The Haunted Dress
by Priyanka Sacheti
Do clothes have ghosts, or do ghosts have clothes? There’s no evidence one way or the other, as you might expect: but there are stories, some of which survive long after their telling.
—Ghost Dresses, My Mother’s Wedding Dress: The Life and Afterlife of Clothes, Justine Picardie (2006).
The poshak was the first thing everyone noticed upon entering Ruchika’s room.
Her visitors would almost immediately fall silent, absorbing the sight of the fading gold and pink garment artfully arranged upon her wall, the only adornment, in fact, which happened to grace any of the room’s walls. Unlike the rest of her classmates and friends, Ruchika had so far deliberately kept her dorm room minimalist and if it had not been for the poshak, she would have been content to maintain her room in this austere fashion. “Don’t you get sick of looking at these blank walls all the time?” her neighbor, Ariana once asked her. Ruchika had merely shrugged, smoothing the creases in her gray bedspread, unable to confess that Ariana’s room often gave her a headache, the walls and shelves and floors unbearably fertile, commanding constant attention. What a relief it would be afterward to return to her room; looking at those blank walls was a numbing experience, they did not ask you to think or feel about anything – and she would lie for hours upon the bed, submerged in this pond of nothingness.
She could not explain what exactly it was about the poshak that had compelled her to hang it up on her wall though; in fact, she would have been hard-pressed to explain why she had even bought it in the first place. She scarcely wore saris or salwar-kamiz back home in Delhi and not even brought a single one to London with her. Her friends would have laughed had someone described Ruchika as a fashion connoisseur, much less harboring interest in Indian textiles or its heritage.
Yet, she had been startled to discover the poshak in the racks of the charity shop she had impulsively walked into a month ago. The only reason why she happened to recognise it as a Rajput poshak was because she had once attended her friend, Suchitra’s wedding and seen a multitude of women wearing them; despite herself, she had admired the gorgeous apparitions that they had metamorphosed into by the simple act of donning the poshak. When she had made the observation to Suchitra, her friend immediately offered to get a poshak made for her. Ruchika refused, telling her that she was simply content to admire. There was no question whatsoever of her wearing it though: she just couldn’t.
And so, that morning as she ran her fingers across the still-soft satin and toyed with the dull gold rosettes embroidered upon the gold and dark pink brocade lengha, the questions swiftly fireworked in her mind: whom did this poshak belong to? How old was it? How did it travel from to this London charity shop, of all places? And then: it did not belong here. As if behaving of their own accord, her hands immediately scooped it up and bought it then and there.
When she arrived in her room, she carefully unearthed the poshak from the layers of tissue paper and ceremonially laid it out on her bed. As she did so, she felt the air in her room infused with a new character, a bit of drama – and even though she would not admit to anyone but herself, it was as if the poshak had elevated her room from somewhat mundane to dramatic and interesting – and there was simply no chance of it being hidden in her shelves or cupboards. The only place it rightfully belonged to was the wall and she had spent the entire afternoon affixing it there with a complex combination of pins, adhesive tape, and blue tack. Afterward, as the autumn sky darkened from cerulean to mauve outside her window and she switched on the lights, she drank in the vista that had dramatically altered her room’s landscape: a dull yet brilliant gold and pink poshak upon the wall, as if in mid-jump. And she had stood back, lost in admiration, once more.
The poshak generated plenty of questions.
Her Indian friends wanted to know if she was homesick and wanted to transplant a bit of India in her room. Some people wondered if she had copied the idea from the internet: they had seen several pins on Pinterest in which bloggers had decorated their rooms with dresses, transforming the walls into open wardrobe. Someone asked if the poshak was a precious family heirloom and if so, who had bequeathed it to her. Had she decided to use it as a décor motif because she did not want to wear it? Ariana wanted to know why she had decided to shatter the monotony of her room walls with a garment, of all things.
She politely answered them all:
“There are dozens of things which remind me of India and help soothe my homesickness. This poshak is not one of them, though. I bought – and hung – it up on the wall simply because I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen in my life. Just like the way people do with their favorite paintings.”
“No, I have never heard of or seen any bloggers who decorate their rooms with dresses. I just decided to put it up because I thought it was too beautiful an object to be stored inside the wardrobe – and also, because I like sitting across it and wondering about its story. Who used to wear it? What had it been worn for? How did it come here?”
“It’s not a family heirloom. I found it in a charity shop. Here, in London. I have never ever been to Rajasthan in my life.”
