Every time we go to India, my wife likes to get some clothing made. This isn’t as posh as it may sound to Americans who haven’t traveled. In India, the clothing you get made for you is cheaper than clothing you buy off the rack. This is, of course, discounting the rising flood of clothing coming from places like China.
I discovered the key to getting one’s clothes made is in finding the proper Tailor Lady. Everyone calls her that, even if she has a staff full of males doing the sewing. In fact, in my bewilderment I discovered that “the Tailor Lady” sometimes is a man with an all-male staff. I suppose I should be used to India by now; after all, calling a man “the Tailor Lady” isn’t much different than when we in the United States say, “Hi, guys,” even though we are addressing a group with females present.
As far as I have seen, every woman in my adopted family goes to a Tailor Lady of whatever town they happen to live in. For male attire there is nothing called a Tailor Man, who, I suppose could be a woman. Men’s clothing is obtained instead in a shop called Men’s Suitings.
One day I was sitting in an Ambassador taxi, looking up at a tall, old building that appeared to be an apartment house. I had been sitting there alone with the driver for about an hour. I didn’t know what was keeping the women, but decided to find out.
I got out on the passenger side, entered the building, and stood at the bottom of a mystery stairway. I looked around. There were no signs for who lived in the building, much less for a business such as might be run by a popular Tailor Lady. I’d just have to search.
I’ve tried this before—searching for my missing, shopping relatives in India—and it usually has ended up in horrible disaster with my being lost and them spending an hour driving around the neighborhood looking for me. But this seemed pretty straightforward. One building, one staircase, one Tailor Lady.
I started to climb the stairs. Nothing on the next floor up except apartment doors, some with names on them, and nobody looked like a Tailor Lady. Of course, I had no idea what the Tailor Lady’s name was anyhow, nor what the Hindi characters for Tailor Lady were, so I thought if it didn’t pop out at me I could always go back and sit with the taxi driver again.
I climbed two more flights of stairs, with each landing having much the same look as the others. The building wasn’t particularly old, but the inside wasn’t painted often enough to keep it looking nice. Probably nobody ever mopped the floor although there wasn’t anything overtly objectionable on it. It was not well lit.
The staircases were long and the day was hot and humid as only the Indian plains can be in summer, so I admit I was puffing when I reached the fifth floor and saw a little girl out in the hallway, sitting on a stool. She tilted her head and looked quizzically at me, and I smiled and waved. She just looked back with large, grave, wise eyes.
She was sitting next to an open door into one of the apartments, and I heard voices inside. I slid over and looked in.
The room was packed to overflowing with both people and many bolts of material for making clothing. I supposed I had just found the Tailor Lady. As I entered, the Tailor Lady’s staff looked a little shocked that a man, an actual blue-eyed firangi man, would be dropping by, but when my wife and her sister Sarita gave me warm hellos the staff pretended that my being there was one of those oddities that you aren’t supposed to stare at, but which you do anyhow when you think nobody is watching you.
The Tailor Lady in this case was a woman. She was petite but imperious and clearly knew she commanded her organization. She was standing, looking on as a young girl was writing down measurements. My sister-in-law was being measured at the moment, and the measuring was being done by a skinny man who looked like he was plucked from one of the shops in the galis: he wore a gleaming white shirt, a pair of pants with the pleats long un-pressed but still vaguely visible, and was barefoot so that none of the material spread all over the place would get dirty if he had to climb up on a heap of cloth.
As I discovered after coming with my wife to several Tailor Lady people over the years, it is almost always a man who takes a woman patron’s measurements with an ancient tape measure, a young girl writes them down, and the Tailor Lady watches. The man is discreet and pretends not to notice that he’s putting his tape and hands around the patron’s more forbidden zones; I’m sure my acidic eye on him doesn’t make him do anything differently than when I’m not there.
I looked incredulously at my wife. “You have been up here more than an hour, and you are just now getting measured for your salvar-kameez?”
My wife replied, “Oh has it been that long? Sorry, you must have been hot sitting in the car. We were looking over material.”
After a length of time which felt to me like about two hours but wasn’t, all the arrangements had been made, dates set for when the clothing could be picked up, and we left. The taxi driver had fallen asleep downstairs, but first he had moved the car under a shady tree a little way down the street. I wondered why in the world didn’t he do that when I was sitting with him for an hour in the heat. Local joking, I suppose.
A few days passed and it was time to go try on the clothes that had been ordered at the Tailor Lady’s place. I was occupied doing something else and since my wife and Sarita both assured me that they would be back in an hour, I decided to stay behind and finish my project.
So, confident that the two sisters would only be gone a short time, I, innocent, waved to them happily as they got into their scooter-rick to visit the Tailor Lady.
