Churidar, noun. long tight-fitting trousers, worn by Indian men and women. Also called churidar pyjamas. From Hindi.
In the closing week of June, the Internet was abuzz that the Hindi word “churidar” would henceforth be part of the English lexicon. I pondered my sartorial expression in a country that I’d called home since 1985. For several decades, I’ve been wearing the churidar in the United States at both Indian and western social affairs.
I used to wear it to work on some Fridays when I was a programmer at IBM. Now I might wear it to meetings with my eclectic writing group. Sometimes, I may be seen in it at Safeway—in consort with my bindi, my bangles, my child-bearing hips, my black hair, my brown skin and my accent, all of which collectively betray my background.
As I considered the acceptance of another Indian word into the Babel of global communication, I wondered about the idea of acceptance itself. I know several friends who prefer to not be seen in Indian garments in a public space dominated by non-Indians. My questions to them always are: Why should you have to conform in order to feel accepted? Why should acceptance have to be a by-product of conformity?
In an increasingly divided world, I still believe that most people accept others, despite differences, as long as their personal space is not disrespected or invaded in some way. Last month, my friends and relatives in India—even those who would never have embraced a child or a relative if he or she were gay—wore the emblem of gay pride on their Facebook profile. I surmised that it was a beginning, rather, a tentative nod before a grudging acceptance.
Ironically perhaps, the announcement by the US Supreme Court of the legality of same sex marriage arrived right around the time the Oxford dictionary decided to include the terms “Arrey yaar” and “churidar,” and the choices, in my view, perfectly matched the mood of the week, marking the breakdown of barriers and formality between those inside a circle and those outside of it. The inclusion of “churidar” was somewhat of a non-event during that momentous week. All the same, I was delighted.
I love the churidar for its versatility. On informal evenings with friends, I slide a black churidar over my legs, slap a tunic on top and throw a scarf around my neck. If I so choose, I can wear a churidar to hike the California Coastal trail for views of the Golden Gate bridge; it might be the perfect shield from the unpredictable wind, fog and chill of the San Francisco Bay.
The tight fitting legs of the churidar are cut narrow at the ankle such that the contours of my leg reveal themselves where, thankfully, they are the slimmest. Since the pants are cut on the bias—woven fabric is more elastic in the bias direction—they are naturally stretchy right around the stupa-like derriere section where I hoard the pounds. The pants are longer than the leg and therefore they finish with their excess length crinkling into a flourish of snug cuffs, of “bangles,” at the ankles. Hence the term “churidar” in which the Hindi word “churi” refers to “bangle.”
I justify my fashion preference this way: While the sari is the Indian woman’s winning weapon of mass destruction, the churidar combines the feminine and the masculine in an elegant, yet functional, way.
As the years go by and another layer of fat stores away, like new files settling in old drawers, I resort to clothes in which I feel feminine, confident and somewhat leaner. But such a justification pits me against my daughter who claims to never comprehend why I don’t sport much western attire anymore.
“My knees are plump,” I say, in defense of my choice. Didn’t she realize that on a blustery dull day, my legs could pass off for those balusters at the Versailles Palace?
“No, mom, while you’re not slim like you once were, you look just fine,” she retorts. Her voice crackles into the phone. “And so you’re telling me, mother, that a million other women in their fifties—who resemble lumps of lard—are not wearing dresses or carrying them off very well?” she asks, tut-tutting into the noisy Manhattan air.
Then I tell my size 4 fashionista—who hasn’t yet experienced the billowing stretches of gestation, contraction, parturition, and lactation—that she must not speak. I elaborate. Age has a way of drying out a body from deep inside; youth progressively drains out from every unseen pore of the body until flab flaps around like a flag at half-mast. And thus I segue towards the finale: I just do not feel myself anymore in skirts and dresses.
My daughter does not realize that I enjoy looking different wherever I go. I just plain believe that I can blend in while standing out. Then I proceed to tell her how I look forward to the tactile nature of an acceptance—in an embrace, in a handshake or in the clink of the wine glass that I’m holding up for a toast.