctively there but it’s a matter of fine-tuning and sharpening that skill.

We noticed that TAP holds a strong substance over correlating poetry with art; We want to know that where does this inspiration for art come from? Were you always so artistic as a child, or is it something that developed as you grew older?

Not really. I think I was happier reading or playing games. However, I think over the last few years, I have been trying my hands at these inktober challenges. Even though it usually happens for like for a month, and then I forget about it, but then in that one month only I have 12-13 doodles ready, which I did.

I have had a linocut experimenting phase, where I just took a bunch of envelopes and made linocuts, but it’s just one stack now. But last year only, a friend got me an iPad and downloaded Procreate for me, and just like that experimenting with illustrations has changed my entire experience, as a personal experiment.

I like trying not to understand how a painting works, not the techniques, but the person behind it. I have always been fond of interviewing people myself, so there has been this need to pick someone’s brain, and question that why didn’t you put this here instead. So, I think I find the words in their artworks. That is how it basically correlates for me.

What are some of your favorite memories from The Alipore Post?

I think the events have been really fun.

Basically, the idea was to have a physical manifestation of this online space, and the main aim was to let learning be the main thing. The first one was just brilliant because I found this place called the Courtyard House, in Bangalore. It’s in the suburbs and is really just like a huge garden with an old structure of South Indian architecture in the middle. I wanted a trampoline to be there as well – for kids and adults, along with music, so that was a focus.

Even virtually there’ve been many special moments for me. The kind of people that I have met, have just generally opened me up to the world. I could’ve been a very limited person, but here it’s not even ambition exactly, but I just want to nurture this community, and it feels very natural now!

How did you come up with ‘Chitthi Exchange’? Was it because you wrote letters as a child, or did some particular exchange fuel the inception of this idea?
I went to a boarding school so I was introduced to the form of letter writing very early in life. In fact a lot of times, it was the only mode of keeping in touch. We had a few leaves in each semester when we could all go home, and folks were allowed to visit once a semester, but apart from that, it was just letters and one hour of emailing per week. So, the thought of someone writing back to me and keeping in touch inspired me to come up with Chitthi Exchange. Even The Alipore Post came partly from there – like a letter to the internet!

Do you think that art as an art form has the power to cause material change? Especially in the current scenario, considering the happenings that have been occurring in India, such as suppression of minorities.

Yes. As a form of expression and empowerment, it really encourages people to experiment with their zeal, which is actually easier for arts that you can share with others. It is not necessarily about going to a gallery, you can literally make a change on the street, just by holding a placard, saying what you want to say. It’s definitely like you are representing a part of who you are, what you stand for through your creation; It doesn’t have to be intended for that, but it always has to have that underlying message.

What are some future projects that you can tell us about?

I definitely want to create a pdf version of the website, or like a physical magazine, or maybe an e-magazine. I’d also love to pursue more collaborations and partnerships.

There are other future projects as well, like The Alipore Post library, but it will still take years to happen. In addition to this, I definitely want to release my merchandise, I am making a bunch of tote bags with my 3-year-old niece, where she gets to color over them, but I don’t exactly know what I will do with them.

There’s also this newsletter called ‘This is My Newsletter’ which has been initiated by me, but every Sunday ask a different person to curate a newsletter and send it across. Currently, we have around 500 subscribers for that which is really interesting, because honestly, I didn’t expect it to happen, because you don’t know who is going to write to you. So, through this, I have also observed that there are always people there to accept such ideas which you aren’t very sure about, but it’s also okay to take those chances and have fun with the process along the way!

Of Memory, History, and Itinerant Museums

By Shruti Lakhtakia

“There’s no escape from the shadows that mount, inexorably, in this darkening season. Nor can we escape the shadows our families cast. That said, there are times I miss the pleasant shade a companion might provide.”

We live our lives in the shades and shadows of personal histories. Histories constructed by memories.

Sipping the chai that I’d become accustomed to over the past eleven months of moving back home, I turned the last page of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts in July. I remember being left with an unsettled feeling and lingering remnants of the lyrical, descriptive prose that she excels at. In a year marked by fear and difficult decisions regarding health, livelihood, and border limitations, the free-flowing movements of migrants’ lives prior to the pandemic seemed to be an entirely different world. 

A friend had remarked a week before that as a migrant, I would relate to Whereabouts. But after staying at home for so many months, my senses were perhaps not alive to unfamiliarity in the same way that they would be in a new place – a railway platform in a foreign city or an unexplored neighbourhood. I just couldn’t immediately bring myself to appreciate the novel.

