Book Review – Costumes of the Living

Author: Gaurav Monga 

Reviewer: Aakriti Kuntal

“Costumes of the living as compared to Costumes of the dead?” one amuses oneself with irrelevant whimsy as one picks this book that is more fabric than paper, more thread than grammar.

‘Costumes of the living’ but one is not certain whether in this world the costumes adorn the living or the living adorn the wonderful, floating mannequins of cloth—costumes, for the writer sees in them an unimaginable preoccupation for his soul; the thread work, the hidden conspiracy of the needles that set the costumes in motion—their seamless possibilities. Unlike the human form, the costumes can flare out as a fan of thoughts, come together in pleats as sentences of desires, take the identities of pains and pleasures—the erosion and coalescence of being sewn into wavering frills.

What is Monga doing in a world of clothes when an entire world exists?

Have the clothes kidnapped him or has he simply carved a new language for himself? It’s not necessary that one is escaping something to build such a portal for being. One could simply be smitten by the idea of being consumed—wholly.


In the writer’s realm of strewn cloth, perhaps, the only sound is the teetering sewing machine—thoughts leaking from the head—observations of life, inner realities, lost moments in time, relationships entangled with the cords of one’s inner being.


Monga writes: “Because he had lost his father so young, he spent many of his growing-up years lonely, staring at his naked body in front of a mirror…….It was that early impulse that impelled him to cut—when he was dirt poor—his stiff white collars out of chart paper. He also made sure that he remained excessively thin and sometimes even starved himself ” 

One is caught off-guard by the language (in a good way) whilst also left pale inside a series of surreal images—the disentanglement of the being in the naked shock of the mirror. Is the boy, in his nakedness, the body being the most visceral chord to his dead father, recreating with his own glistening image the memory of his father? Keeping it alive, stitching it into clothes and patterns…

What does one do with grief? One takes the very bone of sorrow and mends it into everything. One runs as far as possible from the pain and yet inches closer to it, a catapult in motion.

The boy also perhaps starved himself since vowed to this thick straw of pain he refused to bring any joy to his body or life, in a way telling his lost father, no showing him, the wide grievances of his being.

We find seemingly personal monologues recurring, vines and bracket views of the writer’s real or fictional relationships with his family, his sister, the English teacher, and the other women in his life.

The metaphors used are not obvious; they aren’t bright, embroidered ornate pearls stolen from language’s shiny heel but rather seamlessly interwoven into the fabric of the language such that metaphor and body, thought and projection, idea and truth barely stand apart. Is this a tangible, borrowed figment from Monga’s life, a deep, inner process of being revealed or characters constructed on a whim—now appearing as flitting apparitions?

In other pockets of the book, we find ourselves immersed in the oddities of life. ” City fashion has even taken villages by storm, so much so that farmers have started wearing their suits into the fields”.


One is struck by a dismal reality. Have the ways of the cities, their predatory demands swallowed the villages too? Incongruent mechanics of life, gender differences, and the fallacies in governments and religions—all precipitate along the fixtures of words.

The pages read as a slowly curling cloth of whimsical delights, pleats—sensual, tickling the mind, the pleasure of language hitting the notes of being and in them, compounded all terrestrial and extraterrestrial meanings. There is no tension, no sweat; instead, it has been assumed that their nature is quite clear, the meanings mostly decipherable and even if not the purpose is for them to exist in themselves, lines swiveling in their bodies with curved bald heads.

We observe no skid marks; whatever parallel meanings are knit, all occur as simply as trees down a path. The writer maintains that all has merged into one continuous floating yarn. In the book’s language, absurdity is greeted as simply as normalcy.

“Would not all of that excessive fabric lie about in the surface of the earth uselessly and bother us if we were to think about those unworn caps?”

The fragment speaks of the losses that new technological trends bring in their wake but when the writer throws us into this notion of a pile of unworn caps, one finds oneself strangely perturbed, almost disturbed, consumed even— as if an itch had risen in the color of being and the unworn caps had now taken hostage. The mind’s response is almost OCD-ish.

This ability to unhinge arises from a similar characteristic that one finds imbued in the very breath of the book. Braids of thoughts run along a pulse—gathering, clouding around some unknowable centre or hunger from where these words emerge. The signs of these circular, hovering sounds are also visible in the fetish-like substance of these next pieces.

‘Someday her scarf will choke her to death.’

In a single breath, we are committed to the sly existence of that which is closest, that which is integral but is perhaps, also nearly fatal in its delirious consumption.

‘With this dress there was not even one spot that was untouched.’

This craving for perfection can bleed the being out. Who has not tasted the realm of perfection’s touch, her finger scraping the bone, this desire emerge— both pure and evil, the saliva of a fetish?

‘The clown was now just a bag of clothes, his body inside that costume had grown limp.’

The repetition of the clown as an emblem of being is alluring. Does one see the body, the being, the personalities dwelling outside and within as akin to that of a clown, the outside existing to satiate demands while the inner self shrinks?

The sliding veils—the selves of desires, the chatter of wants, the unsaid, the forbidden segments of our realities all seem to find a home in this closet of a book.

 ‘Apart from her impractical fairytale house that looked like it had been put together by a dressmaker, she found that it was here, inside these ornate dresses she made her hiding places.’

While costumes in the book become a tongue for various expressions— pleasures of the flesh, their tortures, vanity, clothes as masked identities that are only shed in the invisibility of being; one circles to another repetition—the safety of clothes, costumes as homes, as hiding places, as a vessel for the being to take shelter in.

Has the writer revealed to us his inner haven, his hiding place, a basket of clothes where he feels most whole, most complete, and most safe?

For most people, their relationship with clothes is a linear thread that winds unto itself. They are primarily interested in what the clothes have to offer to their appearance. Fashion may imbibe elements of identity, cultures of our variegated species, thought jackets of entire generations, tiny pieces of soul too. A fashion designer perhaps weaves the world into his cloth— nature, textures, rivers, slants, geometry, days, time, and age. Monga does neither and both and something else, he walks into an abode of clothes as if he never wishes to return from there. It looks like they have walked into him with matching intensity. After a point, his identity as a writer may even start to take a backseat in his own mind for he would rather be a costume, a costume continually knitting itself, consumed both to the brink of existence and the suffusion of life’s pleasures by its very own threads.

What is this craving for the thread? —Its spooling tongue that could cover the entire world, if allowed. Does one then walk in a pure image of oneself—shredded, whole, safe, concealed, and yet luminously revealed in this white, white endlessness? —A bare nakedness come alive for the world, for the eye willing to see, a collage of cut cloth, Costumes of the living