At a time when hemlines were defined by parental notions of propriety, no small-town girl from a “good family” would be caught dead wearing a short skirt. At my local tennis club, there were few women were members. The older ones wore white saris with the pallu tucked in tightly at the waist. It flapped in an ungainly way around their ankles and I always wondered how they stretched to execute a shot, or even managed to get around the court with five-and-a-half metres of fabric around them. Worse, how did they manage to toss the ball up to serve in a tight-fitting blouse?
The younger ones like me had very little choice. We all wore ill-fitting half-sleeved shirts and cotton drill skirts made by Balan, the only tailor in the locality who knew how to make a “divided” skirt. Drill, the dictionary says, is “cotton or linen twill of varying weights, generally used for work clothes”. It was the fabric of choice for a variety of reasons, none of which made sense to me. It was thick and heavy, took two days to dry and two hours to iron, and was in no danger of ever riding up to show a bit of leg. In a word, it was “modest”.
And then I went to Chennai (then Madras), complete with wooden racket and two new drill skirts in my kit, as part of the university women’s team, to play in the All-India inter-university championship. It was couture shock, to put it mildly.
The Delhi University girls were a sight to behold, twirling graphite rackets, hair cut fashionably short and wearing the smartest figure-hugging T-shirts and skirts I had ever seen, the latter ending what seemed like a few inches below the waist. To the poised, cocksure Poonam, Zarine and Rukmini, we must have seemed gauche and clumsy, with our oiled hair, wooden rackets and—horror of horrors—drill skirts.
These weighty concerns notwithstanding, we managed to reach the semis, where we lost to Madras. The ebullient and sweet- tempered Amrita Ahluwalia (who played for Madras and later went on to become national champion) was friendly and candid. You must get a graphite racket, she told me kindly. And isn’t it difficult to run in this skirt?
Small wonder: The right skirt yielded instant benefits. AFP
Back home I was determined to rebel. I wrote to my aunt in London, asking for a Wimbledon skirt for my 18th birthday. It arrived a few weeks later, simply styled, pristine white, with the familiar green and purple logo and a daring and uncountable number of inches above the knee.
Trying to nonchalantly sidle out of the front door wearing it one evening, I was stopped by my normally laid-back and very indulgent father. What’s this? he said. This? I replied, trying to sound casual. Oh, it’s just the Wimbledon skirt I got for my birthday. You might as well not wear anything at all, he remarked. I tried to pull it down an imaginary couple of inches, mumbled something and fled.
At the club, three boys who made up my “doubles set” were waiting. I could see that my Wimbledon skirt had effectively put an end to conversation. As I walked down the steps to the court, they all started talking at once, loudly and inanely. These were boys I had known for years, played and grown up with. But somehow, that evening, things changed. My partner and I won our match, against much stronger opponents. The score was 6-0, 6-0, in my skirt’s favour.
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