On saris

Like some alien sci-fi clone, the smell was off.

I walked upstairs to my childhood bedroom, which had been completely redecorated for the past 14 years, ever since I left for college.  It was sparse and neat and the first thing I noticed when I opened the door was a beautiful royal purple sari with turquoise pallu [the end of the sari that has a contrasting color and pattern, which matches the border of the sari at your feet] spread out neatly on the bed.  I wondered if someone had given it to my mother to give to me, never imagining I wasn’t a sari type.

I have only worn a sari twice, and have only ever put one on without my mother’s aid.  That one occasion was the wedding of a couple friends who had chosen a theme of blue.  As someone who does not look all that good in blue, my options were:

  • blue nail polish
  • blue eyeshadow [blue clothes might not be my best look, but dark skin does bless me with the ability to wear blue eyeshadow without looking like a hooker]
  • floor-length cobalt blue bridesmaid dress I was wearing in a wedding the weekend before
  • blue sari borrowed from my mother

And I decided if I were going to attend a theme wedding, I would go all out.  A couple months before the wedding, my mother opened the sari armoire to me [she also has a tee armoire, a sweater armoire and a pashmina armoire] and her room was awash in that unique sari smell of moth balls and India [the India smell is something I recognize in all the fabrics, paper and crafts there: sandalwood, turmeric, talc, earth, and other musk and spices I can’t even identify.  Sometimes I’ll pick up the smell somewhere completely unexpected, i.e., not in an Indian’s house, and think I’m losing my mind because no one else knows what the hell I’m talking about].  The bottom drawers of the sari armoire house petticoats and blouses while the space above is divided by 1 shelf, tightly sandwiched and nigh invisible between stacks of saris themselves, bundled into groups by my father’s old veshtis.  These groups are roughly sorted by color, though more and more red has been seeping into the distinct regiments over the years wherever it can find space to infiltrate [apparently someone decided at some point that saris with red pallu are reserved for older women, which, if you think about it, is a little hardcore].  Still, she had plenty of saris in various blue hues and fabrics from which to choose, from thin cotton to raw silk, from pale blue with silver thread, to midnight with black pallu.  I tried on several [meaning I stood and twirled while my mother did the tucking and pleating] — a powder blue sari looked truly horrendously unflattering and I can only imagine it was a gift picked out by someone who did not realize my mother is “lucky” and has lighter skin.  The sapphire silk with red pallu aged me by around 20 years, so that was out as well.  I narrowed it down to an iridescent turquoise/lavender in heavy, rough silk and a copper sulfate blue sari in light silk with a gold-threaded navy pallu, and finally opted for the latter as it was lighter to travel with and to wear.  However, my mother did not warn me that the finer silks are notoriously slippery and eager to come untucked.

Granted, this is probably because it is not an issue for my mother, a pro whom I have seen don a sari in less than 3 minutes and secure it with 1 safety pin [she also claims to go commando under her petticoat, but I cannot personally vouch for that].  It took me, on the other hand, about an hour, at least 6 safety pins and an extra pair of hands to wrap the sari and pleat it to my satisfaction for the wedding.  But my mother has been wearing saris for most of her life.  She wears Western attire if dressing for a Western occasion and cleans up nice, but she looks stunning in a sari — an effortless grace and beauty that doesn’t seem to carry through when wearing Western dress [could it be the lack of underwear?].  It is difficult to look bad in a sari [aside from that powder blue number] as the fabric itself is beautiful.  But I, unlike my mother, am a pretender in a sari.  I smack of effort and am ill at ease, worrying at my pleats and pins.  I have seen my mother enter a room just a few hours after being on a plane for close to 24 hours and re-entering the country, and I would not have believed it had I not known, so just plumb right does she look in a sari.

I know a lot, but not enough to pass.  I admired and disregarded the purple sari and went about the business of showering so I could be blessed for Varalakshmi as my mother wanted.  But it was onto me.  And now I’m sick, stricken by a defensive toxic sari that smelled of moth balls and India with just a hint of dank basement.

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