Sarla had only ever worn hand-me-downs – ill-fitted, faded and even ones with rips that had been carefully stitched up by her mother. Her mother had an old sewing machine, their source of livelihood. She would sew all night by the oil lantern – petticoats, blouses, little dresses. Sarla often begged to try the new dresses on. “I will be careful, I promise. They will never know I tried them on.”
“They won’t, but we will”, her mother would always say. “They trust me with their beautiful fabrics. It’s not ours to try on.”
But the thought of wearing a new dress kept haunting her. She would stand outside shop windows and gaze at the beautiful dresses for hours. The one with the polka dots was her favourite. The other one, with lace round the neck, was pretty too (and looked very expensive). She skipped lunch most days, trying to save money for a new dress. But given they never had any breakfast, she would be too hungry by midday and give in to buying a puffed rice mixture from the roadside vendor.
After school, she would run small errands for a lady in the neighborhood - give her a head massage, paint her nails or run to the grocer’s to buy her essentials. In return, the kind lady would give her a biscuit with tea…and sometimes even let her paint her own nails with expensive nail polish. If there was anything she loved as much as the thought of a new dress, it was painting her nails.
One afternoon, when she got to the lady’s house, she found her swooning over a set of new curtains that had just been delivered. “Quick Sarla, put these up. I can’t wait to see how they look!”, said the lady. The new curtains were a bright red fabric, possibly some sort of faux silk. They filtered the afternoon sun and cast a beautiful red glow in the room. And while the lady beamed with pride and run her fingers over the smooth fabric, Sarla had her eyes fixed on the old set of curtains she had just taken off. The afternoon sun had faded their colour, but the polka dots on them was unmistakable.
“Sarla, my dear, would you please fold the old curtains and keep them away in that corner cupboard? I’ll put them up every time the new ones go for dry cleaning.” So Sarla did as she was told. Except, she didn’t keep all of them away. She brought one home.
She told her mother that the lady let her have one of her old curtains as a reward for mounting the new ones. Sarla had learnt to lie. She stayed up all night watching her mother sew a dress out of the curtain fabric. And when her mother found a small piece of lace that was left over from a previous job, Sarla knew straight away that she wanted it round the neck, just like the one in the shop window.
Sarla now had her dream dress. But she could never step outside wearing it. So every day, after her bath, she would wear it at home, admire herself in the mirror and then carefully fold the dress away. And every time she did this, she let out a silent prayer – for the new curtains to never get dirty.