The Inaugural Dress

by Samia Altaf

Last night I dreamed I was on my way to the tailor’s in the H-Block market to pick up the outfit that Mrs. Obama was to wear at President Obama’s second inauguration. The State Department official who was to transport it in the diplomatic pouch was on the tarmac waiting in the military plane with its engines revving. Everything was set.

But real life is unpredictable and the best laid plans of mice and men, and women too, can get derailed. As I skirted the roundabout to go north, traffic stalled in the circle of Lalikjan Chowk. A crowd of bearded and turbaned men, their trouser-ends hoisted above the ankles, was milling around, waving their arms and shouting, their teeth gleaming white through their black beards. Some energetic ones, skinny and intense, also with black floating beards, were rerouting the traffic advising the cars to turn back. That I could not afford to do. This was a mission-critical errand—the first lady was to wear the outfit in the morning and it was already night in Washington, D.C. All I had was the ten-hour time difference in Lahore.

I figured it was a religious demonstration, one faction of Muslims upset at another’s manner of dressing or eating or laughing or standing. Then I saw saw women and children holding placards protesting power failures and the increased cost of the whatever little electric supply that came their way for couple of hours in the day. Keep your focus I told myself, circling around, zigzagging through the utility shops on the left of the roundabout, past the back wall of the S-Block graveyard, navigating the Z-Block bylanes across from the padlocked library, lurching over the empty lot behind the big mosque to finally arrive at the complex housing the tailoring shop.

Safely parked, I walked down to the basement to the tailor’s shop, only to find the whole place in semi-darkness with no sign of activity except in an adjacent shop repairing cell phones. A half dozen young men were there with phones in hands or to their ears. A noisy generator, its wires trailing over the floor, was roaring outside the door, fouling up the air with diesel fumes. The juice corner, the burger joint, the little hole that peddled artificial jewelry and glass bangles, and the tailor’s—my heart dropped—were all dark and quiet. The shopkeepers were sitting outside looking right and left, smoking nonchalantly, following each passing woman with their eyes, swiveling their heads in a semicircle till she disappeared round the corner from the bangle shop. A couple of young men, sitting on the matting on the corridor floor, were playing cards improvised with flattened cigarette boxes.

I enter the tailor’s shop; there is no sign of him in the gloomy little room. On calling, he emerges from the far side of the work table where he has been lying on the floor. Where is Mrs. Obama’s outfit? He nods his head from side to side, unimpressed. He has not been well, he says. He has had a fever and a cough for the past three days, his body hurts to the bones and he could not do a thing. He blows his nose into a dirty rag. On top of it all, don’t you see? He points with his chin—there is no electricity. How can he run the sewing machine? He begins to tell me about the general’s wife’s outfit that had to be returned without the required alterations. O forget about the general for once, I say, where is Mrs. Obama’s dress? Sniffling audibly, he dives down to the floor and comes up with the white muslin bag containing the fabric, all the cut pieces lined up as I had given him to sew. The fabric is cut up in progressively larger strips, staring from the smallest of an inch and a half to the largest of eight inches for the back. Except for the two front panels of the dress, all cut on the bias, mind you, for that was the trick, one that would give it the required gentle flare and the fit of the bodice. I had cut at a bias exactly the way Baiji, my grandmother, had taught me. She had made me practice this kind of cut again and again and taught me to sew it so both seams “sat well” against each other without pulling. It was after I had mastered this art a lot faster than she had anticipated that she told my mother I should become a surgeon since I was exceptionally adept at cutting and sewing. That would also enable me to take care of myself and not be a burden on the family since I was not “fair” enough to find a husband.

I had lined up each strip and pinned them together, meticulously aligning each square against the other, a feat of geometrical precision. He pushed the muslin bag toward me. What do you mean? Do you not realize the critical nature of this task? He shrugged his shoulders arranging his glasses, bound by a dirty string, on his nose. He looked at me rheumy-eyed and coughed in my face. Do you have fever now? Again? Just last week this business of your being sick was going on and you told me you were taking medicine for it. I felt his wrist—it was warmer than normal and dry too. I found the pulse and counted to 130 per minute.

Here, take this. I started to give him two paracetamol tablets and some lozenges. He shook his head—this medicine does not work for him, he said. He will return to the neighborhood doctor who had given him an injection and two yellow pills last night that had made him feel better. Those work. Not from the look of things, I say. He wants five hundred rupees to pay his doctor.

I take the bag with the fabric and rush to the airport. There seems nothing else to do. Maybe Thom Browne can get his workers to put it together. I reach the airport, pushing past security that chases me hanging on to their walkie-talkies while I jump over hurdles to reach the plane on the tarmac. I reach up to the airplane window to hand over the muslin bag but my hands are empty—there is no bag. I have lost it and I start to cry. The pilot leans out of the window, offers me a white silk handkerchief, and whispers:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

The plane roars off to the West. Next morning, like millions of others in the world, I watch Mrs. Obama walking down Pennsylvania Avenue resplendent in the very same dress, with the very same panels, all squares aligned, mostly on the bias, the center ones straight, stitched to perfection.