Walking through the streets of Oxford

And then a week later, I returned to the UK, where I am deep in the weeds of my PhD research in Public Policy. There, in being attenuated to the smallest of shifts in my surroundings, in conversations with baristas, in airport lounges with strangers, snatches from Whereabouts sneaked up on me. In the London tube journey from Victoria to Charing Cross, observing a young mother and daughter pair lost in the world of their own conversations. At the Old Bodleian Library in Oxford, where the silence felt comforting, the lack of a fan in the heat- overwhelming. On a boat that floated back at dusk into the Cherwell boathouse, gleaming with fairy lights. At the Ashmolean, Britain’s first public museum, founded in 1683, where a special exhibition commemorated the arrival of the Windrush generation, rendering in ceramic the intersections of tea, trade, and transatlantic slavery. 

The chapters in Whereabouts all refer to places. ‘At the Stationer’s. ‘By the Sea’. ‘In My Head,’ a place more real than any other. But more than that, they captured the narrator in those places. They referred to how those places constructed the narrator’s sense of self.

I spent most of the flight from Delhi to London reading Home in the World, Amartya Sen’s memoir, which I picked up after Whereabouts. As a development economist, Sen’s journey resonates and inspires endlessly. But more than that, his recounting of personal history and how it intertwined with India’s freedom struggle and the partition, made me think of how our personal histories interact and intersect with others’ histories. Family histories, to be sure. But also national histories, which somehow being in a foreign land underlines in a way that being at home, surrounded by those stories, similar ones never made salient, somehow did not.

Cherwell Boathouse Oxford

On my second weekend in the UK, I visited a friend from India in Cambridge, doing his own PhD in Law. As we spoke about social science research and its relationship with policymaking back home, I brought up the complicated feelings that Sen’s memoir engendered. I soon found myself in the middle of a rant, and as with rants, it took a life of its own. “If we can’t learn from our history, then what’s the point, even? If in seventy years we’re still fighting about the same stuff, what did we learn? They might as well just shut the History Department and go home.” What, I thought, was the point of all this scholarship in history, if human beings are unwilling, or unable to learn from the mistakes of the generations past? What is the purpose of all those personal and national stories beyond the point of indulgence and narrative? How could such lessons be made more germane to policy?

Four days later, I caught up with a friend from Kashmir in London. A PhD candidate in History, I might have pored over some of my frustrations to her but felt sufficiently mortified by my previous rant to not take the matter further. In a cosy tea room in London, over cups of black tea infused with citrus orange peel, blue cornflower petals, and the scent of lemongrass, we exchanged and repeated stories from our days in Delhi, Oxford, London, and the toils of the previous year. Stories that defined our here and now, and determined whether we would take the flight home next week, or visit a sibling far away in the winter. We made hopeful plans to visit new neighbourhoods and museums together and commiserated about not doing so in the past. As South Asians do, we paid obeisance to our history in British museums. And yet, as we acknowledged the fact that most of those artefacts in the museums should never have been there in the first place, we appreciated the nuance that our record back home in preserving records, archives, and artefacts in national and state museums was less than stellar. Her work in the archives had been enough to establish that.

When I returned to Oxford and mentioned this to the friends I was staying with, an Irish and American couple, they empathized. The Library of Congress in Washington DC was destroyed by British troops in 1814. In 1922, when the British left Ireland, vengeful armed action at the start of the civil war led to the Public Records Office being destroyed, wiping out hundreds of years of Irish history. As per the list of destroyed libraries on Wikipedia, more have been destroyed by human action than by earthquakes, floods or fires. 

As debates about statues and artefacts, colonial power and cancel culture rage on in the UK, and indeed in the rest of the world, it is worth acknowledging that the country has put an immense amount of resources in preserving and displaying objects of history, making them freely accessible to visitors. Free admission to national museums, once a highly contested public issue, is now a fact of British cultural life. About 40 percent of all visitors are foreigners.

And yet, how many people from the rest of the world can access central London? From visas to the affordability of travel, the barriers run high. Part of creating access means thinking outside these boundaries. Making artefacts available to larger swathes of humanity, especially those who are owed access to their own history. Perhaps museums should no longer be grand buildings in central London, but mobile institutions setting up camps for weeks at a time in the small towns and large cities of Romania, Botswana, and Bangladesh. If such itinerant museums could mean that younger generations of people across the world can see with their own eyes the treasures and lessons of the past, then perhaps larger cultural histories could intersect with personal ones in unimaginable ways. Such access to history would ensure that the lessons of history are not relegated to hardbound volumes in archives and libraries, to inaccessible corners of museums and scholarship, but live on in a way where Sen’s history converges in physical places with the history of the narrator in Whereabouts.

