Fiction: The Western Tailor [Shubha Sunder]

Kathryn Myers

Contributed by Shubha Sunder / At seven o’clock Ramesh turns off the sewing machine, slings his leather bag over his shoulder, and says his customary good-bye to his boss, Parul. Usually he walks straight home after work, but tonight he crosses the street and hides behind an old tamarind tree. From here he has a clear view of the boutique, which occupies Parul’s garage and is separated from her house by a narrow driveway. He watches her lower and lock the shutters. Once she has crossed over to her porch and shut the front door behind her, he begins to retrace his steps.

A cool breeze brings with it the smells of jasmine and rotting garbage, and he can hear the faint ringing of bells from the Kaverinagar temple. He slips past the hibiscus bushes lining the drive and climbs into the garage through its single window, which he closed before leaving but was careful to leave unlatched. He lights a candle, retrieves Linda’s half-finished frock from the pile of scrap material beside his chair, and gets to work.

At a quarter to nine he is still squatting on the floor, the bodice of
the dress pressed to his knees as he stitches the final length of black piping to the neckline. He could have been done an hour ago had he used the sewing machine, but the noise might have given away his presence. He reassures himself that Linda’s party will not have ended yet. She will greet him with her usual warmth: he can already feel the pressure of her hand on his shoulder, her scent of flowers and tobacco enveloping him. She will try on the frock. He sees her long arms emerging from the butterfly sleeves, and the silk—raw tassar, dyed the same bluish gray as her eyes—settling against her calves and collarbones. Her guests will admire his work. If alterations are necessary he will perform them then and there, in her living room. She is leaving soon, returning to New York: a city where, he has heard her say, she has never found a garment that fit as sweetly—this was the word she used—as the ones that he, Ramesh, has made for her in Bangalore.

The needle glimmers as he pulls it through the fabric for the last time. He secures the stitch with a slipknot, lowers his mouth to the neckline, and severs the thread with his teeth. He spreads the dress out on the floor, picks off some stray fibers, then folds itand wraps it in brown paper. All that’s left now is to make himself presentable. He reaches for his bag, which contains, in addition to scissors and tape, his uniform. Khakis and rubber slippers are exchanged for herringbone trousers and black Oxfords. His fingers tremble as he buttons the waistcoat and inserts through the lapels of his white—or nearly white—shirt a pearled collar pin. He spits on the shoes and rubs them with his fist. Then he blows out the candle, tucks the brown-paper parcel into his bag, and reaches for the windowsill. He is about to push himself up when he hears the clang of the gate, followed by footsteps, heavy ones, on the driveway.

A knock on the shutters makes the walls reverberate. “Is somebody in there?” The speaker sounds like a big man, the sort with a curling mustache and knuckles that can break Ramesh’s nose. He hears another voice, Parul’s. “Whoever you are,” she shrieks, “you’d better surrender.”

The stupidity of his enterprise only now reveals itself fully to Ramesh. Parul must have glimpsed the candlelight through the window, or his shadow, and called the police. He could insist that he hadn’t stolen—had never intended to steal—anything, but then why, they would demand, had he sneaked in?

A flashlight appears at the window, its yellow beam flooding the shelves and their glass jars of sequins, beads, and buttons. Ramesh finds himself stuck to the floor. They will take Linda’s dress from him. They will claim he stole the expensive tassar silk. He will be dragged away and thrown in a cell. His wife will have to come with bail money. She will slap him across the face.

He hears a metallic jangle, followed by the sound of a key turning in a lock. The shutters are about to be rolled up. Ramesh hugs his bag, containing Linda’s dress, to his chest. A loosely practicing Hindu, he closes his eyes and prays to Ganesh, remover of all obstacles, to make a miracle happen.

Two months earlier, when preparations for Diwali were getting under way, the name “Linda Williams” had appeared before him on an order form stapled to a length of lavender cotton.

“American lady,” Parul said, thrusting the material in his face.

“She won’t know if the fitting is not perfect—she’s never worn a sari blouse before—so don’t be fussy. Just get it done.”

“No problem, madam.”

“Let’s see if you can finish it by tomorrow before we say no problem!”

