Six Yards of Love and Tradition
When my grandmother died a few years ago, I inherited one thing from her. It was a silk sari worn by her. When I drape this sari around myself, it is as though I have been wrapped up in her warm embrace.
The sari reminds me of my female ancestors. It has been worn for centuries by Indian women. It represents femininity, motherhood, love, artistry, culture, utility, and grace.
The sari is usually a 6 ft long rectangular piece of cloth, woven out of silk or cottons or other fabric, which is draped around the waist, with pleats made and tucked into an underskirt. One end of the sari is then wrapped around the bodice. It is like a scarf hanging to one side. As a child, I often used this hanging part of the sari my mother wore, to wipe my wet hands after washing or my mouth off after drinking milk. It came in handy to wipe my tears as well.
Until I came to the U.S., at the age of twelve, I only saw women in saris. My mother was always in a sari even when she went to sleep. Her saris were made of Bengal cottons. After every use, these saris would become more endearing and comfortable to wear. I find it to be a very feminine form of clothing that highlights a woman’s curves in just the right way. The sari is ingenious in its simplicity. A sari can be adapted to a woman of any size and height. There are many different styles and ways of draping. It can be draped to look sexy by revealing more of the waistline, navel, bodice and arms. It can be draped to look modest or conservative by covering more of the body and arms.
Many Indian women have saris they have inherited from their mothers and grandmothers or have gotten in their wedding trousseau and as gifts during important milestones. I, myself, have a collection of more than a dozen, that I may have worn once or none at all. Most of us have adopted more westernized clothing and simply don’t have opportunities to wear a sari anymore. It is no longer the norm even in India.
Even when I have the opportunity to wear a sari, I am often uncomfortable in them. I feel awkward as though it will get undone anytime or I feel overdressed. However, I still love the look and feel of a sari.
I remember on a trip back to India when I was twenty years old. My aunts took me to a sari shop to get my first sari. The store was in the old part of the city. These stores had been around since my grandmother was a young woman. The floors are cushioned and colorful saris are stacked on wall-to-wall shelves. The customers sit on the cushioned floor. The salesman proceeds by unfolding the saris one by one with a flourish and spreads them in front of us. The customer then puts the given sari in a “like” pile and those that are not, are folded and put back onto the shelves.
My first sari was made of Khadi silk. It was bottle green in color with deep red-brown prints of birds and horses. My aunt bought this sari for me and proceeded to have a blouse made with the tailors. When I first draped it after my blouse was made, I felt I had finally transformed into a young woman.
That evening my cousin invited me to watch a movie with him and his friends. I went in my new sari. To my disappointment I stuck out like a sore thumb at the movies in my sari. His friends expected to see his American cousin in jeans, t-shirt and sneakers. Here I was in a Khadi silk sari. It was hilarious that I managed to be a misfit in India in a sari! In hindsight, I should have chosen to wear a sari in a more traditional setting and not to the movies. It was ironic that I ended up being embarrassed and uncomfortable in it while in India.
This incident led me to wonder why everyone chose to wear jeans and sneakers in the hot climate. I find the traditional cotton Indian sari more comfortable and suited for the Indian climate. The sari provides ventilation, it is cooling, the cotton helps absorb perspiration, it covers you entirely from the harsh sun yet keeps you cool, the long scarf can be used to cover the head and shade from the sun much like a visor. I marvel at the sari’s utility. I regret that the sari has lost its place as a garment of choice and relegated for special occasions.
I am fortunate to have my grandmother’s sari and its associated memories of her. She represented child-like love and wonder at the simple pleasures of life. She delighted in an ice cream cone much like my children. Though she became motherless at the age of two, her primary role was that of mother-grandmother. The sari she left me, reminds me to be a good mother to my children and embrace them fully.