Oral historian Aanchal Malhotra, author of Remnants of a Separation, describes families’ journeys during the partition by encapsulating that time in the material objects that people chose to carry with them, physical reminders of family, home, and soil. Objects of the past embodying personal but also national history. In mobile museums, we could find an entire world, made accessible irrespective of literacy and wealth. 

“We’re enfolded by the wide-open space, enclosed by all that emptiness.”

Personal history is not about finding a home, but constructing it, just as memories over a lifetime are constructed by what we choose to remember and what we choose to omit. It is the alternating forces of push and pulls, centre and periphery, home and world, that define us and our ability for appreciation. Whereabouts grounds the places we visit in the context of places we come from. And it is in this process of meaning-making that it excels. In the personal histories that we carry within ourselves, and in the way these histories choose to link up with those of others, in the way that shared meaning emerges when that connection takes place. In doing so, we find home and community in people we never knew, we never thought we would know, and never imagined knowing. If history can help build that shared meaning with people in countries that your own may have once colonized, or warred against, or just never known, then there is a lot that we can yet learn from it. 

It is an understanding that Lahiri brings to life in an intimate and yet open way, probably given her own experiences of choosing to live in foreign places and own them. Daughter of Indian immigrants to the US, she moved to Italy in 2012 to learn and write in Italian. If you read Whereabouts, prepare to be unmoored and lost, and in that losing, find a new manner of looking at your personal past, and that of those around you.

Shruti Lakhtakia is a PhD candidate in Public Policy at the University of Oxford working on development economics and governance. She loves the magic of words and walks. Instagram: @shruti.lakhtakia 

Of History and Forgetfulness

By Manu Dubey

The year is 2019. In the warm embrace of familial relationships, winters are spent sharing stories under the sun. My father, now in his early sixties, gets exhilarated when he talks of his school days, just as a child would be excited about when talking about a prank. He reminisces about the first time he got to wear slippers in 6th std. ‘Oh, the joy!’, he says, ‘it was incomparable’. ‘And what before that?’, I question. ‘Nothing. Barefoot’, his voice now filled with a sense of pride. A particular scene from my grandfather’s village house flashes in my mind. A big mud house with freezing insides sits beside the Rapti river in Uttar Pradesh, with numerous mango, lychee and mulberry trees on its banks. Effortlessly flowing through Nepal, the river bends south-east to enter Uttar Pradesh and through our backyard. So when like all desi fathers Papa said he crossed a river to attend school, I easily believed him. In hindsight, it’s funny that I played by the same river that was once a struggle for him (which he totally denies, just as fathers do!).  

With nothing but each other’s company, Papa tells me about his surgery. The year is 1975. His first visit to Bombay and the relatives who sent dabbas to the hospital throughout his stay. ‘I would never forget the food, it was tasteless yet delicious’. A scar resembling a giant lizard rests on his arm now; almost like a whitish silicone mould just emptied of ice cream. As a kid, I believed, one day the lizard would crawl through Papa’s arm and slither away into nothing. Instead, it stayed with him, with us as a family and occupied space like any of us. The scar(y) lizard is unhealable. The year is 2020. I imagine the hospital bed; small and dull, comforting my father in pain, trying to map the faces of those relatives I never met but will always have gratitude for. I imagine a young boy with a moustache that my mother would later fall for, roaming on the streets of Bombay having no idea he’ll be back after 3 years and then not for another 42. 

The year is 1981. In the chilly winters of North India, a girls’ choir is singing while the mesmerized onlookers clap to the beats. The moment is captured and later produced to a 4 by 5 inches photo souvenir. The year is 2021. While rummaging through family albums, I find pictures of waterfalls and hilltops. Four small images, precisely 2 by 3 inches, tucked inside cheap plastic pockets of the long red photo album. I try to take them out, struggle with the photos stuck to the plastic, and find another photograph carefully kept behind the black and white sunset. It’s a picture of my mother and her friends (singing) on their Rover Ranger Scout trip to Panchmarhi. Inheriting music and trauma in equal parts, my mother is many things but hugely the most lively person in the room. 

