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A Life in Three Shirts

I. Bright Colors, Stripes:

t-shirt 1

The first 10 years of my life are a blur; they have been pieced together from photo albums, home videos, and half-memories that come back to me without warning. I remember a “Jungle Book”-themed birthday party; all my parents’ friends and their children came to our small, dimly-lit apartment, decorated with cheap paintings, dusty couches, and moth-brown carpets, and a big, precious television in the living room. I walked through our house like a king, with a stuffed snake draped around my shoulders. They lifted me, fed me cake, and asked me how old I was. I thumped my chest and roared like Mowgli. Everyone laughed and clapped and pulled my cheeks, and sent me in the direction of my presents.

I was dressed by my mother, who, today, has a keen eye for fashion. 20 years ago, I’m not sure that she cared much for style; or if she did, she thought style was one of those grown-up things that children should not worry about. Then again, what do I know about fashion? Maybe my baby clothes were all the rage in Kolkata, maybe I was the envy of every toddler, maybe I was the reason they cried all night long, wailing, “I want to dress like Yash!”

I was most like myself then, when my mother dressed me. In the summer, she picked out pink shorts and yellow T-shirts and set me loose in our apartment complex’s parking lot. I came back in the afternoons, filthy and tired, but happy. In the winters, she gave me sweaters and thick beanies and asked me to stay indoors, where I would not fall sick.

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Then, I ran and cried without a second thought. I repeated the words I heard my sister’s friends say without understanding them at all. I ate bowls and bowls of ice-cream and left the worrying (he’ll get a cold!) to my mother. All those years ago, I was true to my mind; and T. S. Eliot’s famous shadow — the one that is the color of hesitation and imperfection, that stretches between thought and action — did not exist. I was not hollow; I was full of instinct. But, this is before I had trouble deciphering what it meant to be Yash.

II. Blue and White, A Collar:

t-shirt 2

In the fifth grade, a friend had a pool party. Before anyone else was ready, I sprinted from the changing room and jumped straight into the pool, the first to enter and the last to leave. When everyone did cannonballs and belly-flops and whatever else thin children do, I counted the seconds I could hold my breath underwater. Photos from that day, eight years ago, feature only my head, bobbing on the surface.

My mother trained as a nutritionist, so that she could tell people what to eat and how they could lose weight. Growing up, before the world realized brown bread was healthier than white, my mother had replaced all the loaves in our home. She hid the cheese behind the tomatoes and the broccoli and locked the candy in a little storeroom across the hall from her bedroom. There was no soda in our fridge. A valiant effort — and still, I found the cheese, I found the storeroom key, and I solicited change from my friends to buy bottles of Sprite. My pockets sagged with illicit bars of chocolate, and the bananas my mother gave me every morning before school collected in the back of my locker.

In the eighth grade, I was nicknamed “Boobie,” for the way all the cheese had turned to fat around my chest. My wardrobe now consisted of four oversized T-shirts. My mother, still uneasy from her new lack of control over my clothing, shook her head angrily, telling me that I needed to wear other things — what would my teachers think?

Soon, the bright colors of my youth transitioned to bland shades of blue and gray and black — so much black! Black is the most slimming color, I read in a magazine once. My favorite shirt had a collar and was blue with white stripes. For some reason, I was convinced that in this T-shirt, nobody could tell just how big I was. I hunched my shoulders and sucked my tummy in, and never thought about anything other than protecting myself from the accusation that I was fat.

Now, years later, I wish I had done more then; I wish I had cannonballed and belly-flopped and jumped to be in photos with my friends. I wish I did more now, too! But then, hiding is what I thought it meant to be Yash — a slow crawl to the back of the room, the bottom of the pile, beneath layers and layers of big T-shirts and baggy shorts.

III. A Hoodie, GAP:

t-shirt 3

I’m wearing this hoodie right now, as I write. It is one size too big for me and always warm; it is like a big hug from my friends at home; it is like a lazy Sunday afternoon. My hoodie is not particularly special, yet it has become characteristic of my identity. So many small decisions have, unwittingly, become cornerstones to how people perceive me. But, when I stop to ask how I define myself, I have no answers.

* * *

I wish my parents had kept a tally of everything I’ve ever done. How many slices of pizza have I eaten? How many times have I cried? How many colds have I had? I’m not sure if this information would be useful; but, oh, how wonderful it would be to know I’ve cried one hundred and twenty three times! I wish they had kept a tally of all the things I didn’t do, the things I could have done. Maybe there is some hidden definition in these numbers; maybe I can scrape some sense of self, some secret, meaningful logic from a life’s worth of data?

Elizabeth Bishop, a poet close to my heart, has written extensively on identity. Her startling vision distinguishes clearly between artifice and reality; between what the world puts in our mind and what we create. In her poem “In the Waiting Room,” Bishop writes:

“Why should I be my aunt,

or me, or anyone?”

Why should I be Yash? There is no good reason. Bishop sees through the artifice of identity, the empty labels that we mindlessly race to pocket slyly, and, to me at least, says, sorrowfully, that there is little — possibly, nothing — special about us. Maybe we painstakingly build identities around shirts and half-memories. Maybe we believe that those selves are authentic, and maybe that works for some of us! But maybe there is no concrete sense of self to be found, after all. Maybe we’re all the same, and maybe that can be liberating, too.

— Contributing writer Yash Kumbhat’s column, “Portrait of a Time” is a personal essay column that discusses representation of home and identity in art through narratives from a Kolkatan perspective.

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