I have a small stack of clothes which I refer to as my Ahmedabad clothes: pairs of long cotton tunics that fall below the knees, with short or three-quarter length sleeves, and matching stretchy leggings or loose cotton trousers with a drawstring whose fabric collects creases at the ankles.
The stack includes one orange and blue printed kurta in a divine “two-by-two” cotton fabric with a matching pair of leggings, a short sleeve red kurta with a black border and typically Indian ethnic print, and a bright yellow one with horizontal blue zigzags that was altered into a tunic because I ripped it getting out of a rickshaw in Ahmedabad.
For most of the year, this stack of clothes remains tucked away in a suitcase or duffel bag. There is no room for them in my unwieldy wardrobe designed for extended New England (and now Midwestern) winters. I usually pull them out as I prepare for my annual trips to India — specifically to Ahmedabad. Or what I cheekily call it in my head: “the season of migration to the [Global] South.”
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When Women in Clothes was published in 2014, I pored over the book’s pages endlessly with a monogrammed mug full of mint tea in hand. There was one extract in the book that seemed to call especially to me: a conversation between novelist Kiran Desai and one of the volume’s editors, Heidi Julavits. It is one of the only contributions by a South Asian woman in the entire collection. Early in the interview, Desai says,
I grew up in India, so you have to learn a whole new way of doing clothes when you move to the West. Fashions don’t carry over, so if you fly between places you will inevitably look wrong in the country you’re going to. Definitely going to India you look bad if you go in your Western clothes, Everyone comments ok how awful you look right away. The sky is different, the street is different, the dust is different — only Indian clothes work. (p. 41).
I read this interview having just returned from a summer in India — the summer during which I’d officially adopted these cotton tunics and stretchy leggings as my preferred form of dress. The sentiment resonated with me: American clothes no longer felt right for me when I was in Ahmedabad.
In addition to drawing further attention to my NRI (Non-Resident Indian) status — which is already rather obvious in the way I carry myself and in my fluent yet somehow accented Gujarati — my “American clothes” had minimal practical utility in Ahmedabad.
If I wore denim shorts and sat in an auto-rickshaw, my thighs would stick and burn on the not-quite leather seats in the 115° heat. Silks or synthetic fabrics would be drenched in sweat within minutes of leaving the flat. In other words, wearing anything other than loose cotton seemed simply out of the question.
Despite the initial resonance I felt, many Indian women I deeply respect — both in the U.S. and in India — were outraged at Desai’s proclamation of sartorial norms. Desai makes her proclamation as if it were a universal fact, and in the process seems to succumb to a politics that polices what women ought and ought not to wear.
In India, as elsewhere, if you are a woman, it doesn’t matter what you wear or how you carry yourself, you can still be blamed for rape, domestic violence, and misogyny based on even the slightest hint of impropriety. In spite of my decision to embrace wearing Indian clothes while in India, I still often felt uncomfortable.
An example — one day I visited the swimming pool at a wealthy athletic club where men roamed around shirtless in swimming shorts, all of the women were wearing full bodied, short-sleeve suits that nearly resembled something you’d wear if you planned to go scuba diving. My experience inspired the following haiku:
Hairy chested men
My one piece is most skimpy
In this context, I think my friends and colleagues’ critiques of Desai were appropriate. But one time in Mumbai an auntie I didn’t know stopped me in the middle of the pedestrian foot traffic in Churchgate to adjust my clothes because my cardigan (not even my shirt) had risen and caught beneath my bookbag. As an Indian-American woman, making the sartorial shift made me feel unencumbered, less conspicuous, and more comfortable in my surroundings.
I visited one of the South Asian community organizations where I am volunteering as a part of my research. It’s located at the intersection of Devon Avenue and California Avenue in a Chicago neighborhood that seems to have long been populated by immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia. As I dressed myself for my first visit, I picked out a striped white and navy dress with three-quarter length sleeves that falls just above the knees. And a pair of silver loafers matching the button details of the dress.
