Friday, 29 September 2017

For the love of Sarees

"Who took out clothes from my cupboard?" our mother's voice carried the threat of a severe telling off, perhaps even a whack.

Seema and I froze in our tracks, or more like in the act of finishing off a Social Studies or Science homework while sitting at the dining table.

We looked at each other like Scully looks at Mulder in X files: baffled and amazed at how did she know?

How did our mother know by just opening her cupboard door that we'd been in it? What are these extra terrestrial powers that our mother possesses? I often mulled over it but never cracked the mystery until I became a mother of children old enough to take things out of wardrobes and cupboards. Like a Ninja with extra sensory powers, I can suss out if my wardrobe has had a looking into by my children. Even if all they've done is opened the door and shut it--I know. How?

Mothers know. They just do.

"Switch on the light before you go blind in the dark." came the next missile from her room to our ears.

Her words bore evidence of her rising temper.

We knew our mother's temper and we didn't like to see it ever, but we often did. And that was that.

I pushed my chair back and flicked the white electric switch on. The tube-light blinked a couple of times before it decided to shed its light to us. We sat, Seema and I, in the fluorescent light, waiting for more missiles to reach us. We were nine/ten or ten/eleven years old at the time.

Evening Arati (prayers) sounded out on the loudspeaker of the temple near our house. It was Wednesday. The time was a little after seven pm. Less than an hour for Chitrahaar to start.

We had to be really, really good and really, really fast. We had to make sure we could watch TV at 8 without any of Mummy's daant dapkaar (telling off) interfering with our mid-week TV mazaa (joy).  She was really, really upset we'd messed up the neatly folded petticoats and blouses in her cupboard. We'll have to worry about the silk sarees which Seema and I had tried on and kept back in the trunk in the store room with extra care and precision, using the fold creases as guides, later. The cupboard situation had to be dealt with now before we lost the half an hour of TV magic--the only mid-weak television we were interested in when we were growing up. No, we never complained about our limited viewing options. We felt privileged to enjoy this mid-week treat.

Too many choices make us whiny.

"Mummy, shall I make the rotis now or when Daddy comes?" One of us extended the olive branch.

Our mother kept a very clean and tidy house and even cleaner and tidier cupboards. Any infringement upon her neat and tidy kingdom was dealt with appropriately: i.e. severe telling off while the songs of Chitrahaar were on. She never took away our TV privileges. Funny! Perhaps it never occurred to her.

We were her obedient and submissive subjects. We, too, liked to keep the house in order and our cupboards tidy. But we also liked to raid her cupboards and trunks and try out her sarees when she left us home alone to go to the market or to visit friends and family. But we always put everything back as neatly and as precisely when we were done dressing up. How she figured out our trespasses when she got back home was a mystery to us.

Our saree soiree would start as soon as we heard the clink of metal on metal--metal latch closing shut on metal gate--announcing Mummy's departure. Safe and free for a couple of hours, we'd pull out a couple of her sarees and start. Sometimes, when there wasn't much time, we'd forgo the petticoat and just tie a naada (drawstring) around our waists and start tucking.

We had a few favourites: the Coca-Cola Banarsi silk with silver butis (flowers) and a silver woven border, the Grass Green Japani (I don't know what the fabric was, but we knew it as Mummy's Japani saree) with white leaves embroidered into it, the Yolk Yellow silk with a hand painted border and my absolute favourite--the Multi-Coloured Chiffon with Sequins. That saree had the potential to zap me into a princess. "One day soon, the people of my kingdom will come looking for me and plead for me to come back."
No. Simply, saree magic.

We would lose ourselves in her sarees. Time would stand still and evaporate suddenly. Like a sparkle of sun on still water, we'd be mesmerized by her sarees and just like that--in a blink of a sparkle--it would be time to wrap up: tidy away all evidence and resume whatever we were doing before the interlude so that when Mummy got back home, she'd think we had been doing homework etc. for all the time she'd been away.

The mistake we had made on this occasion was that we'd forgotten it was Chitrahaar day, so there was no time for her to cool down! Lesson learnt for future raids.
Sarees are time machines.

