N for Nightie: Whispers under the Aala Maram

On a sunny afternoon, under the shadow of a mighty Aala Maram (Banyan tree), in the midst of Palakkad’s bustling streets, hung Srimati Saree, Madame Nightie, and Rani Salwar Kameez, chatting away like old friends, with Dear Dupatta by their side, swaying gently in the humid coastal breeze. Their voices mingled with the sounds of everyday life, adding a touch of gossip to the air.

Srimati Saree, with her elegant folds and intricate patterns, carried the weight of tradition on her delicate fabric. She spoke with an air of authority, her demeanour steeped in the values of cultural heritage, boasting of her importance in Jaya’s life, especially with her in-laws around. “Oh, Miss Nightie,” she sighed, “you may be modern, but nothing beats the grace of us sarees, especially when Jaya needs to impress her in-laws!”

Madame Nightie, with her airy fabric and tales of freedom, retorted, “Come on, Sareeji! I give Jaya the comfort she craves, I am the epitome of modernity blended with modesty. I enable Jaya to move freely, reclaiming public spaces without compromising on her dignity while she’s running errands during the day or sleeping like a baby at night.”

“Jaya now feels quite attached to me, you see. I am like one of her prized possessions that she has been holding onto since the day she realised how valuable I am in her life. In fact, she wouldn’t even miss out on packing me for a vacation. This way, I also feel the change of air and get to have my own travel diaries,” chuckled Madame Nightie as she spoke.

Rani Shalwar Kameez, vibrant and relaxed, chimed in, “Exactly! Madame Nightie, While we may differ in our styles, we all represent the struggle of Indian women to balance societal expectations with our desire for liberation.”

Dupatta Dear nodded along, acknowledging Madame Nightie’s practicality. “You’re right, Nightie dear,” she said. “No more fussing with drapes or layers. You make life so much easier for Jaya, I also go along with you when Jaya goes to the market or greets strangers at the door. I love getting paired with you, and you know this!”

Srimati Saree couldn’t help but defend her beauty. “But drapes are an art, ladies!” she exclaimed. “I’ve been enhancing femininity for ages, I make Jaya look graceful and sexy all at the same time!”

As they discussed, the comfort of Madame Nightie compared to the suffocating heat of traditional attire, Madame Nightie modestly admitted, “I may not be as grand as Srimati Sareeji or as colorful as Rani Salwar Kameezji, but I offer women a choice without sacrificing comfort.”

The conversation eventually turned to affordability, and Dupatta heartily praised Madame Nightie’s accessibility. Unlike lounge wear, which caters to the whims of the upper middle class, Madame Nightie is a value-for-money garment accessible to all. She is the everyday companion of the Indian middle class, offering them comfort and ease without breaking the bank. Stitched in multiple designs with varied fabric combinations, the most favourite one being cotton, gives women the privilege of making a choice of wearing what they feel is like their second skin.

In a country where modesty is treasured above all else, Madame Nightie emerged as a beacon of liberation for Indian women, embodying their innate ability to adapt Western fashion sensibilities to suit their own cultural norms. As Srimati Saree eloquently put it, “We may hang side by side on this clothesline, but it is Madame Nightie who truly encapsulates the essence of freedom and empowerment.”

As the sun set, casting a golden glow over the neighbourhood, they all agreed that Madame Nightie was a silent revolution for Indian women. They swung together in harmony, celebrating their shared triumphs as symbols of womanhood, while the Aala Maram watched on, its branches gently swaying in approval, as if applauding the silent revolution unfolding beneath its watchful gaze.

(The A-Z Series: This series of short articles explores how familiar objects from everyday life embody concepts and values dear to the urban Indian middle class. It takes a light-hearted and humorous look at how objects shape our wants & desires, lives, and lifestyles, ultimately making us who we are as a people.)

(Hamsini Shivakumar is a Semiotician and founder of Leapfrog Strategy. Naheed Akhtar is Associate Director, Cultural Insights and Semiotics at Leapfrog)

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