The year is 1997. My mother keeps getting ill. Word of mouth, papa took charge of things and shuffled between the office and home. The year is 2021. Outside home, an egalitarian society still exists in only hopes. But inside, we wish papa too on mother’s day for instinctively, and naturally, breaking stereotypes of a patriarchal society. Living with progressive parents, it scares me to think that life could be lived any other way.   

In the digital universe, our social media feeds are structured in a way that the most recent things float to the top and everything is in reverse chronology which conditions us to believe, rather falsely, that the most recent is the most important or that the older events matter less or just exist less. 

We are compelled to believe that things that are not on Google or on the news channels never happened or never existed or just don’t matter, whereas, I think probably 99% of the record of human evolution is off the internet. It suggests, what is urgent right now always holds much more value than what is important in the grand scheme of things.

But do historical events lose sentimental value with time? Will my father’s first slippers and last visit to Bombay ever mean any less to me when I turn 62? Will the details of the first house my parents moved into after marriage ever fade in my imagination? I fear this sort of time bias. My forgetfulness scares me. In the time of screenshots and archived posts, I fear losing the bits of details my parents hold so close to. I have this urge to claim history, of my mother’s wonderful college life and my father’s shoe-less childhood, of the places they inhabited in their early days, of the moments of love fabricated with the time that I can only feel now, like when I hold the photograph which my father made; Mumma getting dressed up in front of the mirror, not knowing of being the subject of his frame. 

I can only play those simpler times in my head by never really being a part of it and trying to leech onto it for some belonging. Just like a cuttlefish can remember every meal it has eaten even in old age, I yearn to never forget some things.

In the past couple of years, I realised my forgetfulness isn’t just a careless habit but something I have unconsciously developed over the years as a defence mechanism. It’s called motivated forgetting. In 1894, it was Friedrich Nietzsche who brought the idea of motivated forgetting. He wrote that man must forget in order to advance and stated that it is an active process, in the sense that we forget specific events as a defence mechanism and Sigmund Freud agreed on the idea of repression of memories as a form of self-preservation. Which is to say, if something reminds my mind of an unpleasant event, my mind may automatically switch to unrelated topics to distract itself. This in turn induces forgetting, unintentionally, making it a motivated action. 

A very simple example being, while writing about these memories, my mind struggled to put the bits and pieces in place. What started with avoiding the unpleasant memories sometimes takes over the pleasant ones too.

In the order of things, archiving and memorialisation always comes last. It is almost always done as an afterthought. So if there was a museum of memories, I would intricately weave a garland of all my happy-sad remembrances into a wreath and exhibit it for the world to see how beautiful life can be. 

The idea of presentism is calming yet a little scary. To say that things once never existed or would not do eternally is to say we would one day lose our existence to nothing, that the universe would go back to where it once began, a mere speck of dust.

Manu Dubey is an independent photographer and writer. Her practice revolves around subjects of art, culture, personal narratives, familial history and relationships. She loves reading books and dislikes artspeak.

Instagram: @kuchtasveers

Sari – Of Memories, Rebellion & Femininity

By Maliha Khan

My mother in a pink Banarasi sari with my father.

The politicization of clothing for women is often observed in the South Asian region, particularly, in my home country Pakistan. As women in Pakistan continue their fight against the deeply-entrenched patriarchy, one of their struggles is to reclaim their right to wear whatever their hearts desire. The Sari is one such item of clothing that has drawn constant criticism being considered by many in Pakistan an “Indian” or “Hindu” garment. By designating shalwar kameez as the national dress of Pakistan, the alienation of sari became a political move in order to cut ties with anything that came from the pre-Partitioned India and forge a new distinct national identity different from that of India and Bangladesh, where sari is still worn by many women on a daily basis.

In 1977, when General Zia seized power in Pakistan in a military coup, his regime launched an extensive campaign to control what women wore which extended to the sari as well, writes Khawar Mumtaz in his book Women of Pakistan: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back (1987). Although the right-wing’s attempts to ban the sari failed as many women in the higher ranks of government continued to wear saris, including women officers on non-combat duty in the Pakistani Army, this certainly created a dichotomy between what was considered national and what was Islamic. 

Islamization has a long history in Pakistan since the 1950s, however, it became the “centerpiece” of General Zia’s administration, as Owen Bennet Jones writes in his book Pakistan: Eye of the Storm (2002). Zia introduced Islamic laws leading to the Islamization of the legal system, Islamized the educational curriculums by making teaching of the Quran and Islamiat (Islamic studies) compulsory in schools and generally promoted the observance of Islamic moral standards. Thus, by categorising the sari as “unislamic”, Zia’s regime began to police women’s clothing choices too, in order to ensure they dressed modestly, consistent with the Islamic way of living. 

