My sister-in-law took my mother out one evening and bought her half a dozen salwar-kameez. She had noticed that my mother, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, was beginning to trip on her sari pleats, and wanted to make things easier for her. Pleased with the new purchases, my mother emerged from her bedroom that Sunday, wearing one of her new outfits. She looked young and charming, and everyone beamed at her. Everyone but my brother and me. We froze. We stared. We stuttered. It was as if we had encountered our mother wearing nothing but a smile.
Photograph: Yvan Rodic
Image for representative purposes only
It wasn’t that the mater didn’t look good in her kurta (she did!) or that we didn’t realise that her new choice of clothing was far more convenient for her (we did!). But, selfishly, our suddenly-16-again-and-idiotic minds didn’t want our beautiful mother to step out in anything but one of her 500-and-counting saris, as she had always done. Fortunately, my sons and sister-in-law showed more sense and sensitivity, and glared us siblings into submission. We went out to a late lunch, where my mother glowed in her new outfit.
Over the next few months, she went on to buy many more. She pulled on a new salwar-kameez every other day, and revelled in the ease of wear. But all things must pass. A sunrise doesn’t last all morning, a cloudburst doesn’t last all day. The comfort factor palled in a while, and my mother began yearning for her six-yarders again.
Always a great raconteur, she began taking out her pastel chiffons and telling us where all they had been. She talked about her buttery Bishnupuris, which were made of mulberry silk in a town called Bankura in Bengal, and her Jamdanis, which have since been declared a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage of humanity. She told us stories about the Gadwal, with its cotton body and silk pallu, and how the weave was so light that the sari could be packed in a matchbox. The red of her Kotpad sari from Odisha, she said, came from a natural dye extracted from the roots of the aal tree. She called Dhaka’s muslin “woven wind”, and said legend had it that the raw cotton used in its creation was cleaned with the jawbone of the boalee fish, which apparently resembles a comb with small, finely-spaced teeth. Everyone thought the Leheriya was named after the leher or wave pattern on the sari, but she believed it was actually a symbol of rain and a good harvest, two factors with extra poignancy in the arid landscape of Rajasthan.
The traditional sari has gone through a makeover over the years on Indian runways.
As the stories came spinning out of my mother’s memory bank, sometimes blurring the line between fact and fiction, something began to change in me. My regular clothes began to seem boring. I started pilfering from my mother’s wardrobe and wearing the six-yarder on more than just special occasions. I tried different drapes till I found one that worked for me. I learnt that I hated contrast blouses, too-short petticoats and safety pins. I learnt how to drape a sari and get out of the house in the same time that it took me to put on jeans and a shirt.
With time, I wore my jeans less and less, and new six-yarders started creeping into the house. With time and reckless spending, they went on a conquering spree and took over one cupboard after another.
Today, I have more saris that I probably should. I have my mother’s beloved Bishnupuris, Banarasis and Mugas of course, but I also have a rather large selection of Odisha silks and crisp Kanjeevarams that go from breakfast to the bar with more elan than any LBD. Then there’re scores of the Phulia, which has had a resurgence of late, and Chanderis in impossibly-flamboyant hues. Couple my love for handlooms with my weakness for chiffons and georgettes, and you’ll understand why I’m always running out of cupboard space.
I’m dressed in a sari most days now. Often, the only one in a gathering to be so dressed, sometimes even asked to explain the reason for my choice of clothing. Here’s my explanation. I like wearing a garment that takes us back at least a thousand years in terms of design. Which is a reflection of its local culture and climate. Which moulds itself to the shape of its wearer and flatters her, no matter what her dimensions. And comes in every colour and material of her choice.
But most of all, I wear it because what better tribute can I pay to the woman, now gone, who spun me a hundred and one tales about the sari, and taught me love and respect for a unique tradition?