“All the women here look elegant. The men look like slobs” — DiploDad
Part of the reason for this comment, I am certain, is the beauty of the sari. Flowing, colorful and elegant, old women with hennaed hair wear them, young mothers with babies in their arms, middle-aged women doing marketing. Rock a sari and I guarantee you look better than in a t-shirt in jeans, no matter what you are doing.
We had been here about six weeks when our sponsor, R, and his fiancée, P, invited us to their wedding. P is Indian, so you know what that means – BIG FAT INDIAN WEDDING! The kind of freaking legend that you read about in People Magazine a la Katy Perry and Russell Brand. The kind you read about in novels by Jhumpa Lahiri. Excitement didn’t even begin to cover it. Even once we discovered that the boys were invited (groan), we were still so excited to be included in P & R’s special day.
Shortly afterwards, however, panic set in. What on earth should I wear???!! The obvious set in: I would have to wear a sari.=
A sari (or saree) is six yards of cloth and two safety pins. One pin if you are a pro. It’s beautiful. It’s drapey. It’s colorful. It looks like a nightmare to pee in.
I mentioned the wedding to my friend, S, and she knew just what to do. “I will take you shopping and we will find you the perfect thing. Maybe for one day you wear a sari and the next you wear an anarkali.”
I know nothing. S rocks the fabric as fantastically as any Indian woman and she’s superclassy, so I knew I was in good hands.
We drove out to Thane, a suburb of Mumbai where S used to live. About an hour away. We wound up at a giant, modern shopping mall that rivals anything you see in the U.S. We headed straight for a traditional clothing store and S headed inside in a cloud of confidence with me in tow, looking like I was crashing some kind of secret club.
Rows and rows of beautiful saris lined one side of the store.
Two men hurriedly shuffled over to S, pointed to a few chairs and pulled them out for us and got us each bottles of water. S put on her “I-Know-Exactly-What-I-Am-Doing-So-Don’t-Mess-With-Us” face and began pointing to some of the bolts of cloth lining the walls. The salesmen scurried to grab the packages and pulled them out in front of us so that we could feel them, run our fingers over them, and examine the stitching.
“I like the bright pink one with this embroidery. I also like this blue with brown and sequins.”
“No. Those are for young girls, you will look silly.”
“OK, how about this one?”
“Hmm. No. It just won’t do on you.”
“Really? I love it. It’s so pretty. I’m going to try it on with the others.” Raised eyebrow. Not mine.
“So which colors? Blue is good on you, I think. Green?”
“Yes. Turquoise too, maybe purple.”
“Um, doesn’t the bride wear red? I think I would feel weird stealing her color. “
“No, no – anyone can wear it.”
“Really? In an American wedding you wear white and you’re not the bride, you will be discussed.” Another raised eyebrow. Again, not mine.
Finally, I was ready to do the drape. I had about twelve saris to try on. I stood up in the middle of the room in front of a large mirror and a man came out and put a belt on me so he could drape me. He tucked, turned, and draped and S evaluated. I tried on the one I insisted I needed to try on. Yuk. S was right. It was awful. How did she DO that?
Finally, we had it down to four: a green one with a pink border, a classical South Indian deep cobalt blue, a lime green one with some small bling, and a bright blue. S pursed her lips at the bright blue. OK, so big fat no. So far she was batting 1000 on this, so I was not going to defy the eyebrows. I decided the lime green was nice, but didn’t do me any favors. That left me with the green one and the blue.
“Which one do you think looks best?”
“How many days is the wedding? Two, right? How about you wear the green one for day one and the blue for day two? The green one is a modern design, and the blue more classic – better for the actual wedding ceremony.”
OK, so done.
Decision made, we sat down at the tailor’s counter, so the attached extra yard could be made into a blouse. First decision as sleeve length – none, short, or three-quarters? Then, what kind of tie in the back? Sweetheart neckline, scoop neck or square? Lined (no bra) or unlined (bra needed)? I never thought about these things. We decided a short sleeve for the modern green sari and a three-quarters for the classic blue.
