On Sartorial Diversity And Some Good Old-Fashioned Cultural Representation
My wardrobe is deep, I am all about sartorial diversity. I wanna be able to slouch in sweatpants and strut in a sleek suit and look differently dope while doing both. I have no shame in admitting my aesthetic preoccupation, au contraire, I take pride in it.
This summer, like last summer I will try once again to pull from the brink of extinction the shalwar-kameez. Translation here, shalwar are the loose baggy trousers, like your favourite ‘harem’ pants but also not. Kameez is traditionally a knee-length loose-fitting shirt that buttons from the neck to mid chest before floating elegantly down in a gentle curve. If you’re not getting it, google it. It is a cultural thing and I want to wear it because it is a cultural thing, because it is beautiful and because in the heat I can think of nothing better. But I struggle.
Mere weeks ago on a stroll in the summer heat I chanced upon two young women rocking face-painted bindis somewhere around what I believe to be the third eye shakra. How ironic that the third eye looks inward away from the monstrosity that is half-arsed cultural appropriation. This costume cultural colonialism cut pretty deep, mainly because I now want to enjoy the summer and not be bombarded with weak attempts to re-live one’s gap year. Given that I witnessed this while crossing the road I had little time to call it out. Instead I decided that I ought to be proactive. I ought to address this frustration through myself.
Instead of reviling the cult of cultural appropriation I figured I would turn to some cultural association, some classic old-school cultural representation.
I dug from deep. I pulled out my shalwar-kameez, I ironed it with care and consideration and slipped it on my body. It looked surprisingly sexy despite the Hollywood desexualisation of the South Asian male form (now that’s an article for another time). The two-piece I was rocking was patterned with perfect paisleys. I stepped out with hesitancy, confidence, pride and a light smattering of fear. A casual walk.
The first person I passed sniggered. Now admittedly they were with somebody else and my peripheral vision is poor because of glasses but I am pretty sure they had their eyes trained on my foreign form. A little laughter wouldn’t dent my confidence, I was floating on paisleys.
After a selection of different people had laughed over the next ten minutes I grew somewhat accustomed to being a spectacle. I ducked into a shop to buy a drink. The man behind the counter looked me up and down. Of course he did, I was a spectacle. I asked for rolling papers. He told me they had none left. I could see them clearly. When I pointed he told me they were reserved for somebody else. He charged me more than I paid the previous day for the same drink. I left.
As the day grew unassailably more beautiful I found myself reclining in a park reading by sunlight. A young woman approached and asked if I had a lighter and like the seasoned smoker does I relinquished the device without interest in social interaction. She began enquiring as to what I was reading. She asked if I had read Shantaram. She told me that she loved the colours of my dress. She asked me if I had bought it in India. She asked if I had been to the Pink City of Jaipur. She asked if I was free at the weekend. She told me about her two week yoga retreat and her every morning fifteen-minute meditation.
I eventually told her with no hint of irony that I had to meet my guru on the other side of town and left her my number with one digit incorrectly entered under the name Fakir.
I was perhaps ten minutes away from my house when two bald white men appeared from a side street. They laughed which was fine. When they began jeering at me I grew a little concerned. When they turned back on themselves to follow me I was terrified. They were drunk. They hated Muslims and people who looked like Muslims just as much. They asked where I was from. They asked if I prayed to Allah. They asked where my God was now. They aimed mostly at my body, sparing my face for reasons I don’t understand. They asked if Muhammed would save me while I curled up like the edges of a rug on the floor. They left me. When I got home. I had to take it off. I had to throw it away. It had ripped from my writhing. It was stained with blood and spit and dirt and tears.
None of these encounters happened to me. These are the encounters I am terrified of. All of these encounters occurred for some people who look a lot like me. Those encounters would not occur for the two young women with their face-painted bindis, able to be more South Asian than I could be. I want to wear my shalwar-kameez. I really want to wear my shalwar-kameez. Its paisley and it is beautiful and I imagine my grandfather as a young man, wearing the exact same thing. But maybe I’ll wait and wear it next summer instead.