When you talk to old-timey people, they will tell of the dark days of the Licence Raj, when India was a “mixed economy” a.k.a. Socialist But Didn’t Want to Say So In Case They Had to Take care of People in More Ways Than Emotional. Those were the days when you daren’t run an efficient manufacturing unit, in case the government fined you for doing your job too well and exceeding your permitted quota of finished goods. The days when you drank Campa Cola and bloody well liked it because Coca Cola was too capitalist for pure Indian throats. When a Customs job was like Christmas every day because every Indian who came back from the splendidly debauched Abroad came dripping with exotic items such as French perfume, Swiss chocolates and Japanese electronics and were only to happy to “gift” you a little something if they could take in the majority of their haul.
Those were also the days when my mother customarily bid adieu to my father by telling him to take care of himself and to forget the perfume and eat all the chocolates he wanted – but for the love of God, bring her back a dozen bras.
For years, those bras were an integral part of any gift package that arrived for our family. Her sisters, living in capitalist luxury elsewhere in the world would buy them for her. My father, the poor man, knew lingerie shops in every country he’d been to. But I didn’t realize the depth of her obsession until my thirteenth birthday brought with it her idea of The Perfect Gift: training bras, made in France.
The lace was itchy, the elastic was uncomfortable and I couldn’t breathe. “I hate it!” I told her.
“They’re French!” she said, shocked. “How can you hate it?”
“I don’t care where they were made,” I insisted stubbornly. “I hate them.”
She fiddled with the straps and pushed and pulled (not that there was much at the time to push or pull but she tried her best) a bit. “Is that better?”
“No! It’s too tight. I can’t breathe.”
“Oh, that!” She let out a sigh of relief. “That’s just how a bra functions.”
“What!” I was stunned. The whole bra-burning thing suddenly made so much sense to me. First Wave Feminism, yay! “You mean I have to feel this way for the rest of my life? I can’t breathe from now till I’m dead?” Was this what they meant by ‘the pain of being a woman’? “I won’t! I refuse!”
“Well, then do you want your breasts to droop to the floor?” It was clear she didn’t think much of this course of action.
I toyed with the idea of saying yes just to piss her off. But truly, that didn’t sound very comfortable. “No.”
“Then this is how it is,” she said firmly. “If every other woman can do it, so can you.”
Temporarily defeated by the thought of the Droopy Boobies, I let it go. But soon found another thing to complain about: “All this twisting and pulling is too much trouble, I don’t like it and I can’t see what I’m doing and I’m getting angry and since you want me to control my temper, I can’t wear a bra. The end.”
Not that easily, it turned out. A phone call was placed and I soon received a lovely gift from my aunt in America: a front open bra. “Great,” I muttered glumly.
“Look,” said my mother in the accents one generally reserves for toddlers. “It has pretty little flowers embroidered around the border. So pretty!”
I thought I might vomit.
Reading the rebellion on my face, Ma immediately changed tactics. “Fine, why don’t we go look for some Indian bras then? You can choose what you like.”
“Something loose and comfortable?” I asked hopefully.
“Whatever you like,” she said with a worrying amunt of smugness in her voice.
I soon found out why: nobody makes anything resembling a passable bra in India.
Oh, they looked like bras, and they’re called bras, but in texture they resembled the very finest the khadi industry had to offer and they fit about as well as if I’d hung lampshades about my bosom. They had names like Fairy and Angel and featured pictures of coy women and their magnificent bosoms on the cover of their cardboard cartons, but the only way you could achieve a similar result was if you stood in the same pose as they did, which is to say leaning back with your arms behind your head. It being a little hard to go about normal life in such a fashion, I went back to my hated training bras – at least they were pretty and soft. And the lace might be itchy but at least it didn’t make it look as though my breasts were collapsing in the middle. I now understood why women of my grandmother’s generation had stuck to their little “bodices” instead of switching to the new fangled bra to go with their painstakingly stitched saree blouses.
Now that I’m older and Indian women are buying imported bras in the comfort of their own cities, I have to wonder: what do Indian women who don’t feel like (or can’t afford to) shelling out upwards of several hundred rupees a bra do when they need a little support? Are they all buying Fairy and Angel, figuring nobody will notice the odd contours under the all forgiving saree? And why hasn’t anybody figured out that all these women must be dying for the same comforts and variety of choice offered to their Western counterparts? Not just out of the goodness of their hearts (I’m not that naive) but there must be a fortune to be made here.
For myself, ever since I upgraded to adult sized brassieres, I’ve been hunting for a good bra. I have found two, one of them despite a disapproving fitter at Victoria’s Secret who was outraged that my breasts defied her decries of what would properly fit. “I said you have to go up a size,” she told me in condemnatory tones as I jumped around the dressing room, delirious with happiness at finding a bra that finally fit me the way it was supposed to.
It’s experiences like that one that make me think that Secrets from Your Sister might actually be on to something. I don’t know yet if I’ve given up enough to pay them for their services, but I feel comforted by the thought that if all else fails and they pull my two preferred bras off the market, I’ll at least have them to fall back on, even if I do have to go to Canada for the privilege. Somewhere in this cold world, someone cares about my boobies’ comfort, even if I have to pay them for it.
Actually I’d be all for the Spanx bra if I could wear it with something other than round neck Ts which I usually avoid like the plague – seriously, I can deal with stepping into it rather than snapping it on, but with bands that wide, what on earth can you wear it with? Your pyjamas?