I met my grandmother, who lives in Dubai, after a year this week. Perhaps it was a happy coincidence that it was on Mother’s Day. Seeing her pull out trendy kaftan blouses from her suitcase for my mum and aunts made me realise how fashion savvy, at 87, she still is. And also how my style choices have been shaped by her.
For most people in fashion, their mothers and grandmothers are their first fashion icons. I doubt Sonam Kapoor would dress so glamorously if she wasn’t inspired by her mother Sunita and her collection of exquisite vintage jewels. Sabyasachi Mukherjee has said he wanted to be a designer when he saw his mother dress up.
Dior’s Kalyani Chawla’s passion for make-up came from her grandmother’s kitchen remedies.
My grandmother has never worn anything other than a sari. I last wore a sari almost two years ago. But her idea of a good life is my favourite bequest.
For one — she is the world’s greatest shopper. As a child, shopping was an activity we did everyday. If we had to buy so much as a needle, the car and driver would be summoned from the office pronto. In a few minutes, she would puff on a deliciously fragrant Elizabeth Arden face powder — a pretty box of loose powder, not the compact like we use today. Her favourite Estee Lauder perfume followed, the whole room would be filled with beautiful smells. Then came a swipe of “meh-roon” lipstick. And soon enough all the ladies of the house — ready or not — were packed into a car to buy that one item.
Of course, we never returned with just what we went out for. Everyone had bags full of paraphernalia. Her husband, my grandfather, would lovingly complain: “She uses a 500-rupee note like it’s a 100-rupee note”.
My grandmother’s dressing table was the stuff of legend, it still sits in her Mumbai home. It is four-feet long with three full-length peripatetic mirrors. When she used it, it was filled with perfumes, talcum powder of every hue, creams, lotions, potions and make-up. When I was in college, my friends would tease me saying if I stole everything from her dresser and eloped, I could live comfortably for a year by selling the goodies. It was probably true, she was utterly indulgent.
Among my most special possessions is a watch her husband bought her on their first trip to Switzerland. It was an Omega, that worked on the wearer’s pulse. So if you removed it, its time would stand still. She was young, I don’t think she had had all her children then, so imagine the watch’s vintage.
Everything she owned, including the bobby pins she made her bun with, came from abroad. Even her saris were French chiffons or precious georgettes sourced from emporia in London or Dubai. Running a tip-top home, loving her kids and dressing well were a woman’s duties. ‘Buy less but buy the best’ was her finest advice.
Of course there were years when her husband’s business struggled. This is when she was at her snobbiest. When her kitty friends showed off new acquisitions, she would write them off as arrivistes. She made old money and discreet luxury her weapons. No one could remove her off her throne.
In spite of her riches, the most important lesson she taught me was that money can buy you a good life, but real class comes from how you choose to live it.