Saturday, December 08, 2007

In praise of an ancient garment...

Even the most modest amongst us feel the occasional, overwhelming urge to boast about our achievements. For once, I am ready to boast about an acutely feminine achievement. Feminists, social scientists and ideologues will ramble on about the importance of motherhood, coming of age rituals, marriage etc. in a woman's life. While these are universally feminine milestones, the one I plan to talk about today is uniquely Indian.

As a child, my mother would paraphrase a thought from her favourite Hindi novelist, Shivani (or at least I think it was this writer). "Har ladki ke jeevan mein aisa samay aata hai jab usme banarasi sariyon ki chah paida ho jati hai" (Every girl reaches a stage in life when she desires banarasi sarees). Well, since we were from Banaras and iridescent streams of silk, brocade and zari seemed to flow as vastly and bountifully, as the Ganges, I didn't think much about this oft-quoted phrase.

As a teenager, we had moved overseas and over time, sarees became somehow "traditional" and not quite modern in my mind. Of course, I would watch my mother wear hers and envy the grace and elegance that the drapes bestowed on her incessantly active frame. Yet, I didn't feel the urge to try wearing a saree myself.

In my fashion-victim twenties, I bought Thai silk and Kanjeevarams, and raw silk fabrics only to convert them into fashionable and "terribly devastating" evening gowns, copied straight from the pages of Vogue. The dresses all went down to my ankles, slits ran far too high up my leg and necklines were cut as low as I could possibly manage. If my mother occasionally sighed and wistfully fingered the watered silk of a bright red or deep purple evening dress, I ignored her. "Poor silks, all this cutting and sewing takes away from their flow," my mother told me once while we poured over fashion magazines on her bed. I couldn't have cared less, even if I had understood her.

Then, something happened. First, I neared, and then crossed, thirty. And that meant that my body started doing strange things. Despite all the exercise regimens and diet controls, it began to look more like the rounded, voluptuous temple statues instead of the svelte Cindy Crawford of the flat stomach and the angular clotheshorse physique. More importantly, I realised that I wasn't willing to starve myself simply to fit into clothes that really weren’t designed for me in the first place. It also became more important to be myself, instead of looking like a fashion model.

And other strange things began happening. My cooking began to improve. I could just walk into the kitchen and the right spices would find their way into my hands. The balance would be right. Instead of recipes and cookbooks, I would cook with my nose, and eyes, and if you can believe this, intuition! And the final results grew closer and closer to my mother's cooking, and her mother's before that. My brother laughed and called it "cultural memory." I wasn't willing to believe him.

When my first book was published, I began getting invitations to all sorts of grown-up, formal parties, cocktails and book launches, teas and luncheons. And along with the invitations, came the desire to identify myself as an Indian. I needed to "look" Indian! To feel like a part of the literary tradition that had gone before me, even as I forged my own path. And especially since I felt closer to Meerabai and Jaidev rather than Dante and Bronte.

So I began borrowing sarees from my mother's closet. And my god, getting dressed became such a production. Initially, after about half and hour of fumbling about, I would scream for my mother. After the first couple of times, of tears and tantrums, my mother shook her head and announced that "you probably won't wear a saree very often anyway, so let me just put it on for you." This meant that I would stand like a dressmaker's dummy, wearing a petticoat and blouse, my arms outstretched, while my mom deftly draped the saree. Not that it was a daily routine. Maximum may be four times a year.

Sarees were still something exotic, something to wear for weddings and the really formal do's. And most of them still came from my mother's collection. I didn't own one, and didn't want to either.

Then some years ago, something incredible happened. We were shopping for fabrics to make into a dress shirt. I wanted chanderi silk, to make billowy, translucent, romantic shirts to wear with formal trousers and skirts. As we went through the bolts, my brother suddenly pulled out one. "This one is beautiful," he told me. I looked at the vibrant, rich pink shot with blue and green, light as a cloud floating between his hands. And suddenly I knew what my mother meant that cutting and sewing silks would take away from the flow. We checked the width and then got five and a half meters of the fabric. Then came the first adventure of its kind in my life: finding a matching fabric to make the blouse, going to the "matching centre" to find the "fall." I surprised myself as I went through the preparations like a pro. "Cultural memory," laughed my brother again.