“Ariana, photographs and posters are things that I choose, they are a part of myself. It’s looking into a mirror – and I am not particularly fond of examining my reflection. The poshak has nothing to do with me and that’s why I can bear, even enjoy looking at it.”
Even though all of these answers were mostly true, Ruchika at times did not believe even herself; did they satisfactorily answer the moot question: why had she bought the poshak? After a while, though, the answer ceased to matter: it made her happy to admire and have it within her space – and perhaps, that was the answer, after all.
As time passed, Ruchika and the poshak became increasingly synonymous with each other. Everyone wanted to come and see the exquisite dress that Ruchika had put up on her wall; whereas, earlier, when she struggled to make conversation at parties or post-coffee discussions with her classmates, the poshak now swiftly became a conversational door. She put a picture of her poshak wall up on her Facebook page, inviting a flurry of comments from friends and relatives who lived abroad. Her mother, on her part, could not understand why had she had wanted to put up some unknown woman’s poshak on her wall. “You might as well put up my wedding outfit there,” she said over a Skype video-chat one day, her eyes critically studying the poshak on the wall behind Ruchika’s head. “Darling, did you make sure it to get it dry-cleaned thoroughly? God knows who has worn it, where it has been…of all the things in the world to put up on the wall, you could only find this? Wonder if the woman whom it belonged to knows that its become a wall display.”
Once everyone had recovered their speech having finished studying the poshak, the story behind it became the source of feverish discussions. Even though Ruchika dutifully participated in them, once her visitors left the room, she expunged the speculations and conjectures from her mind and the poshak became a tabula rasa once agan. What she was increasingly realising was that even though she had declared to everyone that she had bought the poshak because of the stories it contained within its folds, she actually did not wish to invest it with a story. She preferred that the poshak exclusively existed as a wall accessory, rather than a portal through which to enter and imagine the woman who had once worn the poshak. In any case, whenever she even tried to imagine her, no image or story came to her mind; her imagination became a desert and she let it remain that way.
Every night, though, just before she switched off her lights and went to sleep, she would gaze at the poshak for a few minutes, admiring the origami-like grace of its folds, its simultaneously dull yet brilliant pink hue, and the gleaming, still alive gold, which spoke of a regal elegance and a nuanced way of doing things. If she could not imagine its owner, she could somehow easily conjure up the time and atmosphere the poshak had once inhabited: where time had unfurled like a summer rose in bloom the process of blooming as unbearably beautiful as the final bloom itself. Perhaps, she thought, as she segued into sleep, she hoped the character of that time would seep into the air she now breathed and subsequently, into herself. In a world where time, people and conversations flew by far too quickly and violently for her liking, she craved for a time where the interstices between moments were savored as much as the moments themselves.
It all began to change the day Arjun first came into the room. She had met Arjun through common friends at a barbeque garden party in West Hampstead; he was from Bombay, pursuing his Masters in Global Politics at London School of Economics, and had once worked as an assistant to a famous Hindi film director. Her transparent awe at his casual brush with celebrity encouraged him to casually narrate one anecdote after another about minor and major Bollywood celebrities with whom he had worked until they realised that they had been exclusively talking to one another for the entire evening. He had one hazel and one brown eye, long, wavy black hair, which curled dramatically at the nape of his neck, chain-smoked, and frequently went off on conversational tangents, transiting from celebrity tantrums to Jungian vs Freudian dream interpretation. By the time she had had a chance to talk about herself, it was also time to say goodbye.
“Do you know they have discovered the world’s largest species of jellyfish in Australia? If you saw a picture, you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a collapsed parachute,” he said, fishing out his phone from his jeans pocket. “Do you like animals? Do you like zoos? Do you want to go to the London zoo and see an aquarium sometime? Give me your number,” he had said and immediately fed it into his phone. Ruchika had ridden the tube home, feeling elated and somehow proud of herself for having talked for so long and in detail without once mentioning the poshak. For the past few months, it had become so entwined with her identity that it was good to untangle herself from it, for once.
They did not go to the aquarium after all; they instead went to the British Museum for their first date, where Arjun told her which Egyptian mummy was his favourite, intuiting their character from the particular expression on whatever remained of their faces. Afterwards, they had had sandwiches in Hyde park, where they ate little and talked more and more. Arjun was simultaneously languid and energetic, his conversation rapidly crumbling into ramblings and yet, when Ruchika reflected upon the date afterwards in the clean emptiness of her room, she was filled with so much information and insight that she felt her head bursting over. It was almost akin to the sensation she experienced whenever she was in Ariana’s room – except that here, when she returned to her room, she did not feel relieved as much as deprived, never having felt the room to be empty – bereft, even – as she did now. As the days passed and their meetings increased, she re-read his messages, his emails containing bizarre links to articles and subjects and authors which she had never heard of, and went to sleep, words and images tumbling around in her mind, like laundry in a washing-machine. She had even begun to forget participating in her nightly ritual of meditating upon the poshak, once as much an integral part of her pre-sleep routine as brushing her teeth.