Every time I drape a saree, the exact moment of its purchase, the place I bought it at or the person who gave it to me as a present or bought it for me, emerges like a pattern. It wraps me in its threads of memories and the feelings I'd experienced that first time I'd laid my eyes on it: thrill, joy, love cocoon me for the rest of the day. Ask any saree lover. They'll tell you.

Yes, a saree is a time machine: soft as cotton, smooth as silk, fluid and graceful and liberating and yet holding within its folds that first moment in time when humans created a piece of cloth to drape their bodies. A saree is, after all, just a piece of un-stitched cloth.
Sungudi sarees drying on parched Vaigai in Madurai
The year was 1992. I was twenty-one and poor, trying to make ends meet. I had graduated from Delhi University less than a year ago.

I'd found a job. A good job with a poor salary.

British Airways (India) was holding a long drawn selection process to interview, re-interview fresh graduates for employment. I had applied. If I got the job, my salary would multiply by four! I'd become non-poor. I was very excited. But BA's selection process was never ending: it had taken eight months already.

Currently, my meager salary covered the rent (as that had to be paid at the start of the month) but ran out before the month was over. So food bills dwindled to basic bread and milk for the last week of every month.

My friends'  homes became my weekend refuge where their mothers would feed me yummy home cooked (Punjabi or Kannada) food at the weekends. I wasn't starving but I didn't have the extra cash to source a new outfit for each new round of interview/group discussion BA (India) deemed necessary for us to clear just so we could prove our worth. This was India in the early nineties. It wasn't easy to find a well paid job as a graduate. It's even harder now.

Every round I cleared seemed like a miracle. I dared to dream of having enough money to eat well on all the days of the month.

Then I received a letter informing me that I had one LAST interview to attend. The panel would consist of BA's top shots.

I had to dress to impress. My work wardrobe of khaadi kurtas and jeans wouldn't work. I had manged to buy a really lovely indigo salwaar kameez in Kamla Nagar from a pataree waalla (sidewalk hawker) for 120 rupees for my previous interview. AND it had worked. They wanted me back for another interview. BUT, I had no more money to spare.

I was at Anu's house the weekend after I received the letter and I was, as usual, trying to figure out what to do. Perhaps, borrow a saree from aunty (her mother). I had borrowed a gorgeous Mysore Silk from Asha's mother a few months ago for a preliminary round of interview. Borrowing was certainly an option. Things always have a way of working out.

"Tu chal mere naal." You come with me, said Anu's mom.

"Kahan?" I asked.

Aunty was already at the door.

"Bachhee ka interview hai--achchee see saree mein jayegee, aisi thoina bhejoongi apnee betee ko."
My child has an interview. She has to go looking her best. She's my daughter after all.
Said aunty as she pulled at the glass door of the handloom shop in Karol Bagh.

She chose a beautiful Carrot Pink (gaajjaree) Bengal cotton saree for me. She bought blouse material from a tiny shop nearby and lent me her petticoat.

Anu and I were in college together. Aunty (Anu's mom) was an educator and a widowed mother who had to manage her finances very, very carefully to ensure her three children got the best education India had to offer. She didn't have spare cash lying around. She had an extremely generous heart.

Aunty died after a long period of Alzeihmers' a few years ago. In the busyness of career and children, I didn't visit her as often as I should have.