Ramesh resisted the urge, as he watched Parul sashay around the plastic screen separating her desk from the dimly lit work space, to tell her that it would take him less than ten minutes to alter that kurta she was wearing so her backside would look less like a sack of potatoes. It still made him wince, after a year in her employment, to think that the owner of a tailor’s shop could allow her own clothes to fit so badly. His old boss, Harold, would have shaken his pink head at the sight.

“Tallest woman I’ve ever seen, that foreign lady,” said Jagdeesh, the head tailor.

“Like a coconut tree,” added Cheluva, the embroiderer.

“Except that her breasts were like lemons.”

“Grapes, I’d say. And her skin was almost transparent.”

“This is what happens,” Ramesh said, “when you live in this godforsaken corner of the city—you never see Westerners, so you don’t think of them as human beings. I used to work for an Englishman.”

“Yes, yes,” Jagdeesh said, grinning. “We know. Not a day goes by without Ramesh reminding us that he used to work for an Englishman. Even his Kannada has an English accent. Why don’t you just say bye-bye to us and go to England, Ramesh?”

Ramesh grunted. He was forty-six, more than two decades older than Jagdeesh and Cheluva, older even than Parul, but no one in this second-rate establishment treated him with respect. They laughed at his background: his twenty-five years of service at Cunningham’s Fine Garments—the greatest tailoring shop Bangalore had ever seen, on Astoria Road, a world apart from this sleepy neighborhood where he had lived since his marriage, in a house located a claustrophobic two kilometers from Parul’s boutique. On his way to work these days, he was overtaken by the same bus that used to transport him into the heart of the city—where the granite facades of the British cantonment still rose above the tin and concrete shacks, where the smells of dosas and incense mixed with those of pizza and fresh leather, and where English was spoken as much as Kannada, Hindi, and Tamil, as well as other languages Ramesh did not recognize. Into this cosmopolitan world he had escaped every day since he was twenty-one, until a year and a half ago, in 1994, when a heart attack ended Harold Cunningham’s life. In shock and grief, Ramesh prepared himself to take over the shop: he’d been his boss’s right-hand man, after all, had even been trusted with running the business when Harold went on vacation. But things hadn’t gone according to plan. Within a week of the funeral the property was sold and the building demolished—all in accordance, he was told, with Harold’s will and that of his relatives in London.

He now fingered the material that this American lady, Miss Williams, had provided. Parul’s customers generally liked their kurtas and sari blouses made from gaudy polyesters and chiffons—unlike at Cunningham’s, where clients brought silks and linens to be fashioned into slacks, dresses, and shirts. This fabric was simple: unprinted and finely woven. The order form specified a round neck and cap sleeves. No frills or fancies. She had come in on Tuesday, his weekly holiday; otherwise he would have measured her himself. The numbers suggested that she was indeed tall, and broad. Shoulder: 39 cm; blouse length: 45 cm; petticoat: 102 cm—assuming Parul had not made any errors.

“Did you know, Ramesh,” Jagdeesh was saying, “this foreign lady lives around the corner. In that big bungalow. She sits near the market early in the morning and makes pencil sketches.”

“So?”

“So, maybe the two of you can chat about England, and then she will take you back with her!”

“She’s American, you buffoon. Now shut up—I’m trying to concentrate.”

“Do you have a fitting room?”

He was stitching gold brocade to the hem of an already garish kameez when her voice came from the other side of the screen. He craned his neck to see around the partition: there she stood in a faded T-shirt, towering above Parul by at least a foot, holding up the blouse he had finished and ironed that morning. She reminded him of the Western tourists he used to see regularly on Astoria Road, who stood out among the crowds with their wide-brimmed hats and big plastic bottles of water, and who came to Cunningham’s at the advice of their guidebooks, for Harold’s impeccable fittings and unfussy styles. The round neck of Miss Williams’s blouse, Ramesh observed, would nicely show off her long, pale throat.

His boss, looking even dumpier than usual, led Miss Williams to the back of the boutique and held open the door to the wooden closet that functioned as a trial room.

“Am I going to be able to squeeze in here?” Miss Williams said, ducking to avoid the ceiling bulb.

She looked so incongruous in her surroundings that Ramesh felt as if he were watching a magic show in a circus, where the door would open to reveal that Linda Williams, every large bone of her, had disappeared in a puff of smoke.

“Fitting is okay?” Parul called.

