Prince Charles’ opted for red to match his face when caught buying one for his lady love; Britney Spears was all set to auction off a jewel encrusted one then thought better of it; Kylie Minogue parted with a black and pink one for $13,860 and then Shakira followed suit when the hammer fell at $3,000 for her bead and sequined affair designed by Roberto Cavalli. The bra: An intimate item of ladies apparel which is not usually mentioned in polite conversation but is definitely gossiped about in the ladies loo.
“She certainly didn’t have those before she went ‘on holiday’ you know,” says one society dame to the next. “Implants I expect. From fried eggs to Dolly Parton in a mere month. They can’t be real.” Aah but, according to an ancient Pakistani matriarch, they can! “What on earth are you doing?” demanded my hostess, an elderly Pashtun lady who rules her immediate clan with an iron fist, as I shyly struggled to change into my nightclothes before crawling onto the proffered rope bed which, honour being what it is, she would share with me to ensure I remained unharmed. “Getting changed,” I explained from within the protective folds of the full length caftan I was fighting with.
“Why?” she asked in puzzlement. “You’re only going to sleep.” Try explaining the concept of nightclothes to a lady inhabitant of a far flung, distinctly tribal mountain hamlet who has never travelled outside her home valley, never seen a television or been exposed to the modern world in any form. I had arrived, completely exhausted after a 10-hour drive north from Murree followed by a one-hour stumble up a very dark, thickly forested mountainside where jackals snapped at my ankles and bears lumbered through the undergrowth, at the vaguely discernible, ancestral haveli of friends to be met by this wrinkled matriarch.
Her hair in a thousand tiny plaits, which she washes with kerosene once a year to keep the bugs at bay, she brandished a blazing branch of resin-loaded pine for light, looming before me like an anthropological specimen before hauling me inside and barring the fortress door against things that go bump in the night.
Now, as the 20 or so women of the family hustled for space in the windowless, mud floored ‘guest room’ examining the electric candle (torch) I tried vainly to hold on to, fingering the fabric of my clothes and gleefully testing them for size, my hostess suddenly pounced. “What is this?” she wanted to know, holding her prize at arm’s length and swinging it around the suffocating room, its progress watched in quizzical fascination by an array of glittering eyes.
“A bra,” I answered trying to take it back before it spun off into the firelight gloom.“What’s it for?” chorused a variety of voices who had all just watched me struggle to take it off within the tented cover of my enveloping purple caftan. “Well”…. I paused for thought….. “It’s for holding your breasts in place.” “Why?” they chimed in honest query. “So that….ummm…..err……umm….well….they don’t bounce around when you’re walking,” was the best I could manage as the matriarch stared at me in complete disbelief before pointing out that hers most certainly didn’t do that and she didn’t wear one of these things.
Rolling around the floor in hysterical laughter, the women passed the item under inspection from hand to hand, checking the adjustable straps, the fasteners, the oyster satin and lace cups and cracking jokes about the underwires which gave it its shape until, with incredibly fast, startlingly deft movements the matriarch swung my caftan up and over my head, checked me over with her work-worn hands, covered me up, ripped open the fastening down the front of her kameez, held her matched pair of overripe watermelons out for inspection and said “See. Mine are much bigger than yours but I don’t wear one of those!”
The room erupted as she then tried to stuff herself in to the too small bra, two of her granddaughters struggling to squeeze her appurtenances into its delicate cups as if they were kneading dough for chapatis, until she surrendered, realising that this just wasn’t going to work. “You put it on,” she instructed a much smaller niece who happily obliged, transforming her figure in the process. From appearing almost flat chested she suddenly developed a bust, even a cleavage but, luckily for me, her kameez was then too tight to fasten so the bra was, eventually, handed back but not before using it as a catapult had been suggested.
Not to be thwarted, the matriarch examined herself very closely, frowning in concentration as her incredible sharp mind ticked off various possibilities. “Mmmm,” she finally said, expelling pent up air as the explanation struck her. “I have fed 14 children with these and they never let me down but, if I had one of those things, it would have to be so big and so strong that they would stick out to here,” she held her hands out as far as they would go. Women cried. Women laughed. Women choked.
Women giggled endlessly and painfully, hands clutching their stomachs as the matriarch pantomimed a wickedly stumbling progress. We were all completely lost in the special kind of hilarity reserved for women who are all safe and secure in being women and being together “What are these?” piped up an impish little girl of about nine years once we had eventually wiped the tears of laughter from our eyes and calmed down. I turned to see what she had dug out of my now totally ransacked bag and realised, in a wave of sheer horror and with more than a touch of trepidation, that she was waving a pair of knickers around the room.