Half-saree was still the official dress for most teenagers in Madras in the early 70s. (Pic courtesy:Kenny Wordsmith.)
Girls from liberal families wore western clothing. Salwar-kameezes were still not very popular. Mass produced salwar sets hadn’t begun flooding the market and local tailors lacked the skill to stitch them. Plump heroines in Tamil films sported tight versions of this 'north Indian' dress in duet songs which emphasized their fake breasts and fat thighs so much that they were definitely not a favorite with middle-class parents. I am pretty positive that I could have persuaded my conservative parents to let me wear a loose kurta over jeans rather than one of those salwar suits.

When I was growing up, middle class parents had just one rule by which they decided what their girls could wear. Anything that did not show off their shape in a flattering light was acceptable. I am reminded of my friend Anuradha who was an irrepressible rebel. When we were about 14, she wanted to wear tee shirts over her trousers which set off a volcano in her house. After losing the fight she told us “My mother thinks it is my fault I have breasts”. We laughed but soon I began to notice a similar subtext in the statements that my grandmother or mother made about how a woman is supposed to carry herself or walk. ‘Don’t push your chest outside. walk modestly’. When we were in class 7 and 8, the class teacher would have a talk with some of the girls and a few days later they would come wearing half-sarees. This went on till we reached class 9 when half-saree was compulsory for everyone. We experienced freedom only on the games field where we were allowed to wear divided skirts and a loose shirt. Otherwise we hid the contours of our frame behind 3 metres of cloth which covered us over the long skirt and long blouse.

When I was about 18 an older friend asked me if I had ever seen myself in the mirror without clothes and I was shocked that she could talk like that. Of course I had not. And I was not sure I could even do it because there was a kind of shame and fear associated with one’s body . It was safer behind those layers of clothing. But in college there were many times that I wished I could wear western clothing and ‘belong’ to the hep crowd. Many of us wished we were flatter so we could venture beyond the half-sari and wear smart western clothing. Like Anuradha said it seemed that it was our fault that we had breasts.

Looking back I can laugh at these memories. There was a time when I would have cringed to use the word ‘breast’ in public and here I am writing about it in a public blog. Our perception of our body and exposure norms have changed a lot in these 3 decades. Today people have no hesitation about flaunting their cleavages or wearing tight clothing to show off their shape and size. Breast implants and enhancement procedures have become as common as laser treatment for excess hair. I laugh thinking of the time when we would have been happy to delay the growth of mammaries just to be free from the restrictions that society around us imposed on us.
The dhavani or half-saree symbolized our suppression or lack of pride in our forms.
I didn't realize that there would come a time when I'd actually be grateful for the concept of a half-saree.

On friday, there was a documentary on national geographic channel on body modifications in different cultures and times . They showed the neck rings used by the Kayan tribe of Tibeto_burmese origin now living in Thailand.
and the footbinding custom that was prevalent in China for a long time.
While the former is largely voluntary and footbinding is not prevalent anymore, I was shocked to learn hear about a practice called breast-ironing practised in western Africa.
Breast ironing is exactly what it says - the flattening of a young girls’ breasts with a hot and heavy wooden rod or stone to push the breast muscles back in order to delay their development. YOu can see in the picture some of the tools used in the process and they are usually heated before applying on the breast
But why this brutality? Mothers subject their daughters to this barbarity in order to delay breast growth in their daughters in order to prevent rape and early marriage. Even when they feel their pain, they think it is for their own good in the long run.

"Before this breast band, my mother used the grinding stone—heated in the fire—to massage my chest. Every night my mother examines my chest (and) massages me, sometimes with the pestle," Matia adds. "Although I cry hard because of the pain, she tells me: 'Endure, my daughter; you are young and there is no point in having breasts at your age'."
Josaine Matia, 11 years old
Yaounde, Cameroon

This is precisely what I saw in the visual in the documentary and the victim didn’t even look like she was 11.
Read on more here:

The study also gives the following facts:
Some 24 per cent of girls in Cameroon, about one girl in four, undergo breast ironing.
Breast ironing occurs extensively in the 10 provinces throughout Cameroon.sample survey published in January 2006 of 5000 girls and women aged between 10 and 82 in Cameroon, estimates that 4 million women had suffered the process.
Today, 3.8 million teenagers are threatened with the practice.
Up to 53 per cent of women and girls interviewed in the coastal Littoral province in the southeast, where the country's main port, Douala, is situated, admit to having had their breasts 'ironed'.
More than half (58 per cent) of cases breast ironing were undertaken by mothers. Other relatives also participate

The documentary was traumatic. It brought back memories of my own childhood and the difficulty in coming to terms with the changes in one’s own body made more difficult by the society’s ideas about a woman’s body at that time - that the more attractive it is, the more vulnerable it made its owner to predatory males. Men could not be trusted to obey rules so it was the woman’s responsibility not to attract their attention.
The ideas themselves were not very different from those of the Cameroon mothers. And I am grateful that in my culture they came up with the half-saree as the solution even though a wooden pestle was readily available in my ancestor’s backyard too.