For months afterwards, I couldn't help smiling every time I looked at that impromptu saree. The first time I wore it, I felt like Sanyukta, Padmini, Draupadi, Shakuntala, and every gorgeous woman who has ever worn a saree before me. I felt beautiful and seductive, and in one evening collected more complements than I can imagine. Perhaps, it was the saree, or perhaps it was just the joy and pride on my face. You see, that was also the first time I had draped a saree by myself (with a little help from my younger sister, specially with the pleats).

But the story didn't end there. Within months of acquiring my first saree, my best friend informed me of her wedding plans. "Its black tie, but wear a saree if you want to," she told me in a long distance call from Amsterdam. The old, childish me would have hesitated, even wondered about being the only one wearing a saree in a room full of designer evening dresses. The old not-quite-confident me would have found excuses, ranging from the European winter to owning nothing appropriate. But the new me, the cultural-memory-me, wasn't quite so hesitant.

I told my mother, who – in turn - informed her sister and my uncles’ wives. And suddenly, finding the right saree became the most important family expedition for everyone. Flurries of telephone calls between Banaras and Delhi, Allahabad, Lucknow and every other city in between determined the colours I preferred. "Light colours, pastels, nothing bright or contrasting, or eye-twisting. The bride's wearing white and it should complement her." My aunts scoured the saree shops and workshops. No! Nothing light or pastel was available. It was the marriage season. Didn't I know that?

Then my aunt called the weaver who has provided sarees for all the weddings, and childbirths and milestones for the many, many women in my family. He would make a special tanchoi for me, in the plainest pastel but the richest brocade. But time was running short as the wedding dates grew closer. Never mind, the blouse would be made in Banaras itself and the saree would be couriered to me. In the meantime, another aunt had found another saree and decided that someone travelling to Delhi would carry it, just in case the courier was delayed. She called me from the shop, "There is an ivory tanchoi and one pale yellow one which is gorgeous. Which one should I send?" Whichever you like, I told her.

Both the tanchois arrived on the same day. One, the colour of creamy lemon meringue and soft as butter, light as a feather. The other, a burnished gold like the morning on the Ganges in Banaras, and heavy like the river. I wore the heavier one for the wedding. Cultural memory seemed to kick in, even far away from my family as the saree draped itself in one go, the pleats sitting perfectly, without an effort, the pallu just settling itself softly on my shoulder. If I didn't know better, I would have thought my mom had magically, invisibly, draped it for me.

Friends I hadn't seen in years gasped in surprise and delight when I walked in. "Wow, you look different." And that was meant as a complement. I didn't even worry when the dancing started about how I would move. I danced for hours and remembered my grandmother who used to swim in the Ganges in her cotton sarees. She was right. Sarees were dead comfortable!

Through the evening, I smiled when people asked me if that was my "traditional outfit." Even on a dark, cloudy, rainy Dutch night, I felt wrapped in the warmth of the Ganges on a summer morning.

Now I know what mom meant by every girl reaching a stage when she desires banarasi sarees. I have tried explaining it to my younger sister but I think she will have to wait and find out for herself. For now, I just look at my growing saree collection and hug myself. My wardrobe has planned itself out for all the future milestones of my life. The literary awards shall all be received in severe tussars and plainest of Madhubanis. Mr. Right, when he walks in, will be seduced by the sexy elegance of cream chiffon. And if I ever get married, it will have to be in a tanchoi the colour of freshly ground turmeric.

But before I end, let me share a secret. My mom didn't tell me one crucial thing! Once you begin craving banarasis, the benchmark goes up. Now I really want a paithani, to wear for my own daughter's wedding (if I ever have a daughter!). But I won't be complaining if I get one much before that!

PS: This piece was first carried by , but I just remembered it the other day and felt it deserved a resuscitation.