When I was a little girl, I was fascinated by velvet. The fabric seemed to me to symbolize opulence. This was before the advent of nylon clothes in India; before polyester shirts and colorful synthetic saris became fashion statements. At weddings, I would ogle at women wearing velvet blouses, and I would long to touch the shiny cloth.
My dream was to possess a velvet frock. A frock was a European style knee-length dress with short sleeves and a cloth belt tied in the back. My best friend Viju, who had chubby cheeks, pale brown eyes, and hair so fine that it turned blond in a certain light, possessed several velvet frocks. Their hues were so vibrant that they reminded me of the colors we sprayed each other with on the festival day of Holi. There was bright green velvet and a fuchsia and one in that dreamy indefinable shade that you could only obtain by mixing strawberry milkshake with mango pulp. It was neither orange, nor pink, but a combination of the two, with a rich patina that seemed to change color as you shifted your perspective.
I wanted a velvet dress but didn’t know how to ask for one. I grew up at a time when a birthday was celebrated with an aarti around a child’s face. And the same was true of Diwali or Dashahara. Every now and then we would get new clothes, but they were practical outfits made of sturdy washable cotton cloth.
Then my aunt Vimal came to visit. Aunt Vimal’s visits for me were always filled with excitement. She would unlock her huge steel trunk and unfold saris made of georgette and chiffon and silk. All her worldly possessions were contained in that trunk; matriculation certificates, wedding jewels, and old sepia-colored photographs arranged in albums made from paper brackets glued to black construction paper.
Aunt Vimal’s visits were exciting for another reason; she was crazy about the movies. But since she lived in a little town, she rarely got a chance to see the latest films. And for lack of a better companion, Aunt Vimal often took me along.
After watching one such movie—it might have been Mughal-e-Azham—Aunt Vimal declared that she was to buy me velvet cloth for a dress. Perhaps it was a costume in the movie that had prompted her to make the decision.
So, for days, I waited anxiously for our visit to the Burdi market.
Finally one afternoon, we rode the cycle rickshaw to Burdi. Up and down the street we walked, asking about velvet cloth for a frock.
The shops, it seemed, had run out of velvet.
Finally, we entered the very pricey Bombay Wallah, where neon signs shone above showcases with mannequins draped in exquisite embroidered dresses, and where heavyset men in turbans stood behind counters displaying Kashmir sweaters with foreign labels.
Bombay Wallah did have rolls of velvet, wrapped around rectangles of cardboard. As the storekeeper unrolled it on to the counter, I gasped; for the pink-orange sheen of the cloth told me that it was the very velvet I had been dreaming of.
Alas, the price of the cloth was not quite as attractive as its look. So Aunt Vimal hesitated.
Then a man, not the storekeeper, but a guy cleaning up the shelves, casually remarked that at a store down the gali, they sold velvet by the kilo.
Off Aunt Vimal trooped, down the dark alley filled with the kinds of stores I would rather not have been seen shopping at, asking everyone about the place that sold velvet by the kilo. Up and down the alley we walked, not only the No. 1 Gali, but also No. 2 and No. 3. And all the while, my velvet waited for me on the counter at Bombay Wallah.
At last Aunt Vimal’s legs got tired. “We will just come another day, when they have more variety,” she declared as we boarded a rickshaw and rode through the dusky dusty evening light, past vendors of roasted peanuts, past the Rani Jhansi statue, past the naked children playing in the streets. I knew then that I would never have a velvet dress.
I was reminded of all of this the other day, when, at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, I spotted a velvet duvet cover. Alas, it was not in that dreamy color that I can still see if I close my eyes just for a second, but in a dark brown. Still, I bought it at enormous expense, because I have always wanted to possess something made of velvet.
Would my life have been different had I been able to wear that velvet dress? Would it have been better or worse? My parents certainly belonged to that generation that believed that deprivation built character, not out of spite, but out of sheer poverty. So I wonder if it is better to have sacrificed as a child than to have been spoiled.
I think wistfully now of the fact that many Indian-Americans born in the plenty of this land have never known what it feels like to long for something so trivial as a velvet dress and to never have it. And I want to tell them about a land called India where perhaps a little girl like me is still longing for a shiny new outfit.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.