The door burst open, and out Miss Williams stepped, her smooth midriff showing above the waist of the petticoat, her face flushed from the heat of the bulb. Customers were generally shy about wearing their uncovered sari blouses in front of the male tailors, but Miss Williams showed no embarrassment as she placed her hands on her hips and examined herself in the dusty mirror, even as Jagdeesh and Cheluva ogled her white stomach.

“What do you think?” she asked Parul. “Does it look like it should?”

Parul’s hennaed curls bobbed like a clown’s. “Fitting is good,” she said.

But Miss Williams did not seem satisfied. She turned around and peered over her shoulder at her reflection. “Isn’t it a bit tight there?” she asked. “That seam is stretching a bit.”

“Sari blouse should be tight, madam.”

“Well, it’s the first time I’m wearing something this closely fitted, so I can’t really tell.”

Ramesh stood up from behind his sewing machine, his fists loosely grasping the measuring tape around his neck. “It needs slight alteration, madam,” he heard himself say. “I will do it for you.”

Her eyes, the color of rain clouds, met his in the glass. He withdrew from his pocket a slip of waxed paper lined with pins. “Stand comfortably, madam.”

She dropped her arms to her sides. With thumb and forefinger, he gathered the fabric where it puffed slightly, along her shoulder blade, and inserted a pin through the fold.

“Oh, that feels much better,” she said at once.

“The sleeve, madam—maybe two, three millimeters looser?”

“Yes. How long will the alterations take?”

“Fifteen minutes, maximum.”

“That would be great,” she said, smiling down at Ramesh. “I have to wear it to a party tonight.”

Her smile drew attention to her unblemished skin, whose brightness extended to her hair—thick, wavy, and many shades of brown, swept into a knot and held in place by her only accessory, a long silver clip. Her air of calm confidence made him think she was around thirty years old. From close quarters he could see that she was not as slender as her height suggested: her hips took up almost the full length of string he had sewn into the petticoat. He was about to ask her to turn around so he could inspect the bodice, but with Parul’s eye on him, he hesitated.

“No problem, madam,” his boss said, showing lipstick-stained teeth. “We will have it ready for you now only.”

“Where did you learn to speak English so well?” Miss Williams asked Ramesh once she had reemerged from the closet in her T-shirt and jeans and was handing him the blouse.

“He talks too much, no?” Parul said before Ramesh could respond. “Now hurry up,” she snapped at him in Kannada, and he bowed his head and returned to his station.

It had been very different at Cunningham’s. I’m glad you’re pleased, Harold would often say. My man Ramesh here did all the work on that one. “Yes, madam,” Ramesh said now. As a rule he tried not to argue with his boss: it had been difficult finding a job after Cunningham’s closed, and he regretted his behavior during his six months of unemployment, a period during which he used to come home drunk and slap his wife. Now that he was working again, his priority was to provide for the family. His wife could no longer cook and clean for as many households as she used to—her back problems were worsening, and she was gaining weight. That morning she had groaned so loudly while preparing his coffee that his six-year-old son had woken up in fright.

A week passed before Ramesh saw the American woman again. He was making his way to work at seven in the morning instead of eight—the Diwali orders were backlogged, and Parul had ordered him to come in early. He turned the corner of Eleventh Cross and Thirteenth Main, and spotted Miss Williams immediately. She was sitting on a stone bench with a sketchbook in her lap, copying the fruit stalls lining the pavement. The vendors paid her no attention as they went about assembling their pyramids of guavas and pomegranates. Even the stray dogs seemed used to her presence as they lazed beside her in the sun.

“Good morning, madam.”

She turned and squinted at him, then jumped up. “You’re the tailor! What’s your name?”

He introduced himself, and she shook his hand with a firm grip. “I’m glad I ran into you, Ramesh. Do you sew Western clothes—skirts, blazers, and things—as well as traditional?”

“Yes, madam.”

She tucked her sketchbook under her arm and began to describe her needs to him: she hated shopping for ready-made clothes because her size was so hard to find, and besides, she had bought some wonderful hand-loomed material at the local shops. Would he, Ramesh, make her a suit? He had done such a great job with the sari blouse. She knew that the boutique specialized in Indian wear, but would Parul perhaps make an exception? No? Well then, would he consider doing this for her as a favor? She lived just a few blocks away. They could make an appointment for him to come to her house. He could work there too if he liked: the old lady who owned the place—and who was currently abroad visiting her children—had left it furnished, and there was a sewing machine and a nice worktable.