But, even today, her saree wraps me in her warmth. I can see her twinkling eyes and taste the gobhi ke paranthe she used to make on Sunday mornings. The time machine of her saree takes me back to Karol Bagh in 1992 and I can hear her throaty chuckle as clearly as the day she paid the bill for a pink Bengal cotton so that I could go for an interview feeling my best.
I'd love to hear your favourite saree/garment  memories. So, If you're willing to, please share. And I'll share images of these beautiful women I've had the pleasure of exchanging smiles, laughs and stories with on my recent travels in India.
She hitch-hiked a (bullock cart) ride with us in Tanjavore.
She'd worked all day at a construction site and was making her way back home.
It's a hard life. She works to support her children so that they can get a good education.
And still she smiles.
Ma Saraswati drapes her favourite white and plays the veena in Brihadeeswarar temple, Tanjavore.
Rural folk don't waste time. They are quick to smile and even quicker to talk to you. And this group of ladies (from Andhra Pradesh on a pilgrimage to Brihadeeswarar) demanded that I take their pictures and show them the results on the display screen. 
"Stand straight!" I felt that's what was being said by the leader--I wouldn't know. 
I don't understand Telugu.
I was just very, very happy to follow instructions:)
Don't miss the little fellow on the adorable is he?
They drew me into their smiles and colours and as I type this, I beam with the memory of those moments shared with strangers. 
Such a pretentious word that is.
Connected. All of us. Just open up and see.
 Anklets and Kasavu (a traditional off white cotton saree from Kerala--with a gold border)
Madras check and jasmine in hair.
Marwari ladies who've adopted Tamil Nadu as their home and speak fluent Tamil.
I asked and they agreed to be photographed.
Meenakshi Temple, Madurai.
The year 2017 started with a trip to Kutchch and it continues to colour me in all shades of India. I'm loving it and for the sake of saree lovers among you, I will put a post together about where-to-shop-for-sarees-in-India, soon. 
And while the weaver dreams of new patterns to weave on his loom...
I'd like to wish you all a life full of colour and warmth and light and love.
And as we celebrate Shakti,
I pray:
 May all of our days be Dusshera.
And all our moments reminders:
of the victory of good over evil,
of humanity
of peace.
Thank you to all the goddesses who've been my life's blessings.
Photos taken at Dakshin Chitra, Chennai.


  1. Happy. That is the emotion your story leaves me with.

    I started to imagine that I have missed out on so much by not wearing a saree. What fun as a child to have so many to try on and the scarves had to be amazing. But then I realized that my sister and I did exactly the same thing with my mom's dresses. Funny how as children we have no idea how much evidence we have left behind when we play in our mother's things.

    Not exactly what you asked but, my most amazing Mom's clothing day was when we had a 1960's theme dance in high school and I was able to wear a dress Mom still had from her 1960's high school days.

    I do like that you never told us how the last interview went. I wondered about it but since it was not relevant to the point, it was nice that we had a warm feeling about the saree and Aunty instead of focusing on the job.

    Thank you for a wonderful, well told story Arti! One day I do want to try wearing a saree. They look so comfortable.

    1. Thank you for visiting Emily:) Oh! How I'd love to show you how to drape a saree--anytime you're headed to these parts, drop in. We shall have a saree dressing up kinda play date:)

      I can imagine how wonderful it must've felt to wear your Mom's dress.

      And as for that interview, I made it. I Worked for BA for a couple of years. That's where I met my husband:) And the rest as they say is history.

      Have a lovely day. xx

  2. I was really sad I hadn't taken time out to read this particular blog of yours - and boy am I glad I did !
    Sarees are the most elegant attire I can think of - nothing makes you feel and look like a woman than a saree.
    Having said that I must confess I don't wear them too often - we can and must blame it on my days at Taj Coromandel where it was our uniform and we were draped in Kanchivarams 6-8 hours a day,six days a week !!
    So yes the novelty of being in a saree slowly but surely wore off !
    I'm making an effort to get back to the six-yard drape .
    And Arti if your saree directory acts as a ready reckoner,I shall 'mend'my ways !
    Loved your childhood memories and notice how you have inherited your mom's penchant for spic and span 😀.
    Your blog made my day .💜

    1. Thank you Sharmila. I remember you in your Taj saree:) Memories of those days can write themselves into a book.
      This Diwali was a celebration of weaves of India--loved getting all dressed up.
      Hope you take your sarees out and wear them too.

  3. I knit my favorite scarf out of a yarn that's made of recycled saree fibers - so even tho' I own none, I can close my eyes and pretend. :-)

    1. Wow! I had no idea there was such a yarn in existence. I'd love to see your scarf Jz. Thank you for visiting. xx


  4. Check out Queenly for a luxurious and elegant look. If you want to Rent Indian Clothes or looking for Indian Rental Dresses in USA then Queenly is one of the best choices, similar to an Indian rent the runway.


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