These summer heatwaves in New England put me in mind of the hot season in India before the arrival of the rains, and awaken in me the urge to wear a sari again. Not an elegant silk, slid out carefully from its zippered bag for weddings and festivals, or a heat-trapping chiffon or polyester, but a simple cotton handloom sari, soft with repeated washings and cooler and more comfortable than anything else one could wear at this time of year.
I didn’t always feel comfortable in a sari. In fact, for years I was traumatized by a major wardrobe malfunction that had taken place when I was ten, during Saraswati Puja. It was the festival of the veena-playing goddess, divine patron of learning and creativity, one of the most important events of the year in West Bengal, and a procession of people took to the street on the Hijli campus, marching toward the the goddess in her flower-bedecked pandal. For the occasion I dressed in one of my mother’s saris, which she helped me to pleat, drape, and tuck in at the waist. I was as skinny as a rake and had no waist at all, so there were no natural curves to hold the sari in place, and I was so short that even with more than a foot of sari tucked into my waistband, it was still too long for me. Finally I joined the procession with excitement and trepidation. Although I was proud of my first wearing of a sari, I was also anxious because I was in continual danger of tripping and falling, and my anxiety soon proved to be justified. Halfway to our destination I stepped on the bottom of my sari, the pleats pulled out, and the whole thing unraveled and fell to the ground. I was like Draupadi, only bereft of divine intervention, wishing that I could sink into the earth like Sita after her trial by fire.
Although I don’t suppose anyone but me really paid much attention to a little girl running back home clutching billowing folds of fabric, the indelible memory of my public humiliation prevented me from venturing out in public in a sari for many years. It was our dear friend Subhash who washed it away when I must have been in my late teens or early twenties. The event was a big function organized by Sangam, the MIT Indian students’ association at which all the women would be wearing saris, so I had ventured to try again, with a beautiful turquoise shot-silk sari that had belonged to my mother. I must have fussed over it for ages, tying and untying it again and again to get the length and the pleats just right, and then worrying out loud about whether I looked awkward or out of place. Finally Subhash said, “You are just feeling self-conscious because you’re not used to wearing a sari. It looks fine; you just need to wear one more often and you’ll soon feel comfortable in it.” Somehow those few kind words dispelled my self-consciousnessness in a moment. I did indeed begin to wear a sari more often and sure enough, I found myself feeling more and more at ease, although I still fussed interminably over the tying of it.
When Andrew and I traveled to India for the first time after our marriage I made up my mind that I would wear Indian dress while I was there. At that time, in the mid-1980s, a married woman in Maharashtra was expected to wear a sari all the time, although in Punjab even married women wore the salwar kamiz, which was rapidly becoming all-India attire for unmarried women. Upon our arrival, my aunts and uncles began presenting me with saris as wedding gifts, so soon I could amply supplement my mother’s few saris of 1950s and 1960s vintage. It was my super-efficient cousin Kalyani who did the most to dispel any lingering doubts I had about my draping technique. She had a sure-fire method that did the job every time and in no time, ensuring a uniform number and width of pleats and an adequate length for the pallu, and securing the finished product with a safety pin at the shoulder, so that the wearer looked as smart and snappy as an Air-India stewardess. My cousin Vidya, a bank manager, further bolstered my confidence by advising me to pin the pleats to my petticoat after having tucked them in. That way, she said, I would never have to worry about them getting pulled out. It seems that she had had an incident akin to my childhood disaster when, as-yet-unsure of sari-wearing, she had first started work at the bank.
Although—or perhaps because—I cannot manage to make the journey back to India very often, I remain sentimental about saris. While many of my married cousins have welcomed the changing times and now embrace the salwar-kamiz as much easier to wear and to maintain, I welcome the opportunity to wear my under-used saris as much as possible during my too-infrequent visits. Whenever I am given a gift of money to buy something for myself, I invariably find myself buying yet another cotton sari, despite the evident impracticability of keeping it washed and ironed (let alone starched) in the United States, and the limited occasions for wearing it. For although a cotton sari is just about the most comfortable thing one could wear on a hot day, one cannot fully experience the ordinary everydayness of it in the States, since, though often admired, it is always seen as exotic. I like compliments as much as the next person, but I don’t wear saris on an everyday basis when I’m out on errands or around town, because even the most well-meaning people either stare or comment. They ask what the occasion is and generally behave as if I’m costumed in fancy dress. This takes away much of the pleasure, since I want to feel that it is the most natural thing in the world, not something to be remarked upon.
Most Indian and Indian American female academics in the U.S. wear American dress except on special occasions, but there are some notable exceptions (Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Gauri Viswanathan, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak) who are sartorial as well as scholarly role models—modern-day Saraswatis who will wear a sari into the classroom or to a conference presentation as a matter of course and no one will dare to comment on it. Although I haven’t yet worn a sari to teach in, this level of comfort and insouciance is something to which I aspire.
Every now and then, on a blistering hot summer’s day when I’m alone at home, I will run my hands over the old saris in the bureau where I keep my Indian clothes, and admire the new ones neatly folded in the quilted sari and choli bags that were a gift from Lalita-kaki and my cousin Madhavi. After draping and re-draping one of my favorite cotton saris until it feels just right, I will go about the day’s work with a smile on my face, content just to be, taking quiet pleasure in the feel of it, unconcerned about who might see me or what they might say.