“Feel free to say no, of course,” she concluded. “But I just thought I’d ask.”

“I can do it, madam,” he replied. “But . . .” He looked up at her. The sunlight gave her face the impossible brilliance of women in advertisements for facial cream. “I will be happy to do it, madam. But I don’t have any time today or tomorrow. Maybe next week?”

He was afraid she might say that she was going back to America next week, but instead she nodded. Could they plan for him to come to her house on November sixteenth? But wait, he would be celebrating Diwali, wouldn’t he? Yes, he said, but he would be free in the afternoon.

“Well, okay then, if you’re sure.”

“Just one thing, madam?”

“Call me Linda.”

He had never called a customer by her first name. “Please. Miss Williams. Don’t tell Parul. She does not like us—the tailors, I mean—to accept orders outside the boutique.”

“I hadn’t thought of that.” Her brow crinkled, and she lifted a finger to her lips. “The last thing I’d want is for you to get into trouble on my account.”

Her thoughtfulness touched him. It had been his experience at Cunningham’s that the Western clients were the kindest and most polite, especially the women. They complimented him on his stitching and spoke to him as if he were not their servant or driver but an equal—unlike the wealthy Indian customers, who gave him no more than a nod if they were satisfied with his work. “No trouble will happen, madam,” he said.

“You sure?”

“It will be fine.”

She grasped his hand again and said good-bye. As she returned to her sketching, he felt conscious of the vendors’ curious stares—directed not at her but at him, a lowly English-speaking tailor in his old khaki trousers, whose cuffs, he realized as he walked away, were in need of a hem.

Despite the fact that the Diwali orders were more horrendous than ever this year, Ramesh felt a lightness as he labored away in the ill-ventilated garage. A popular new synthetic material was giving him a headache with its shining multicolored weave, but he relished the control with which he was able to steer his scissors through it. He slammed his foot all the way down on the pedal of the sewing machine as his fingers darted around the needle. He hummed a British marching song that Harold used to play in the shop, on an imposing gramophone whose brass horn gleamed cheerily against the wood-paneled walls.

“Not bad, Ramesh,” Parul said the morning before Diwali as she scanned the neat, colorful stack of garments he had produced the previous day. “I thought you were a big, slow coach, but finally you are learning to stitch fast.”

“I’m trying my best, madam,” he said in his meekest voice.

That night at home, his wife reminded him that they were going to her brother’s the following day, for lunch.

“You and the children go by yourselves,” he said. “I have to work.”

“Parul is making you work on Diwali?”

“Some last-minute stitching.”

“Is she paying you double?”

Ramesh shrugged. His wife clicked her tongue. “You act as if we are living in luxury and you are stitching clothes just to pass the time.”

The following afternoon, after his family had left the house, Ramesh applied an extra sprinkling of talcum powder over his torso before donning his old uniform. He brushed his Oxfords, feeling his confidence lift with the smell that rose from the can of shoe polish. The shirt and pin-striped waistcoat had grown a little tight around the middle, but looking at his reflection in the mirror he decided that the gray around his temples went nicely with the navy-blue tie. On his way to Miss Williams’s he held himself straighter than usual, and to protect his shoes and trousers from getting splashed with mud he kept to the edge of the pavement farthest from the road, wobbling like a tightrope walker as he struggled not to fall into the gutter. Children were setting off firecrackers in the street. The noise rumbled around him like applause.

The bungalow was very handsome: old, worn pillars; big windows; plenty of flowering shrubs and potted crotons. She burst through the door, her hair loose and wet about her shoulders. “Hi, Ramesh!” And she flung her long arms around him. “Happy Diwali!” He took a step backward to steady himself. “My roommates went home for the holidays,” Miss Williams said as she led the way inside. “You’re looking very smart, Ramesh. I guess you’re dressed up for the celebrations.”

He retrieved a handkerchief from his pocket and patted his forehead. The uniform always made him sweat, and the strong floral scent of her hair had left him a little dizzy. He found himself standing in what appeared to be an enormous living room. A Persian carpet covered the floor with intricate patterns, and a potted vine with heart-shaped leaves hung suspended by ropes from the middle of the ceiling. Against the tall windows overlooking the porch stood a wooden table, and beside it a sewing machine, a Singer model from the ’50s.