As I pulled in front of the center, I felt immediately self-conscious of my choice of clothing. As I parked my car, I could see most of the women on the street were wearing some version of the cotton uniform I described earlier, or other everyday South Asian clothing such as simple cotton saris. When I entered the community center, some of the staff we also wearing kurtas, including a young woman teaching an English class who looked to be approximately my age. When I got home that afternoon, I pulled out my Ahmedabad clothes from the duffel bag where they’d been kept in storage since my last trip to India in January.
Since I arrived in Chicago — where I moved to begin my dissertation research on South Asian civic engagement and political belonging in the United States — Devon Street has been a strangely and unexpectedly comforting place. Fieldwork, as one of my best friends reminded me, is inherently disrupting. And perhaps I hubristically thought that I might circumvent this disruption by choosing to do research in one of America’s most vibrant cities.
I was excited for the move, and still am — to a degree, but as I start my fieldwork, I have also been pummeled by an overwhelming homesickness. The geography of this homesickness is complex though, because it is not for a single place, but for the many places I have laid roots in my pursuit to become an anthropologist. It is even a homesickness for feeling as if I don’t have a home, for the uncertainty of establishing myself in a place for more than a year or two at a time.
One of the many places I’ve felt homesick for is Ahmedabad. It has remained a part of my annual geography. During my first visit to Devon Street, at the end of my first week in Chicago and in the field, I passed by a shop window with a sign posted in Gujarati, “Sejal Photo.” Amidst everything that is unfamiliar right now — the work, my apartment, the landscape — reading a signboard in Gujarati, and doing the work of silently sounding out each of the phonetic letters in my head to make sense of the script, felt uncannily familiar.
Similarly, what I wear may not matter to my interlocutors at the Indo-American Center. But putting on my Ahmedabad clothes twice this week and walking into an office where English is spoken in equal measures as Hindi and Urdu offers just a little bit of consolation amidst the chaos.
I’ve been in Chicago for nine months now and am nearing the two-thirds mark in my dissertation research. A lot has changed since my first trips to Devon: I’m no longer a volunteer, but on staff at the Indo-American Center in a position that is related to my dissertation research. I packed away the Ahmedabad clothes because they are not appropriate for winter in Chicago, and I haven’t yet had an opportunity to go to India. Summer approaches but I haven’t retrieved them from the duffel bag yet, nor have I decided if I will.
This neighborhood — where I live and work — has since become my home in Chicago. As I have come to know Chicago’s South Asian ethnic enclave, the sense of familiarity that came from being reminded of India is now joined by an infinite loop of questions about what it means to be Indian/South Asian American.
For the first time in my life, I am surrounded by South Asians who are not my immediate or extended kin. I grew up in primarily white neighborhoods in the American South and spent the last ten years at private colleges and universities in New England. I am awed that I have the opportunity to use Gujarati or Hindi in professional contexts, that my co-workers bring their desi food to work without fear of embarrassment, and that I have a shared set of cultural references to my peers.
At the same time, I am realizing that there are things about inhabiting primarily South Asian spaces that also make me uncomfortable. How, for example, am I to answer invasive questions about my caste or marital status? Or to respond to casual jokes about how I’ve been “white-washed?” As much as I retained parts of my South Asian identity through language and regular visits to India, I did not realize how much I may have absorbed certain narratives about cultural assimilation — and how I make that known through what I eat, how I talk, and how I carry myself.
I’ve been forced to reckon with the fact that my diasporic experience is just one sliver of the sum total of South Asian experiences that are increasingly specific along lines of ethnicity, religion, or national origin and caste, class, and immigration status. The notion of a South Asian enclave in the U.S., has thus struck me as both a revelation and a challenge as I confront the question “what does it mean to be a South Asian in the United States?” both in my research and in terms of my own sense of self.
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Anar Parikh is an anthropologist in training (PhD candidate), at Brown University. She currently lives in Chicago where she is doing research on civic engagement and political belonging on South Asians in the United States. She also loves books, nachos, and yoga. An earlier version of this essay appeared on casualethnography.wordpress.com.