A chance remark by a younger friend who’d dropped in unannounced and caught me in my nighty - “Why must you always wear a nighty? Why don’t you wear something else at home?”
The question stuck and led to a random Google search with ‘nighty and housewives in India’ and I literally fell off the chair.
‘Nighty sex Indian wife’...
‘Tantric sexy Indian wife in Red Nighty’...
‘Indian sleeping nighty desi housewife’… you get the drift.
Closing the search window I tried to fathom which part of this single-piece-full-body-coverage-garment could be categorised as sexy and then I gave it up. I realised that the nighty might be a regular feature in Indian porn but to me and countless other woman across our country, it signifies comfort and liberation. Neither flattering in shape nor fashionable it’s simply a good, comfortable, airy garment that I can both work and sleep in.
It was the early 1980’s, when the nighty made a foray into Kolkata.
We called it a maxi in those days and it was a coveted item sharing the spotlight with the midi-skirt, bell bottoms, bobby prints and jeans we all aspired to own. In my strict Catholic convent school the uniform was a thick white cambric A-line dress which had to fall exactly two inches above our knees (we’d be subjected to a wooden ruler check during assemblies). My equally strict conservative parents shunted me off to do my plus two in a school where the uniform was a saree. So, like thousands of girls in those days, I basically graduated from wearing a frock straight to wearing a saree, that too at the age of 15. There wasn’t any in-between and the transition was sealed next year onwards when Durga Puja gifts became sarees. So at home, I wore the last of my beloved worn-out frocks but had to step out of the house in a saree. It was very frustrating. But all pleas of allowing me to wear jeans, salwar-kurtas or skirts fell on deaf ears. I was 19 when I visited Delhi with my parents and on the streets of Janpath I chanced upon a printed cotton nighty selling for the princely sum of Rs.10/. It was a minor victory for me to have found it, for here was a garment which was very cheap and most importantly, so decent even my parents couldn’t say no to it. It was a brave escape from the confines of wearing a saree at home towards which my Mom had been pushing me.
And so, my tryst with the nighty began. We called it a maxi in those days (yes, because it resembled all the maxi dresses young girls wear nowadays). It was cheaper than a saree and as stimulating as a pair of forbidden jeans. It offered liberation and a sense of modernity. This was a single garment which exposed nothing neck downwards and adhered to the all-pervading rule that young girls have to be decently covered at all times.
Gradually, the nighty movement gathered momentum all around me. I’d visit female relatives and see them bedecked in flowery patterned nighties. Piping, ric-rac, lace, bows, ruffles, smocking, embroidery around the neck and the sleeves, every possible embellishment appeared in this straight stitched garment which only required three cut-out holes – one for the head and two for the arms.
Middle class urban women embraced the nighty enthusiastically and I was one of them. I remember visiting a Keralite friend’s home in 1982 and marvelling at the nighties her Gulf-returned uncle had got for her. In her home, she told me, all the women wear nighties. I came back and told my mother who simply cluck-clucked and told me in no uncertain terms, “Hindusthani ra porte pare, kintu Bangali meyera sari pore, setai bhadra. Oi alkhalla porar darker nei”. (Hindustani girls can wear such stuff but a Bengali girl looks the most decent in a saree, there is no need to wear that excessively loose garment). On a side note, in those days, Bengalis referred to anyone not from their ilk as ‘Hindustani’, which looking back is hilarious as we’re all from Hindustan.
I have been wearing this garment for over three decades. And to me the maxi dresses sold nowadays on-line are just more elaborate, expensive nighties. My own go-to place for nighties in Delhi are a couple of shops in Lajpat Nagar. The best stuff, of course, is from Kolkata, where the cotton is thinner and finer. There is a guy in Hatibagan market in North Kolkata, who thoughtfully keeps ‘Tun Tun nighty’ and ‘Bachchan nighty’ ergo nighties for the extra-large and extra tall women. For those who don’t know, Tun Tun was a famous plus size comedic actress in the 1970’s. The nighty for me is basically a full length frock, without the stigma of exposing any leg. In the hot humid nine months of summers in India, what could be better? With a petticoat underneath working as a slip, the better to conceal the shape of hip or leg, Indian women both urban and rural gradually have made the nighty outer wear. And no one can reproach them for it, unlike wearing trousers or T-shirts! They wear it with the blasé attitude of a swimming costume.
We nighty wearers changed from our outer wear into this loose garment which bears the DNA of a chemise. The gathers on the chest area are forgiving enough to go bra-less. Eastern India’s checkered gamchha is interchangeable with the dupatta of North and South Indian women who stand in queues at the roadside water taps, shop in the local markets, haggle with the fish-monger and no one looks at them twice. Mohalla aunties clad in their nighties jostle around the cart of the vegetable seller, tokries in hand, scanning with x-ray vision the freshest veggies, placing them in the tokri, berating the high prices while simultaneously exchanging gossip with the padosan, a deft flick of the hand keeping the chiffon dupatta covering her ample bosom in place and thus propriety is maintained. The nighty might be unsightly because it is completely shapeless and often features hideous prints, but its very ugliness has freed us. It frees us from the cumbersome saree, and the two-piece jhamela of a salwar-kurta (which needs the third piece of the dupatta to be decent by societal standards). Indian wear lacked such an acceptable shift-like garment, so it makes sense that with our ever evolving intuition for jugaad, Indian women have judged the nighty with their eagle-eyed scanner for its decency, and deemed it to be the next best thing. We nighty wearers quickly drape a dupatta and thus completely decent go on to interact with the male plumber or electrician or any stanger who may ring our doorbell. For us Bongs in particular, the nighty is a staple attire. Let Moushumi Chatterjee tease her brother-in-law Amitabh Bachchan in the movie Piku, about his female relatives who wear slinky, sleeveless nighties without a bra but the truth of the matter is, there is no other garment as comfortable or as convenient as the nighty. The 2014 Bengali movie, Obhishopto Nighty (Cursed Nighty) which has a slightly ridiculous plot involving a cursed nighty highlights the hallowed place the nighty holds in the Bengali’s cultural imagination.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you that the nighty is here to stay. Sleepwear has become the new streetwear. No matter if it leads to raised eyebrows or shrieks of horror from some quarters, the sheer convenience and economics of the garment makes it the choice of women across India. God bless the nighty, and god bless the jugaadu Indian woman.
Illustrations by Aakansha Pushp
About the author:
Sumita is a fifty-plus academician who's worked in schools for 24 years but has given it up to pursue her passion of travelling and writing. She has always been called the 'cool Ma'am' and now the "cool Aunty". (She hopes it's true).