Miss Williams pointed to a maroon blazer draped over the back of a cane chair. “Here’s the cut I’d like for the suit. And here’s the fabric. Any ideas for the blouse design?”

He fingered the cream-colored silk she held in her hands, then unbuckled his leather bag and withdrew a pencil and pad of paper. Holding the pad against one forearm, he drew her a pattern that used to be popular at Cunningham’s: high collar, pointed lapels, and long sleeves with broad cuffs.

“I’m not a big fan of puffed sleeves,” she said from over his shoulder.

“The silk will not puff, madam,” he said. “Adding a little bit of extra material will make it drape better.” For the skirt he suggested box pleats—a term she was unfamiliar with, so he illustrated it for her in a separate sketch.

“No,” she said. “I don’t think I have the hips to carry them off. How about a straightforward pencil skirt, knee-length?”

“Pleats will look nice, madam, with the khadi material.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, madam, very sure. You will look good in it.”

“And what if I don’t?”

“When it is ready, madam, you will like it so much”—and here he called upon one of Harold’s favorite phrases—“that you will never want to take it off.”

She laughed. “All right. I’ll trust you.”

He retrieved his tape and started to lay it against her body: across her shoulders, front and back, around her wrist, elbow and bicep, and then her waist and bosom. She chatted with him as he measured. How many children did he have? How old were the girls? Were they going to go to college?

“Unfortunately, madam,” he said as he jotted down numbers beside his sketch, “they are not very serious about their studies.”

“Are they going to learn a trade, then? Like tailoring?”

“Maybe, madam. But it is getting more and more difficult these days to find a job as a tailor. Western styles—people prefer to buy them ready-made. They will go to a tailor only for the traditional clothes.”

“Well, Ramesh, you are the first tailor I’ve ever met in my life.”

As he knelt to gauge her skirt length it occurred to him that he had no idea where his wife had her own blouses and petticoats made. He’d never thought of making her anything, either as a favor or as a gift.

Once the measurements were noted down, Miss Williams retreated to her easel on the porch, just a few feet away from the open windows, through which the sunlight brightened the worktable. He spread a sheet of newspaper over the wooden surface and began to sketch the shape of the blouse. When he was finished, he cut along his pencil marks and then, using the cutout as a stencil, retraced the lines on the silk with a pellet of French chalk. He worked into the evening, at his old thoughtful pace. Outside, the fireworks intensified, sending bright sparks into the sky. Fumes from Miss Williams’s cigarettes drifted in through the window. She barely glanced in his direction as she painted away, and he admired her air of absorption.

On his way out, he paused beside the easel. At first glance the painting made no sense, but then he recognized the fruit stalls on Thirteenth Main. She had been painting them from memory: the early-morning sun hovered in a corner of the canvas, the same shade of orange as the papayas. The awnings were distorted, the faces of the vendors blurred; but what impressed him was how her brushstrokes had rendered them three-dimensional, as if the stalls were protruding out of the painting into the space before him. As he stared, it occurred to him that he engaged in a similar activity every day: giving form and depth to flat cloth.

His wife demanded to know, the following Tuesday, why he was going to work on his weekly holiday.

“Orders are still coming in,” he said.

“Diwali’s over, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“When I lost my job you were upset that I wasn’t working. Now you’re upset that I’m working too much.”

“Why are you wearing that old uniform?”

“It makes me feel like a tailor.”

“You’re a bloody dreamer, that’s what.”

He saw Miss Williams’s roommates that day: two Indian women, who raised their eyebrows at his uniform and did not so much as say hello when he introduced himself.

He was grateful when they went upstairs, leaving him to work in peace, with Miss Williams curled up with her sketchbook on the divan behind him. He savored the pleasant ache in his legs as he worked the heavy pedal of the old Singer, whose wrought-iron wheel gleamed in the sunlight. It took him the full afternoon to finish the blouse: the skirt and blazer would take longer since the cuts were more complicated and the khadi material quite thick.

