This was the first time I wore a saree. ‘Wore’ is perhaps not the proper word for wrapped-around-clumsily. ‘Wearing’ a saree is an art one can only cultivate with practice over time. But this picture from the early nineties is certainly the earliest recorded saree moment in my life.
Most of what followed is lost in the tattered transparent sheets of countless albums and in unopened boxes in the corridors of my mind. And yet some of it resurfaced as I began to look back at my relationship with the six yard wonder.
At a Fancy Dress event in primary school (still in the early nineties) I found myself in a plain white saree (borrowed from a nurse at the local hospital) to play the part of Lady Justice. With the customary black ribbon across my eyes and a weighing scale in my hand, I walked onto the stage very slowly, trying hard not to trip or touch anything as my head, hands and face were all covered in multaani mitti (Fuller’s Earth) to complete the look. Perhaps I won, and if I didn’t it must have made me quite mad going through all the effort for nothing.
Next we fast forward to the school farewell, our official ‘Prom Night’. I say ‘official’ because this involved the school and teachers while another ‘unofficial’ version ended up being wilder. Every school girl awaited this glorious event with bated breath and only a hint of trepidation. ‘What must I wear’ was narrowed down to ‘Which of my mother’s sarees can I rock’. For me it had begun with a close battle between a plain black chiffon with a gorgeous zari border and the make-you-blind plain peacock-blue georgette. I had always loved how elegant, not to mention sexy, the black always looked on my mother. But the blue, oh the blue. If you had the figure for it, that wrap was a showstopper. Farewell time came after my two year pizza-every-week fatty phase, so the blue won. And of course everything went as planned till I walked into the party and found a classmate wearing a similar saree. Should have gone with the black. Bah Humbug!
After that, saree moments became largely restricted to family weddings, except for two instances in college. One involved a combined birthday treat of two friends at a pub in Delhi, where “Lets all wear a saree” turned the night into the wildest time a bunch of sarees must have had. All attempts to retrieve pictures of this event came to naught at the time of going to print.
The second college-saree hoopla was the farewell. This time I had no doubts what I was going to wear…Mamma’s black and breezy yellow polka-dot wonder. College was the time I realised that for all my I-wish-we-could-wear-pyjamas-everywhere belief system, what I was really beginning to get obsessed with was polka dots. Big, small, black and blue, I have a pair of dot shoes too. And so I drove more than 40 kilometers to and fro in that crazy yellow saree, which ended its day with a “We may forget everything else from this day but everyone’s going to remember you wore this saree” from a friend donning the blue in the picture.
My own, and many other, wedding-saree-events later, we get to my last rendezvous with a saree, which was at a wedding nearly three years ago.
Over the years I have been gifted several sarees, mostly by my mother carrying the unique designs prevalent in different parts of India back from her travels. Those and countless others have been locked up in suitcases that are rarely opened. I have also gifted my fair share of sarees to others and that had been my only encounter with sarees up until now.
Then last month we had a first. At a fair, amidst the clamour of drums, music and street food scents, I fell in love.
Under a stack of shiny materials my eyes caught sight of shimmering white cloth. I bent forward and pulled it out from the layers, discovering a bright orange, pink and zari border. I ran my fingers over it, trying to identify the texture of the piece with my limited knowledge of materials. I turned to the man at the stall to clarify if it was indeed the silk I thought it to be. He nodded in agreement. I held the fabric between my fingers yet again, just to be sure.
“Where is this from”, I asked.
“Benaras”, he said, and then added, “We only bring the best from our city here.”
I didn’t bother to interrupt the sales speak. I had already made up my mind.
Nearly 25 years after I draped a saree for the first time, I bought a saree for myself, my very own Benarasi.
That same day I also lost my heart to a peacock on cotton that journeyed from Bengal for me.