They had been dating for a month when Ruchika impulsively invited Arjun up to her room. All through their time together, she had never once mentioned the poshak to him; the subject had no reason to come up and she had never voluntarily told him about it. He was not particularly interested in clothes, in fact, he did not even comment upon what she wore. She did not know what he would make of the poshak; for some reason, she thought he would be drawn towards it just as he was drawn towards all the bizarre that he appeared to accumulate and enjoy doing so in this life.
The first thing that he too remarked upon when entering the room was about the poshak – and yet, unlike the expressions of awe or appreciation or curiosity that flitted across the rest of her visitors’ faces she saw that his was of disapproval.
“Why do you have that on your wall?”
“I saw it in a charity shop and I loved it on first sight. There’s just something so incredibly beautiful about it. I couldn’t bear to keep it shut up inside a wardrobe so I thought – why not decorate my wall with it?”
He did not immediately sit down, pacing back and forth, almost prowling about the room. She noticed that he made no remark upon the blankness of her remaining walls; he instead went to her bookshelf, knelt down, and began to browse through the titles, pulling them out randomly, flipping through the pages, and pushing them back into the shelf again. Once he was done with the books, he then examined the untidy heap of jewelry on the top of her dresser. “I have never noticed you wearing jewellery,” he finally said, lifting up a pair of large faux gold earrings. “Especially not this.”
She noticed that he still had not sat down and was a little surprised by this restlessness, this inability to relax and in a sense, commit to the room. What was it about the room that was making him so – uneasy? Arjun took to places the way he did with people; if he liked then, he immediately made himself home, talking endlessly, and if he did not, he absented himself without a word or explanation. She could see that he was uncomfortable in her room and it was a unpleasant sensation – after all, her room was her sanctum, her temple of peace and she wanted him to be home here, specifically of all places in the world.
“Why don’t you sit down? Take off your jacket and just make yourself home,” she added, aware that the last words sounded a little hollow when Arjun was patently anything so in her room. “I will get you something to drink. What would you like? Wine? Coffee? Tea?”
“Ruchika, don’t bother,” he said, briefly taking her hand and then, letting it drop. “I need to go. Something – no, I just need to go. I will call you tonight, OK?”
He left the room, slamming the door behind him, not even giving her time to ask if she could see him out. And so she simply stood there, feeling for the first time a stranger in her own room.
Later that night, after she had spent the entire afternoon attempting to decoding Arjun’s odd behaviour and alternately walking around the room, trying to see it through his eyes and wondering what had he intuited from it that had made him so uncomfortable, the phone rang. It was Arjun: as his name flashed upon the screen, she realised for the first time that she was feeling angry at him and the summary, dismissive manner in which he had treated her – and her room. She was on the verge of killing the call and then thought, I deserve an explanation. She answered without saying anything by greeting.
He spoke first.
“I know, I was a total – well, ass this afternoon.”
“I am sorry, Ruchika…I mean, you know how I keep on talking about the energies of a place and stuff? Your room…there was something about it…I couldn’t stay there for too long – and ever since I came back, I have been trying to figure out why I behaved the way I did. This is the first time something like this has happened to me before.”
“I will take your word for it,” she said coolly.
“Ruchika, I mean it. And I am telling you – I kept on thinking over it and that’s when I realised – well, something about your room was bothering me.”
“And what was that something?”
“That poshak or lehenga on your wall. It gave me these weird vibes, man, it was as if that thing was staring at me. I couldn’t shrug it off. And that’s why I couldn’t stay there any longer. I know…this sounds weird – absurd-”
She remained silent.
“I like you, Ruchika, I really do…I want to spend more time with you, see where this can take us – but there is one thing: let’s just avoid your room. I know, it’s small and mean request – but -”
“Arjun. It’s been a long and weird day. I am going to go to sleep and I will call you in a couple of days, OK? And…well…I appreciate you being honest about telling me what was bothering you.”
After they hung up, she did not in fact sleep; she lay upon her bed and stared at the poshak, performing the nightly ritual for the first time in days. It continued to elegantly hang upon the wall; sometimes, she thought, it lay there as if in mid-sentence, a mid-jump, although she could never figure out the beginning or end of its words or coordinates. For now, its frozen silence was what made it so beautiful – and try as she might, she could not see it through Arjun’s eyes and what had made it so reprehensible to him that he had had to flee her room.
