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An Immigrant Life as a Source of Cultural freedom for Empowered Indian Woman: A Study of Sumita in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Short Story Clothes



Dr. M. Krishnaraj
Associate Professor and Head
Department of English
Kandasamy Kandar’s College
Paramathy Velur
Namakkal District-638182
Tamilnadu, India.

Abstract:

            Different Indian social statuses and religious faiths prescribe certain conventional dresses as the significant and well established cultural habits for their traditionally brought up women from their childhood to adulthood. However, the dress code for them is not one and the same in all the different castes and religious groups. It varies from one religion to the other and from one caste to the other. Thus, Indian women have to wear necessarily different dresses, quite suitable to the various occasions and functions at home and in the society. They should also follow their dress code without traces of any kind of violation. Till they attain their womanhood, they are allowed to wear and enjoy all types of different and modern colour dresses. No sooner do they attain womanhood than they are forced to wear only very traditional and civilized dresses like half or full saris of any colour. Soon after their marriage, they should wear very cultured dresses both at home and in public. There is also an unfortunate group existing among married women and this group comprises only the widows. As and when the women become widows, all religious groups consisting of all castes except orthodox Hindus will not mind their women wearing the decent dresses. But in Hinduism, when a married woman loses the life of her husband, she cannot wear all types of colour dresses. She is forced to wear only the white sari to indicate that she is a widow and she is always kept in marginalization. Thus, Indian women cannot enjoy their independent individuality in the choice and wearing of modern dresses, which they like most during their different earthly roles. Moreover, the state to which they belong plays a major role in deciding their dresses too. It is said, “Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, and Christianity are some of the major Indian religions. Each religion influences the way people think, live and dress but at the same time, the state to which the people belong has a great influence on their dress culture” (Indian Traditional Dress n.pag.). The empowered Indian Hindu women who become widows even during their alien life choose to remain in their alien land itself so that they can lead their life wearing all types of modern dresses without either any restrictions or indicating their familial status. The writer of this article has chosen Sumita, the protagonist of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s short story Clothes to prove his hypothetical statement true. As a widow, Sumita chooses to stay back in America so that she can enjoy her immigrant life by wearing all types of colourful modern dresses by asserting both her independence and individuality.
                                                                                                                        
Key Words: 

Tradition, Religion, Caste, Dress Code, Widow, Marginalization
 
Introduction:

            Indian grown-up women in their diverse religious and social statuses may be either traditional or modern. They may be either educated or illiterate. They may be either professional or house-wives. They may be either native Indians or the immigrants in western countries. Yet, they are quite conscious of the demands of the well established cultural conventions with regard to their dresses. One of the cultural dresses of traditional women with which their religious faiths, social statuses, and gender are always identified is sari. However, as times are changing, Indian women, being educated and professionally well placed, also change their dress code on the style of the westerners. Of all the Indian religious groups, it is only Hinduism, which still forces its women to be faithful to the traditional ways of wearing different colours of saris on different occasions even when they live in the alien lands as the immigrants. It is a well known fact that wearing of different colours of saris by women depends upon the occasions for which such colours are meant. Besides, different colour saris bring out not only the mental make-up of women in given situations but also the special significance, attached to the colours of the saris that they are seen wearing.

            If a woman wears a red colour sari, it is an indication of some happy celebrations such as weddings and religious festivals. It also displays her mood of happiness, love and affection for all. If she is dressed in a yellow colour sari, the colour reflects her optimistic, positive, intelligent, and inspiring character. If she happens to wear a green colour sari, the colour becomes symbolic of her peaceful and gentle mental make-up. If she is seen wearing a blue sari, the colour is a symptomatic of her peace of mind. If she wears a pink sari, the colour exposes her feministic concerns and fills her mind with the positive hope that “if winter comes, spring cannot be far behind” (Shelley, West Wind 70). If she wears a black colour sari, it is considered to be a symbol of grief and sadness. Besides, it is also considered to be a woman’s most preferred colour for evening parties. If a woman wearing a white colour sari, the colour stands for purity, peace and simplicity. Yet, the white sari in Hindu religion is treated something different because it is symbolical of widowhood of the wearer. Such women are an unfortunate set of people because their presence in any auspicious functions like marriage is treated as unwanted ones. They are always seen marginalized, living in their own separated world of isolation with their minds full of unexpressed worries.
  
            As far as Christian women are concerned, they are expected to wear only the dresses of modesty, decency, and decorum. Their outer garments should reveal only their good inner selves and not their external beauty to attract men. This is what is said in 1Timothy of the New Testament. Women should “dress modestly, with decency and decorum, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God” (2: 9-10). Nowadays, they wear all types of modern dresses without any restrictions even if they are young, or unmarried or married. Those who are professionals wear the dresses suitable to the nature of jobs they do. But those who are widows do not wear white saris to indicate their nature of status in life like the traditional Hindu women. They wear all types of coloured saris and fashionable dresses.