After a couple of hours, I closed my Hindi film magazine and looked at Bittu. “Can we phone the Tailor Lady?” I asked. She was studying a crossword puzzle. I added, “I’ll run out and put some more money in your SIMM card.”
Bittu looked up from her crossword puzzle. She gently told me, “Nobody ever knows a Tailor Lady’s phone number. What a silly idea. It isn’t necessary. You always go and see for yourself about your choices of material, then your fittings, and then the final purchase. A telephone wouldn’t let you know if the Tailor Lady really had finished the clothing you’d ordered.”
Hours and hours later, a yellow-and-black scooter-rick pulled up to the house, its engine backfiring and gasping. My wife and her sister climbed out of the vehicle, carrying those blue crinkly plastic bags that seem to be used by stores everywhere in this part of India. The bags were stuffed full.
They came through the door, both women out of breath from the heat and the exertion they pretended to heroically bear while shopping.
I eyed my wife. She saw the cool look I was giving her and sat down next to me. “Want to see what we got?” she said, using that wonderful technique of veering away from the real issue she knew was on my mind.
“What happened to ‘be back in an hour’?” I asked her. “We were supposed to visit that family for lunch. Now it’s time for dinner.”
“Oh, the traffic was terrible. It took ages just to get to the Tailor Lady, and then after climbing the five flights of stairs, we found out she didn’t have our clothes ready.”
“She promised everything would be ready by Friday. Look what we bought while we were out.”
“I would have gone with you if I knew it would take this long,” I said.
She pulled from the crinkly plastic bags yards of colorful material. “We found these at another shop,” my wife said, working hard to not hear my last statement, “and we’ll take them to the Tailor Lady on Friday. Since she already has our measurements, Sarita and I can get her to make a couple more salvar-kameez out of this nice stuff. See how silky it is?”
Ah ha! They had gone shopping to soothe the hurt of the disappointment that the Tailor Lady’s work wasn’t finished as originally promised.
“But why did it take so long,” I whined. “If I’d known, I would have come to walk around and take some pictures.”
“Well, it does take an excruciating and dusty long time to get anywhere in an Indian city, and then a long time to buy things, and then you have to stop for a cold drink occasionally, and then it’s hard to locate some shops …” and then, and then, and then. I had heard all this before. Why did I believe, over and over, the “back in an hour” thing when I knew it was impossible?
When Friday came, I became a little smarter. I decided not to go with the sisters to pick up their things from the Tailor Lady, and secretly made other plans with my nephew Raja for the “hour” they would be gone.
This turned out to be an excellent approach. They were gone for hours. When the yellow-and-black scooter-rick wheezed its way up to the door, my wife’s face was shiny and dusty from sweat and road mist.
“I’m sorry we took so long,” she said to me. “Only half of our order was filled,” she said. “And one of the tops had to be altered so we had to give it back to her.”
“Well, let me see the one you brought home then.”
She pulled from a crinkly plastic bag a beautiful blue salvar-kameez, having white designs stitched all over it.
“It’s nice, isn’t it?”
I nodded. “But you didn’t get this material from the Tailor Lady when I was there with you last week,” I murmured.
“Oh, we dropped this off the last time Sarita and I went—the first time you stayed home—and told the Tailor Lady to use this material for one more suit.”
Ah ha again. My lightning fast detective’s mind began to deduce. So the Tailor Lady was visited the previous time and she told my wife that her order wasn’t ready, then my wife and Sarita went shopping, and then they went back to the Tailor Lady and gave her some new material to make yet another woman’s pants-suit. But today, the third visit, the Tailor Lady had finished the suit from the material she had been given on the second visit and there still was no sign of any of the garments from the original order.
“Uh,” I said intelligently, “do you think the Tailor Lady maybe lost your first batch of material? And that’s why this one is ready now?”
“Oh no, Tailor Ladies never have that problem.”
“Munnu,” I called to Sarita, who was in the kitchen finishing up the tea I had started. “Do you think the Tailor Lady lost your orders or something?”
“Oh no,” she replied over her shoulder, “no Tailor Lady ever does that.”
“Well, if I had been with you this time,” I continued, “I would have shown some displeasure. I’m sure it would have speeded things up even if this is the Indian way.”
“Oh no,” my wife told me patiently, “that would make the Tailor Lady mad and she’d put our work at the bottom of the list.”
“Isn’t it already at the bottom of the list? Your order hasn’t been ready two times she promised it.”
“That’s the way things work with a Tailor Lady, darling. I’m sure she’ll have everything ready the next time we go there.”
“I’m sure,” I agreed pleasantly.
I began to make plans in my head to ask Raja to take me to see some electrical fuses or something on that day.
Alex Maarten is a 20-year veteran of the high-tech industry. He now writes full time while trying to figure out his adopted Indian family.