Here's a video on the subject:
(Thanks Praveen.)
It was around 8:30 a.m yesterday. I was making the second cup of tea of the day for me. This tea needs be absolutely perfect for my day to go well. You see the first cup is like a quick fix after 14 hours of caffeine withdrawal and it is required to get the brain cells started in the morning. I gulp it down while multitasking – getting things ready for breakfast, boiling milk, cutting fruit or glancing through the newspaper headlines. But the second one – this follows breakfast when the morning chores are complete and I have the house entirely to myself having seen people off to work.. Now no compromises on this one. The colour has to be the right shade of brown – a little darker than ochre and a shade lighter than russet to be precise - with the right amount of sugar to set off the bitterness of the tea and enhance its taste and the temperature has to be perfect . Total ZEN. Ask me for anything after this and it is yours.

So it is important that I stay focused while making it because even a few seconds this way or that way can spoil it all and ruin my day. Now my architect was thoughtful enough to place a couple of windows in my kitchen in strategic angles so I can get a view of what goes on in the street while I am in the kitchen. So I was making tea and looking through the one that gives me a clear view of the crossroad junction at the beginning of my road and presently a young girl came in view – jeans, a short red kurta and red stole. About 19 or 20, definitely in college or just out of college. I saw her glance in all directions as she approached the junction and I thought she was looking for an auto to hire. The road was quite empty at this time on a Sunday morning. And she turned toward the pavement. Now I am familiar with men doing it all the time in preparation of using the road as a public toilet but this was a girl, a well-dressed young one and I decided that this can’t be her intention. I kept watching as she took out a plastic carry-bag from her purse, pulled out a coconut and broke it on a stone on the road. I have no clue what this was about as I have only seen people break coconuts outside temples. May be some kind of superstition – a way to get rid of evil spirits. No problem. Coconuts are bio-degradable. A cow might even eat it for breakfast. So I had no issues with that.

But what she did next, that was unpardonable. No less than all those crass men urinating on the roads. She started crossing the road pretending that someone else had broken the coconut there and casually tossed the plastic bag on to the middle of the road . Now this really got my goat. An 'educated young girl' throwing a 'plastic' bag in the 'middle' of the 'road'. Too many unforgivables. And the nonchalance with which she did it suggested that she was n’t even aware of what she was doing. As if that was just the way one is supposed to dispose bags after their utility is over!
I wanted to catch her by her red stole and drag her back and make her pick it up. But unfortunately, by the time I turned off the stove and managed to reach my gate she had gone past two houses. I clapped my hands and shouted ‘hellooooooooo’ but she did not hear it or ignored me leaving me to seethe over my second cup which was ruined in any case.

I do not know if I might have been less angry if she had at least shown some signs of guilt while throwing the bag in that manner or tried to do it stealthily like the way she looked around while breaking the coconut. No, she tossed it confidently as if she was flicking off a leaf from her kurta and walked on. This apathy is more dangerous. And this apathy from a younger, educated person is even more disgusting.. When I take a walk in our neighborhood park, sometimes I see small kids throwing biscuit wrappers around. They don’t know better, so I tell them to use the garbage basket. Usually they are brought there by young girl-maids who take care of them and they don’t know better either due to their lack of education. But at least they comply when you tell them a couple of times. But what do you do with people who know that they are not supposed to do it and still do it because they could not care less or there is no real penalty for doing it. Perhaps it is a good idea to have fines for littering the way countries like Singapore have. You try to reason with our ‘educated’ people and tell them why it is important to preserve our environment they don’t care. They always want someone else to do it all before they can do their bit. But tell them that there is a fine and they will fall in line. But then again enforcement of any rule or law is always a problem in this country.

Is it something new or is it part of our psyche – a part of being Indian? Was this the reason why our ancestors invented punishments by Gods when you violated rules and codes of conduct?
‘You are to keep your surroundings clean – otherwise the Goddess of wealth would be annoyed and decide against living in your house.’
‘You are not to waste food because it is an insult to Goddess Lakshmi who would curse you to a life of hunger.’
I thought that all this was to instill a sense of discipline among people who lacked the privilege of education and the ability to reason. But education doesn’t really seem to make a difference especially when people are so selfish and apathetic and cannot see beyond the tip of their noses. We need culture-specific solutions to these global problems. Tell an average Indian that it is bad for your environment. he can't understand why it concerns him/her. But tell him that it is bad for his family and fortunes, he will sit up and act."Only a threat to them and theirs and their material well-being will work with these people to shake them to do something for common good.

I am sure that is the thing that a crossroads-coconut-breaker would relate to. Had someone told her that there is a ’dosham’ for using plastic or throwing it on the street, she might have be terrified about throwing it. I have always lobbied for getting rid of superstitions but if that is the language people understand I am all for inventing and popularising a few of them – some dosham for indiscriminate use of plastic and bad karma for littering and for spitting which would follow you up to seven births or some such thing. I am sure the message will hit home. We just need to get a few swamijis to collaborate and we can have a clean country in no time.
We have so many of them already – a couple more can’t hurt especially if they help to save this planet. We seem to have so many rituals for pleasing other planets which are supposed to control our lives while forgetting the only planet that matters, this mother earth which is our home.