The short story “Clothes” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is about a young Indian woman, Sumita, and her cultural transition to America that is symbolized by her clothes and the color of her clothes. The traditional Indian attire for a woman is a sari and each one has its own purpose. Her clothes also indicate her progression from daughter, to wife, to woman, which is why this story embodies Mordecai Marcus’ description of an initiation story. The story starts off with the bride to be in a yellow sari preparing to meet her future husband by bathing in a lake.
As the story progresses, Sumita wears additional saris, each holding a significance (due to color) pertaining to what stage of life she is considered to be in. She wears one for her bride-viewing ceremony, one for the marriage, and one for the plane ride over. In wearing each, she reveals not only her faith toward her heritage but also her obedience to her family and her society. She does not speak of the marriage before it occurs with her childhood friends for fear of sounding vain or too excited to move to America. Once in America we see that Sumita is now starting to transition from wife to woman.
Her husband buys her American clothes and she proudly tries them on and shows them of in the mirror for him. She becomes more comfortable and confidant as a woman, admiring her body that has been, up until this point, always covered up. She finds joy in being a woman and moves past the idea that she is a lowly housewife with obligations and duties to perform. Her husband’s optimism and entrepreneurism ignites her ambition to hold a job at the 7-11 and become something more and widen her possibilities as a westernized woman.
She, at times, feels ashamed for becoming westernized, knowing that if she was home, she “never would have felt this way”. By “this way” she refers to herself desiring a new apartment, American clothes, traveling, and seizing the opportunities she’s surrounded by. She views America in awe and grows to accept the western culture as her own, weaving it into her beliefs. Her husband Somesh told her he wants her to go to school and be a teacher, always exposing her to and reminding her of her abilities. Because of all this, she enters a battle between forging ahead and remaining steadfast with tradition.
The tragic death of her husband reveals her resolution. While she took part in the traditional funeral practices of the Hindu religion, she remains behind to look at her husband’s body. She is not wearing the white sari, to symbolize her mourning and widowed state. She is faced with a decision: to stay in America or to go back to India with her in-laws. Prior to her marriage and relocation to California, Sumita would have remained with her family since she is like their daughter. She would have remained loyal to her in-laws for the rest of her life. This thought unnerves her. She thinks of her husband and Great America. That’s when I know I cannot go back. I don’t know yet how I’ll manage, here in this new, dangerous land. I only know I must. Because all over India, at this very moment, widows in white saris are bowing their veiled heads, serving tea to in-laws. Doves with cut-off wings. ” The story ends with her confronting the in-laws in American clothing with her decision to remain in California. Though her future is surrounded by uncertainty, she has become transformed throughout the course of this story due to the influences of western culture, her husband, and her own self evaluations.
Marcus deems this sort of initiation story as an uncompleted one as it “takes the protagonist across a threshold of maturity and understanding but leaves them enmeshed in a struggle for certainty”. Sumita knows cannot go back. She will not return to India. She chose to stay in America, knowing she would be alone, but also accepting it was the best decision for her to make. Sumita grows in experience and maturity throughout the course of the story and is forever changed by it. She trades her sari for a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. She refuses to be a dove with cut-off wings.