In the next few days, she dodged Arjun’s calls and messages and tried to lead her life as she had been contentedly doing before he arrived in her life, like a surprise. She looked at her room and at the poshak wall again and again through his eyes, still failing to grasp as to what had unnerved and disturbed him so. And yet, that was perhaps the crux of the matter: seeing through his eyes. The truth was that she could not imagine seeing her own life without his perspective anymore; she had become accustomed to it to such an extent that her own vision even seemed ersatz, as if she was accessing a faulty version of the reality. She had been myopic all this time – and he had rectified her short-sightedness. Even though she did not want to, she missed him. And she found herself calling him three days later, telling him so and yes, she accepted his request.
The poshak became a taboo word between Arjun and Ruchika; even though their worlds expanded to include more and more words and worlds, the poshak was strictly verbotten, darkly invisible. And due to the poshak, her room also became a forbidden territory too with Arjun scarcely ever visiting it. Once, when Ruchika fell ill from fever, he had come to visit her; there were several other people around and he had amused himself and his audience but once they left, he too departed in their wake. In a way, she was relieved; she was afraid that someone would broach the subject of the poshak and she would have to see that odd and rare combination of fear, restlessness, and anxiety speckle his eyes and mute his conversation. But as it happened, people had stopped talking about the poshak. It had blended into her walls as effectively and efficiently as the large window studding her wall; the vistas outside her window changed but the poshak remained stiff and static. The nightly meditation too had become a thing of the past, she realised that she paid as much attention to it as she did to her bare walls. Once, though, she had had a nightmare – and she had woken up in fright. It was dawn and the sky outside was the exactly the color of the poshak. However, while the sky enchanted her, she was beginning to realise that the poshak no longer did.
She wrote her thesis and to her pleasure and surprise, she and Arjun fell in love. Before she knew it, the summer was burning into autumn and it was time say goodbye to her university, London, and Arjun, in that order. While she and Arjun constantly argued about where their relationship was headed, Arjun asking her to stay, she wanting to go back to India, she meanwhile began to pack up her life. “Well, that will take you five minutes in total,” Ariana had said one day, watching Ruchika empty her book-shelves and sort out the hillocks of notes scattered across the floor. “Better five minutes than five years,” she had retorted and Ariana had blanched before laughing. Yet, it was true: Ruchika had accumulated so little that when she finally did pack the entire room up, there was little to differentiate it from the room she had been inhabiting for the past twelve months.
She left the poshak till the very last, when there were only three days left before she had to vacate the dorm room. She had decided to stay with Arjun for a week before flying back to Delhi. But what was she to do with the poshak? Should she pack it up and take it to India with her? What would she do with it there though? She instinctively knew that she could not decorate the walls with it there. She had decided against remaining in London so there was little point in keeping it in storage with a friend. And even though she had been feeling so ambivalent about it lately, how could she consign it back into the indifferent bowels of the charity shop once again? Was that not the initial reason as to why she had rescued it from thcharity shop? She was also unenthusiastic about putting up an ad or selling it: it just did not feel right. As she contemplated the options, she suddenly saw the poshak in a glass box, protected and yet, still being admired. Perhaps, she could find it a home in a textile research center or a museum? She was googling the options in London when Arjun rang.
“How’s the packing coming along? Remember, we have to meet Binal and T for drinks at eight.”
“I was wondering what to do do about the poshak,” she blurted out.
Arjun was silent; they had never talked about the poshak after that memorable first time he came into the room and what she now knew of him, he would have successfully elided it from his memory. “Burn it,” he said finally.
“I said, burn it. It’s not like you will bring it with you to India – and how much will you get for it from the charity shop or if you sell it? And let’s face it, I can’t stand the thought of it in my house. Burn it. Dump it in the rubbish bin. Get rid of it.”
She stood up, cradling the phone against her ear and as she did so, she stood by the poshak. “Arjun – why do you hate it so much?”
Even though he did not say anything, she could see his forehead muscles knitting themselves into an exasperated frown. “The thing creeps me out. I already told you that. It’s almost I can see the dead woman in it.”
“How do you know that the woman who once wore it is dead? Maybe she’s very much alive-”
“I really don’t want to have this conversation again,” he cut in. “You asked me what you should do with it and I gave you my advice. I’ll see you at eight.”
He hung up, leaving her staring at the poshak.