Growing up in Karachi, watching Indian TV serials and Bollywood films, I noticed that sari was an essential part of Indian women’s wardrobe. I often wondered why most women in Pakistan didn’t wear saris as part of their everyday clothing anymore even though it was very much a part of Pakistani culture up until the 1970s. Recently I learned that during Zia’s regime in1981, female news anchors were barred from wearing the sari, as part of the ‘Islamisation’ campaign. Even though Zia has been long dead, the everyday-sari-wearing culture is almost non-existent in Pakistan.

My first memory of a sari is from the time my nani’s older sister who we call babu-wali nani, owing to the fact that she refers to us kids as babu, came to visit us when I was about five. She is a short, lean woman, about 4 feet and 8 inches. Her cotton saris, soft as mulmul draped her petite lean figure beautifully creating soft waves through the fabric. Even after moving to Pakistan after the partition, she is the only woman in my family who continued to wear a sari every day. 

My mother’s aunt and married cousin both wearing saris on her wedding reception.

Both my mother and father’s families originally hail from Bihar in India and lived in East Pakistan for several years before finally coming to Karachi. While I have seen pictures of my nani wearing a sari, I can’t recall ever seeing her wearing one. I learned from ammi that nani used to wear saris everyday, even after coming to Pakistan up until I was born. I do remember my dadi wearing saris though even after I was born well into my early teens. After that, for some reason she stopped wearing them too and started wearing shalwar-kameez instead. My mother, on the other hand, only wore saris at close family weddings, and that too she stopped once she gained some weight in the past decade or so. When I asked her about it, she told me that it was difficult to carry a sari when my brothers and I were toddlers and shalwar kameez was much more comfortable to wear at weddings after she had us. Despite that, for some reason, we both knew she would wear a sari at my wedding reception and she did. 

Through the women in my family, I came to know about the different types of saris, each with its own unique fabric and design. From babu-wali nani, I learned about the effervescent cotton saris which, when new, can be crisp yet malleable and when washed and worn over time, can soften like pure mulmul. From nani and dadi, I came to appreciate georgette saris – plain cream and gold ones through nani and printed ones through dadi. From ammi, I found out about the ‘fancy’ saris which were worn at weddings and were, as Saba Imtiaz writes, “a customary part of a bride’s trousseau” – both bari as well as jahez. 

My Nani and Nana with my parents on their wedding reception. My nani is wearing a georgette printed sari.

Growing up, I used to look forward to the shopping trips my mother would make with my aunts and/or grown-up cousins to Jama Cloth Market before a wedding in the family. As a woman of style herself, known for her excellent taste in clothes, my mamoos and chachoos had delegated the responsibility of preparing the bari of their soon-to-be bride to my mother. A wholesale fabric market in Karachi established even before Independence, Jama Cloth is famous for ‘fancy’ bridal dresses and saris. Upon reaching the market, we would scour each shop for nice and affordable bridal shararas, one for the wedding and one for the reception along with other items for the trousseau including saris. While ammi’s bari and jahez (from back in 1991 when she got married) had consisted of mostly Banarasi saris and georgette ones with delicate golden threads, the ones we bought for my future aunts were more ‘fancy’ – most of them embroidered with heavy zari and dabka work. Banarasi saris had apparently become a thing of the past in my family, except when they were adorned by some of my extended aunts from Orangi Town (who lived near Banaras Colony – the home of Banarasi fabric in Pakistan) at some family wedding. 

My family was amongst those who had maintained the idea that saris are only appropriate after marriage, although my mother told me that both she and khala-ammi  (her older sister) used to wear them in Bangladesh even before they got married. Surprisingly, this unusual custom crept in our family once they came to Pakistan, despite it being ‘normal’ for unmarried girls to wear saris when they lived in Bangladesh. She did say, though, that girls of upper/middle stratum ‘good’ families (whether Bengali or Bihari) that went to school wore shalwar kameez usually and only wore saris sometimes for example, on school picnics. On the other hand, girls from the lower strata who didn’t go to school wore saris on a daily basis instead of shalwar kameez. Married women, be it from upper or lower stratum, always wore saris there. I found this distinction of wearing saris between social classes in Bangladesh interesting, further contributing to the discussion on the dress code among women in East Pakistan back in the day. 