            In Islam, women are expected to dress modestly and they should always wear outer garments extra over their saris so that their attractive and enticing physical features should not be exposed to the lustful eyes of men of all religious groups.  In 59th Verse of the Chapter 33 of Quran, it informs men “Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks [veils] all over their bodies. That will be better, that they should be known [as respectable women] so as not to be annoyed” (qtd.in Stacey, Dress Code of Muslim Women n.pag.). Thus, Islam holds its women in very high esteem and its rules insisting on women covering their head and body are mainly to protect and guard their dignity and honour in public places. Regarding the Muslim widows, Hadia Afzal is of the view:

Every Muslim widow would wear clothes she normally wears. Islam is not just a   religion. It is a complete lifestyle. It is based on logic and human nature. There is no colour associated with any event in Islam except that during Hajj, all men must wear white ehram (two unstitched pieces of white cloth in a specific way). It is only for equality, homogeneity and brotherhood. Hence, being a widow she can wear any color she wants to. (4 Feb. 2019)

            The writer of this article has highlighted the well established dress code of women belonging to Hinduism. He has also brought to light the significance of the choices of different colour saris of the Hindu women in life, and the differences between their choices and those of women belonging to the other Indian religious groups. As far as Indian Hindu women as the natives are concerned, they cannot escape from the dress restrictions of their respective religion. But those Indian immigrant Hindu married women enjoy wearing any modern dress without any religious restrictions, provided her husband and in-laws do not object to her modern style. As soon as these women lose their husbands and become widows, they should return to India and start wearing white sari as s symbol of their widowhood. But many Hindu professional immigrant women do not want to return to India and remain as a marginalized class. They stay back in their adopted countries and lead independent and individual life wearing all types of modern dresses. This is the nucleus of this article written on Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s Clothes. Through this article, the writer drives home the existing truth that the immigrant life for an empowered Hindu widow Sumita provides her with much expected freedom in the choice of her independent and individual life totally different from her widowhood. She stays back and enjoys her immigrant life without any kind of Indian native restrictions for being a widow

Analysis:

            Sumita has got married to Somesh Sen, an Indian American and an owner of a store in America, through arranged marriage as per Hindu tradition. During her wedding, she has been dressed in a costly silk sari that her father has got her. She thinks positively that during her immigrant life in America, she can wear all types of fashionable western short skirts like other American women. Her heart is full of very optimistic expectations and dreams of her happy, prosperous, fashionable, and luxurious immigrant life in America. Though she feels remorseful for having left her parents to her alien life, she is reminded of her mother’s words that as a married woman, she only belongs to her husband. She goes to America with great expectations but her expectations stand shattered when she finds her husband’s American house as a strongly traditional one as seen in Calcutta. Moreover, she is not able to feel completely free and enjoy marital bliss as she has thought. She has to be always dressed in traditional Indian saris.
 
            Being traditionally brought up, Sumita has to live with some kind of inhibition and she cannot enjoy her status as a newly married immigrant woman. Her in-laws being every inch traditional Indians even in America in their ways of life, she has to be very careful in her behaviour with her husband in their presence. She cannot even exchange love glances with her husband openly. Every act of her love and affection towards her husband is to be within the four walls of their bed room. Even with her husband all alone inside her room, she cannot feel free to express her love feelings to him: 
 
I have to cover my head with the edge of my Japan nylon sari and serve tea to the old women visiting her mother-in-law. Like a good Indian wife, I must never address my husband by his name. Even during night time on our bed, we have to kiss guiltily, uneasily, listening for the giveaway creak of springs of the bed. . . . But at other times, I feel caught in a world where everything is frozen in place, like a scene inside a glass paperweight. It is a world so small that if I were to stretch out my arms, I would touch its cold unyielding edges. (25-26)

            Sumita does not experience any dominance either from her husband or from her in-laws. However, she hates to play the role of a typical Indian daughter-in-law even in America. She cannot call her husband by his name affectionately in the presence of her in-laws. Neither can she enjoy her martial happiness with her husband freely as she has no privacy. Everything contrary to her expectations is happening in her American house. She expresses to herself, “Even in our togetherness in bed, we kiss guiltily, uneasily, listening for the giveaway creak of springs. Sometimes I laugh to myself, thinking how ironic it is that after all my fears about America, my life has turned out to be no different from Dipali’s or Radha’s” (26).

