I love Pongal. This festival, celebrating the harvest as winter withdraws, is one of my earliest (and most beautiful) memories as a child growing up in Madras. We would all wake up really early—I would be scrubbed, buttoned into my white cotton Bengali kurta, and sent off to visit my friend’s home. The girls I went to school with, and was used to seeing only in the sameness of uniforms, would magically transform this day, resplendent in their pattu pavadai (a fitted blouse and a full skirt, both cut from jewel-toned silk with borders of woven gold). As the sun rose, it set ablaze the colours in their skirts and they would twirl to show it off. If you closed your eyes, the sound was like that of a thousand birds of paradise beating their wings, right before they all took flight.
I was in love with the pattu pavadai and wanted one to call my own. I was also six—young enough that I still believed what we wore (like what we ate) was just a matter of choice. Over the next decade, I was told, “No.” Repeatedly. Humiliatingly. Ominously. As an unmanly, fashion-obsessed boy I learned that there were rules on who wore what and if you broke them, there were consequences. Thirty years later I would relearn these rules when I found myself halfway across the world in Seoul. The city is a gorgeous paradox, in which 14th-century temples fight glass skyscrapers for space. And bang in the middle of this madness lies the glittering Gyeongbokgung Palace, like a gemstone embedded in concrete. Visitors to the palace are encouraged to wear the traditional Korean ceremonial dress, the hanbok, and as a gesture of gratitude the palace entrance fees are entirely waived off for both locals and tourists wearing it.
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