She got in touch with a couple of Textile and Costume museums and institutions; one of them immediately responded and with much enthusiasm, saying that they looked forward to receiving the piece. And so, when her room had been stripped to its bare bones apart from her two suitcases, three boxes, and huge pile of shopping bags filled with items to recycle, donate, and throw away, she finally took down the poshak. She thought of the day she had found it, the many conversations she had regarding it, and how fond she had once been of it. Once, she thought, when had she stopped caring for it? As she looked at it once more, she wondered if she had made the right decision in not choosing to keep it with her. For a moment, she was tempted to email the institute that she had changed her mind and that she wanted to take it back with her. But she knew she wouldn’t. If she had wanted to make space for it in her suitcase or in her life, she would have done it long back.
She laid it upon the bed once again as she had done so the first time she had brought it into the room After months of seeing it, she had forgotten the heft of it in her hands, the feel of the fall of the folds. The question that she had resisted asking once again floated into her mind: Who had been the person who had worn the poshak? And then, she was suddenly and intensely possessed by the desire to wear it. Before she could talk herself out of the idea, she found herself stepping out of her jeans and sweater – and slipping inside the lehenga. Having adjusted it around her waist, she then put on the kanchli, tying it as expertly as she could before slipping on the kurta. And, then, she finally draped the odhna around her body and upon her head.
There was a long mirror affixed to the back of her door; as she moved towards it, feeling both burdened and weightless, she was curious to see how she would look like, what it would feel like to actually possess and claim the poshak for herself, rather than the object of visual display and consumption it had been for all these months. When she finally saw herself in the mirror, she realised that she could barely recognise the reflection that stared back at her, wide-eyed – and melancholic. In the disconcertingly blue summer dusk light, transforming her face into a study of chiarascuro, she had an unpleasant frightening sensation that she was gazing into the eyes of – another woman. This was not her. Where was her? And whom was she looking at?
She so swiftly hurtled away from the mirror that she fell down backwards upon the floor. Still sitting, she ripped off the poshak, hardly caring if it would tear and stuffed it inside the nearest paper carrier bag she could find. She was still breathing heavily; she tried to calm herself down, telling herself, it was out of her sight now: the bag had swallowed it up. She remained there on the floor, breathing heavily – the phone started to ring and she saw that it was Arjun. She let the phone ring and lay down on the bed, careful to avoid looking either at the wall or the bag – and immersed herself, thought by thought, limb by limb into the warm bath of emptiness once again.
The next day, the transaction happened cheerfully and yet resolutely business-like at the institute. When the curator opened the bag and took out the poshak, her face conveyed restrained delight and she thanked Ruchika for donating it to their organisation. Ruchika took one penultimate lingering look and said she had had to go. She had asked the curator to email about its history and origin but she knew she would never read that email.
That night, lights switched off and preparing to sleep for the final time in her room, all of her walls completely bare and anticipating the arrival of its new owners, she thought she saw the poshak on the wall. It was clearly her mind playing tricks with her, so accustomed it was to encountering the poshak upon the wall just before she went to sleep. Yet, the longer and more intensely she looked, it was as if it still hovered there in the periphery, dull gold and pink and beautiful as ever. Did clothes have ghosts? Did ghosts wear clothes? She switched on the lights, sprung out of bed, and ran to the wall, her cheek touching that space which the poshak had inhabited and called home so long. It was cold and impersonal, bearing no memory of its former resident; much like the room, which would bear no memory of her and that she ever lived and thought and worked within its walls. The thought made the fear evaporate from her mind, leaving behind a calm, white artic desert of nothingness. On her way to bed, she thought that that she saw a slight movement in the mirror but she paid scant attention to it; her destination was her bed and within moments of her head touching the pillow, she was fast asleep.
Photograph by Aftab Uzzaman
 Poshak: the traditional dress of women of Rajput community in the north-western Indian state, Rajasthan; consists of kanchli (inner-wear with sleeves), waist-length kurta (a sleeveless blouse), ghagra (pleated skirt), and odhna (long, flowing veil).
About the Author:
Priyanka Sacheti is a writer based in New Delhi, India. Educated at Universities of Warwick and Oxford, United Kingdom, Priyanka previously lived in Sultanate of Oman and the United States. She has been published in numerous publications with a special focus on art, gender, diaspora, and identity. She’s author of three poetry volumes and two of her short stories have been published in international anthologies featuring Indian immigrant writing.She’s currently working on a collection of short stories. An avid amateur photographer, she explores the intersection of her writing and photography at her blog, http://iamjustavisualperson.blogspot.com/ and instagram: @iamjustavisualperson. She tweets @priyankasacheti1.