            Sumita enjoys wearing modern American dress before her husband only inside her bed-room during night time. But she has to do it without the knowledge of her in-laws but with the consent of her husband. She starts wearing jeans and T-shirts one after another and displaying her modern look before her husband. She also looks at her reflection in the mirror how she looks in modern dress. This is the only freedom she enjoys in her alien life. On looking at her image wearing the modern dress in the mirror, she has a lot of unexpressed feelings in her heart:

Late at night I stand in front of our bedroom mirror trying on the clothes . . . I model each one for him, walking back and forth, clasping my hands behind my head, lips    pouted, left hip thrust out just like the models on TV, while he whispers applause . . .I’m wearing a pair of jeans now, marveling at the curves of my hips and thighs, which have always been hidden under the flowing lines of my saris. I love the color, the same pale blue like the nayantara flowers that grow in my parents’ garden . . . The jeans come with a closefitting and T-shirt which outlines my breasts. (24)

But she dare not look like an American woman in her way of wearing dresses openly and identify herself with the natives culturally in the presence of her in-laws. Hence, she is in a greater predicament regarding her preference between two cultures in choosing to wear her clothes. Her thought of immigrant life to be the one that will give her cultural freedom but it turns to be a disappointing one. Indian tradition of wearing only saris haunts her day in and day out even in her American life.

            However, Sumita decides to adjust herself to the traditional life in the way of wearing dress without explicitly expressing any kind of irritation. But her marital life in America is cut short unexpectedly when her husband Somesh meets with an unfortunate end to his life. A burglar shoots him to death in his shop. His unexpected demise in his working spot places her in a greater predicament still. Now she has become a widow at the young age. She is also made to go through the rituals on the funeral day of her husband. There is a ritual of her bangles being broken to pieces and rubbing off the red dot from her forehead. What makes her feel bitter inside her heart is when she is given a white sari to be worn as a symbol of her widowhood.  After all the funeral rituals, the in-laws decide to go back to India with Sumita. On hearing their decision, she realizes that in India, she has to live as a widow like “a dove with the cut off wings” (33). She knows well that if she goes to India, she is to lead her life as a widow by wearing only white sari like any other Indian widows as per Indian culture. She has to lose her individuality and freedom to enjoy the pleasures of a second marital life with another man through arranged marriage since she is still very young. However, the new woman in Sumita emerges and dictates her not to go back to India along with her in-laws and not to be an Indian widow by wearing the white sari. She is not ready to accept the white sari and meet with isolation and marginalization even in her house itself. 

            Hence, Sumita decides to get a new identity as an American Indian in words, deeds and thoughts as well as in her way of wearing the colour saris or westerns style dresses. As an American Indian, she can identify herself with the natives in their cultural traits. She can establish her individuality and independence as a single woman. Therefore, she stays back in America after the death of her husband and begins to work as a teacher in order to enjoy the pleasures of life without any cultural barriers. With the death of her husband comes her freedom from cultural limitations. She can achieve this only because she is an immigrant in America.

Conclusion:

            Sumita is an Indian immigrant in America with the new woman attitudes. She is not an individual but a type because almost all Indian women immigrants in America change their Indian cultural practices into that of American one so that they can identify themselves with the natives. As they are in America, they want to be Americans in their cultural habits too. They do not explicitly display their identity by wearing the white saris that they are widows. They do not get discriminated on the basis of their widowhood in their immigrant life. As Sumita decides to stay back in America as a single woman, she wants to be an American Indian. Chaturvedi Divi also confirms it in his article about Sumita’s decision to be an American Indian when she rejects the white sari and prefers almond colour dress:
   
            Sumita rejects the white sari as the colour is associated with widowhood, which    is also a symbol for retreating from active social life. She picks up an almond colour dress. Almonds symbolize life. Sumita’s preference shows her determination to stay put on the American soil and start a new life braving the opposition from her in-laws. (247)

                                                          Works Cited

Afzal, Hadia. “Dress for a Muslim Widow.” Quora, 4 Feb. 2019, n.pag. 
       www.quora.com/dress-for-a-muslim-widow/ Accessed 4 Apr. 2020.

Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee. “Clothes.” Arranged Marriage, Black Swan Books, 1997. 
   
Divi, Chaturvedi. “Marital Relationships and Cross-cultural Concerns in Chitra  Banerjee Divakaruni's Arranged Marriage.Research Journal of English Language and Literature, vol. 2, no.1, 2014, pp. 240-248.

Sharma, Shalu. “Indian Traditional Dress.” Travel Guide to India, n.pag.             www.shalusharma.com/tag/indian-traditional-dress/. Accessed 7 Apr. 2020.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Ode to the West Wind.” The Winged Word, edited by David Green,             Macmillan, 1974, pp. 98-99.

Stacey, Aisha. “Dress Code of Muslim Women.” islam.ru: islamic information portal, 6 May 2013, n.pag.  www, islam.ru/en/content/story/dress-code-muslim-women/. Accessed 28 Oct. 2019.