“Why did you come to India, madam?” he asked her on his third visit. He was sitting at the low table beneath the potted vine with its heart-shaped leaves, and she was laying out snacks—a plate of biscuits, another of spiced nuts—along with a teapot and two cups. He had expected her to drink tea the way Harold did: weak, with milk and a sugar cube, and so last week he had been surprised at the clear, strange-smelling liquid that flowed out of her teapot. Even stranger was that she called it Darjeeling tea and said it was her favorite drink. It tasted like stale water, which worried him. He agreed to have another cup today, hoping that with practice he would learn to detect its deliciousness, just as it had taken him months to grow accustomed to the necktie and tight collar of his uniform.

“I’m here on a Fulbright,” she said, and he shook his head in incomprehension. “A scholarship. I wanted to spend some time painting in a place I’d never been before. My best friend in college was from Bangalore—she helped me find this house.”

“What is your age?”

She told him, and he nearly spilled his tea in surprise. She was only twenty-two, almost a full decade younger than he had assumed.

“Why?” she said, and giggled. “Do I seem old? How old are you, Ramesh?”

He told her. She asked him to remind her of the ages of his wife and children, and proceeded to do some counting on her fingers. “So your wife was five years younger than me when she had your daughters.”

“Yes.”

“I think I’d like three kids. It seems an ideal number.” A dreamy look came into her eyes, and he was reminded of the expression on his daughters’ faces when they stared at the posters of film stars that hung in their room. He felt a new tenderness toward Linda Williams: such a brave young woman to travel by herself to a foreign country so far away from her home and family. The following Sunday after work he found himself walking in the opposite direction from his house and boarding his old bus to the cantonment area. He wanted to buy some lining material to give her blazer an inlay.

Soon he was back on Astoria Road, where the doors of Cunningham’s had once opened onto the crowded sidewalks. A three-story Nike showroom had mushroomed from the rubble, and Ramesh now hurried past, eyes averted. He half expected his friend Ahmed, the textile merchant, and his cavelike shop to have disappeared as well, but the familiar narrow entrance was still there, and so was Ahmed’s toothless grin. The old man sat cross-legged on his counter, balancing across his knees a walking cane that he used both to threaten any urchins that came through the door and to hook bolts of fabric from the shelves behind him. “I was just thinking about you the other day, my friend,” he said, extending his cane and retrieving a roll of raw tassar silk dyed a delicate gray. “This color came out a few months ago. I show it to all the tourists and they admire it, but those who buy it say they are going to make it into tablecloths. Tablecloths! Those worms and weavers put so much labor into this silk just to have food spilled over it! I want to tell them, ‘Take it to Cunningham’s, and Ramesh will make you the most beautiful dress you’ve ever seen.’ Then I remember that there is no more Cunningham’s and no more Ramesh. But we must not live in the past—everything happens because of Allah’s will. You, my friend, are looking young and strong.”

“You’re the same old chatterbox,” Ramesh said. “Give me a meter of your famous lining material. And three meters of that silk.”

The day he put the finishing touches on her suit, he was so excited he could hardly breathe. She draped it over her arms and carried it out of the living room and up the staircase. He heard her footsteps overhead, through the ceiling, and imagined her stomach and small breasts revealing themselves briefly before disappearing again behind the silk folds. She was coming down;now she was standing before him. The long pleats gave the skirt texture as they rippled against her knees. But of course, what mattered most was her opinion.

“A bit old-fashioned,” she said, adjusting the lapels of the blouse, and Ramesh felt a prick of dismay that she didn’t like it so much after all.

“But very elegant,” she added. “It’ll be perfect for when I give exhibitions. The blazer drapes so well. I love the lining!”

“It is comfortable, madam?”

“Very. It fits more sweetly than anything I’ve ever bought in New York.”

The word sweetly sent a tremor down his spine. He retrieved his handkerchief and pressed it to the back of his neck. She gave him her wide smile. He wanted her to wrap her long arms around him and whisper in his ear that it was the finest suit she had ever worn or would ever wear. She placed her hand briefly on his shoulder and thanked him once again for all his efforts. She paid him a generous sum—more than enough to satisfy even his wife—in crisp fifty-rupee notes. He asked if she wanted him to make her anything else—a nice frock, perhaps? He had hidden Ahmed’s tassar silk in the boutique, under a pile of scrap cloth. Every time he plunged in his hand and rummaged for the silk with his fingers, he pictured its coarse weave against her polished skin, her curves running perfectly along his seams. Miss Williams shook her head sadly. “I’m going to be leaving in two weeks, Ramesh. My roommates are throwing me a party next Friday night—will you come? Bring your wife and kids too.”