My mother in a beautiful sari with zari work from back in the day when she got married.

Since I had subconsciously accepted that only married women could wear saris, I was surprised to learn about the tradition of wearing saris at school and college ‘farewell’ parties. The idea of me wearing a sari before I was married was a new one, both for me and my mother, albeit more exciting for me. Although my mother didn’t exactly say no to it, I could tell that she was a bit unsettled with the idea. I was, of course, the first one in my family from my generation to wear a sari before marriage. Even cousins older than me who are still unmarried have never worn one simply because they are still single. 

My nani wearing a black sari with gold border on my mother’s mehendi while all the unmarried women beside her are in shalwar kameez.

At the time of my university farewell, I wanted to look sexy in my sari attire. The sexiest sari look in Bollywood around that time was that of Deepika Padukone in the famous song Badtameez Dil from the film, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. Obviously, mine could never be as sexy as hers living in Pakistan, yet I took some inspiration from her look and got a royal blue chiffon sari stitched from one of the tailors in our neighbourhood. Something I can’t quite forget is the discussion with my tailor about the length of my blouse. While I wasn’t particularly too enthusiastic about showing off my midriff, my mother and tailor wanted me to show little to no skin. We negotiated and settled at 15 inches. 

My tryst with unstitched sarees began in India in 2016 when I came to pursue the Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University. We were celebrating Onam – an annual harvest festival from Kerala and all the women in my fellowship were planning on wearing what they were calling Kerala saris – which I later found out were off-white/cream coloured saris with gold zari thread on the borders. Some of the girls were going to Delhi to get one so I tagged along. We went to the INA Market here, famous for cotton saris amongst other things and those amongst the group who were familiar with Delhi and the market helped us get one. I was shocked at the prices of the Kerala saris, starting from 300 Indian Rupees (around PKR 600 at the time). The broader the gold zari border and the better the fabric, the more expensive the sari. My friends and I settled for one which cost us around INR 450 after some bargaining. 

Over the course of my fellowship, I would see women in my university wear saris as a daily affair and carry them so effortlessly. Although I lost my first Kerala sari while moving rooms after the Fellowship ended, I love them so much I bought another one for my first Diwali with my husband, Arman in India – this one with beautiful trees and elephants embroidered with gold thread on a cream coloured silk fabric. In fact, I wore this sari to a wedding in Arman’s family which was effectively my debut as his future wife in front of the entire extended family and even their biradari. I knew it was a bold move at my part which probably screamed that I am not a typical Muslim girl since in most Muslim families here in India as well, women would only wear saris after getting married. 

Saris, in my case, became a symbol for not only a rebellion from accepted customs but also a way to explore my femininity and my own identity. With enough practice, I can now drape a sari without anyone’s help and recently, I even draped one on a friend. Over my last few years living in India, my sari collection has gradually increased although it is nowhere near what I’d like it to be. I was fortunate enough to receive two khadi cotton saris in my bari which my late mother-in-law, Sadia Dehlvi bought for me. I was also gifted a black and white newspaper print Satya Paul original sari with a beautiful pallu – my favourite till date. Another sari I dearly cherish is one gifted to me by Namita Gokhale, who I like to think of as my Indian godmother. I have even thrifted a sari worn by a woman who had been an inspiring figure to me at the time. 

When my mother-in-law, unfortunately, passed on last year, we moved into her home in Delhi. At some point, I had to go through all the clothes she had left behind in a special storage space underneath her bed. I can only imagine her in the beautiful chiffon saris I found amongst many others, as I never got to see her wearing them. I feel blessed to have inherited some of the wardrobes of a woman so loved and celebrated by many.

Although I must admit that I still do not wear saris in my everyday life, the conversations around wearing sari in Pakistan have inspired me to start doing so. It has reminded me of how sexy and confident I feel every time I wear one and I would like to feel that way more on a regular basis. I know that it would probably go unnoticed where I live as compared to in Pakistan, but perhaps when I visit home in Karachi, I could wear a cotton sari in a casual meeting with my relatives and observe their reactions. Maybe it would open up a discussion about wearing saris in my family and perhaps my younger cousins may grow up to wear them, even before they get married. I hope I am around to see that day when it comes.

Maliha is a writer and academic from Karachi. She moved to India to pursue the Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University in 2016 and has been living in Delhi since. She writes about South Asian society and culture as well as food. She is currently working on her first book on the diverse food culture of Karachi. 
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