“You’re going back, madam? To America?”

They were standing by the worktable—his worktable—where his leather bag lay comfortably on its side. A breeze came through the open windows and played with the tendrils of the potted vine. “You promise you’ll come?” she said. “I have something to give you—a little gift.”

“Tell me one thing, madam. Do you like to wear dresses? Made out of silk, for example?”

“I’ve never worn a silk dress,” she said and winked at him. “Perhaps you’ll make me one the next time I’m here?”

“But it will be a long time before your next visit, no, madam?”

She laughed and put her hand once again on his shoulder. “It’ll be worth the wait to have anything made by you, Ramesh. Now, you’ll come, yes?”

He took her hand between his damp palms. “Yes, Linda,” he whispered, at last addressing her by her first name. “I’ll come.”

For the next several days, he said barely a word to anyone. During the hour that Parul went home for lunch, he would retrieve the gray silk and, oblivious to Jagdeesh’s and Cheluva’s jeering inquiries, cut and stitch away. Never had he worked so single-mindedly or with such confidence. He didn’t have to make a stencil, or even a paper sketch. He knew her measurements by heart. His hands, as they moved the chalk, scissors, and thread, were guided not by him but by some invisible, unerring authority.

On the morning of the day of her party, as he packed his uniform to take to work, he noticed that the shirt had a small tear. Cursing softly, he sat on the living room floor and began to darn. He had to look his absolute best when he presented her with the dress, which would be, once he put in the final seams, fit for a princess.

“Parul wants you to come in early again, eh?” his wife called from the kitchen. “For what—Christmas orders?”

“Shut up, woman.”

She banged her steel ladle against a pot on the stove. “What next? Are you going to tell me that she’s ordered you to wear that old uniform of yours?”

“None of your business.”

He looked up to see his wife advancing toward him with her ladle brandished like a baton. She aimed it at his head. Ramesh ducked. A spray of sambar landed on his uniform shirt, dotting the pearly white with turmeric yellow. He grabbed the fallen ladle and rose to his feet. She stood waiting, h
er fists clenched like a boxer’s. “I know where you go,” she hissed. “You wear your Western clothes and go to a Western bitch.”

“Watch your mouth.”

“See, it’s true! Tell me, Ramesh, how much do you pay her? Or is she the one paying you?”

He unclasped the ladle, and it clattered to the floor. Then he thrust his hand into his pocket for the money that Linda had given him the previous week, that he had been carrying around as a souvenir of her appreciation, and flung the cash at his wife. The fifty-rupee notes twisted as they descended around her, and she took a step backward, shielding herself with her fat arms.

“You’re a shallow woman,” he told her. “All you think of is money.” He folded his stained shirt and placed it in his leather bag along with his Oxfords and necktie. “I will be late tonight,” he said on his way out the door.

The shutters grate and clank as they roll up, exposing first his spit-polished Oxfords and then the rest of him. He blinks at the flashlights—all three of them directed at his face. His arms tighten around his leather bag.

“Ramesh!” Parul gasps. “Ramesh, you’re still here? Why? And what is that strange outfit you’re wearing?”

As his eyes adjust to the light, he sees two strange men, policemen, flanking Parul, whose plump figure is wrapped in a pink dressing gown.
“What’s he holding there?” demands the larger of the two men.
Ramesh turns his body away, and the men pounce. One of them wrenches his arms behind him, forcing him to let go of his bag, which the other man seizes and empties on the floor. The brown-paper wrapping tears; out spills the dress, its folds shimmering in the yellow beams. I am finished, Ramesh thinks.

“You’d better explain yourself,” his boss is saying.

“There is nothing to explain, madam,” he says. “I was just making this dress for—for myself.”

The policeman who is holding him releases his arms.

“You’re a strange fellow, Ramesh,” he hears Parul say. “A very strange fellow.”

“What do you want us to do with this joker, madam?” the man asks. “We can take him to the station and charge him with trespassing if you want.”

“Well,” Parul says, “let’s see you in that outfit, Ramesh. Put it on.”

When he hesitates, the policemen seize him again and force his head through the opening of the dress. He doesn’t want it to tear, so he complies, and soon he is standing in Linda’s frock—except that it is more like a gown on his short frame.

Parul and the policemen wipe tears of laughter from their eyes. “If you weren’t so funny,” his boss stammers, “I’d fire you. Go home now before you get yourself into more trouble. I want to see you here tomorrow morning, at eight o’clock sharp.”

He stumbles away, the skirt swishing around him. People stare in his direction, whistle, and point their fingers. He ducks into an alleyway and extricates himself from the dress. Thankfully his perspiration does not seem to have seeped into the silk. He refolds it and hurries on. At the corner of Linda Williams’s street, he is assailed by another figure, large and familiar. “Aha!” cries his wife as she reaches for him with her thick arms. He wriggles out of her grasp. She snatches at the dress. There is a loud rip. He releases it before it tears completely in two, and she tosses it into the gutter. He leaps after it. His Oxfords squelch in the mud. By the time he climbs back to the pavement, she has disappeared into the darkness. In the dim glow of a nearby street lamp, he examines the damage: the bodice has almost fully parted company with the skirt, and the silk is splattered with mud. He tries to wipe it off with his fingers, but the stains only grow bigger.

At Linda’s gate he can hear music and laughter coming from the bungalow. Off in the distance the temple bells are still ringing — a mocking sound, as if Lord Ganesh himself is chuckling at him. Tenderly, he folds the remains of the dress, takes off his waistcoat, and wraps it around the sullied silk. He removes his collar pin and necktie, winds the tie around the bundle, and fastens the ends with the pin. But some of the silk is still peeping out, so he unbuttons his shirt, swaddles everything else in it, and lays the parcel by the compound wall.

It is foolish to be wearing shoes and no shirt, so he slips off his Oxfords. Since it makes no sense to wear socks without shoes, he peels those off as well, and with a shoe in each hand he starts to make his way home, his torso cooling in the night air.

A few weeks later, he is sewing sequins around the cuff of a ghagra choli blouse, when a female voice says his name. He lifts his head and sees a woman stride past Parul into the boutique. It is one of Linda’s roommates. She hands him a large envelope and says brusquely in Kannada, “She left this for you.”

Under the inquiring gazes of Parul and the others, he opens the envelope and pulls out a sheet of stiff white paper. It is a sketch of him bent over the Singer in his tailor’s uniform. In the margin hangs the potted vine, and beside him lies his leather bag. He stares at himself absorbed in his work—the bend of his arms and the stoop of his head so cleverly rendered in her pencil strokes—and he starts to shiver in the stuffy boutique, as if a breeze had just penetrated its brick walls.

###

About the author: Shubha Sunder is a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellow, an instructor at GrubStreet, and an associate fiction editor of West Branch. Her prose has most recently appeared in places like Lenny Letter, Crazyhorse, Narrative Magazine, Michigan Quarterly Review, and The Bangalore Review. Two of her stories were named as notable in The Best American Short Stories 2016 anthology. Other distinctions include the Crazyhorse Fiction Prize, Narrative “30 Below,” as well as awards from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences and from The Corporation of Yaddo. She grew up in Bangalore, India, and currently lives in Boston, MA.

About the artist: Kathryn Myers is a painter and Professor of Art at the University of Connecticut. She has been the recipient of Fulbright Fellowships to India in 2002 and 2011.  Other awards include grants from the Connecticut Commission on the Arts and the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation.  She has exhibited her paintings widely in the United States and India, and has curated exhibitions on Indian art, most recently, “Convergence” art from Indian and the diaspora, at the William Benton Museum of Art, The University of Connecticut and “Radiate” art of the South Asian Diaspora at the University of Illinois, Chicago and the Windsor Art Center, Connecticut. She produces Regarding India, a video project comprising interviews with contemporary Indian artists.

Related posts:
A.I.R. artists at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in IndiaPart I: Adira Thekkuveettil and the defaced murals in India
Grounded in India
Indian studies: Kathryn Myers

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2 thoughts on “Fiction: The Western Tailor [Shubha Sunder]”

  1. Thanks for publishing the summer fiction series. I love short stories about artists and this one is fantastic.

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