The tailor indicated to me that I should stand to be measured. He was halfway through when I realized that the man taking my measurements had not touched me. At ALL. I glanced around the room and realized that there was not a saleslady in sight. And that none of the men had really touched me, even throughout the draping and pinning. Which struck me as strange – sooooooo – no touching the woman. Well, then why not have a woman do the touching? File away for later discussion and investigation.
Later on, I found out the roots of this are tradition. Traditionally, Muslim men were the sari shopkeepers. That’s why you see patterns with flowers or geometrics and no people or animals. And no touching. Moreover, the idea of women working in a shop or store was pretty much a societal taboo that still exists in many parts of India, even in modern Mumbai. This makes shopping for and underwear and a bra very uncomfortable I would imagine, and after checking out several (like 10-12) lingerie shops locally and poking my nose in, I have decided that if I need a bra in the next several years I am making do with a few handkerchiefs, some rubber bands, and a couple of paperclips.
I left the sari shop down about $250 and a promise that the blouses would be finished in about two weeks. S and I celebrated our shopping success over lattes at Fourbucks (er – STARbucks). Some girlfriend rituals are the same the world over.
A few weeks later, I returned to pick up the blouses, and because S couldn’t come with me, I brought my helper, V. The saris were all nicely wrapped up, sealed in plastic and pressed. But my inner radar was pinging like crazy and I knew that I had better try on those blouses. The tailor shrugged and gave me “the look”. I ducked into the dressing room with V and pulled on the first blouse. Gah! The arms were tight, and the front was so tight I looked like Daisy Mae after an enhancement. Frowning, V ducked out to speak with the tailor. While she was out, I tried on the blue three-quarters sleeved blouse. Well, I tried to. I couldn’t fit my arms into them. I think they were about the circumference of a paper towel roll, which my arms definitely are NOT. Passed it back out to V, took back the now-altered pink top for the green sari.
The second time was the charm for the pink top, but I was forced to capitulate on the insistence that “you really shouldn’t need a bra with this top” that I had overruled during our prior conversation when we picked out blouse patterns. There was no way a single extra millimeter was fitting into that blouse. The blue top had to be sent back three times, and my annoyance level was beginning to rise as the re-measuring still avoided an actual contact measurement. Grrrr. Finally, it fit, and we re-packed everything and headed home. Mission accomplished! Wedding outfit complete! Or so I thought.
About a week later, the Community Liaison Office (CLO) held a sari wrapping workshop, so of course I went. Seemed like a fun thing to do – drink tea, have lunch with the ladies, and learn to wrap the saris I had just purchased.
Our Health Unit NP, L, wears a sari often. And she showed us her technique for wrapping (i.e., slowly) and one of the Consulate’s local employees then showed us how you wrap it if you grow up wearing one your entire life (i.e., fast). It’s not too difficult, really, just takes practice:
Tuck and twist. (This is L’s belly. No WAY am I showing mine up close.)
Fold up to drape over the shoulder.
Back and forth pleats at the waist.
Pin at the shoulder/top.
I had a little help, but eventually managed to tie on my green sari.
My friend, D, also sent me a link on how to wrap a sari. Check it out here – https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=743238192420332&set=vb.319863888091100&type=2&theater
I learned quite a bit at the wrapping event, but the most important thing I learned is that my sari was still not complete, and I needed a petticoat to aid in the tucking and wrapping. So underneath all that fabric you wear MORE fabric (the better to roast you in, my dear!). The shop I’d purchased my saris at didn’t mention this, so I was a little irked.
V and I set off for a shop in South Mumbai called Matching Center to buy a petticoat. As it turns out, you need a petticoat to match your sari. Look at all the colors!
Makes sense, especially for a novice like me. Even if I screw up the draping or have it slip, no one will see what is essentially my underwear. Not really.
The petticoats can be off-the-rack or tailored, like a fish cut, aka, tapered. I opted for ready-made in the interests of time and my patience level after the blouse fiasco. I never could figure out what the “crap” in this sign meant. V had no clue either.
Finally, I was ready for my sari-wearing debut! The wedding was in a week, and everything was set.
Day of the wedding, we set out for the Taj Palace Hotel, where the wedding was to take place. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Taj_Mahal_Palace_Hotel We checked in, and I called down to housekeeping to see if someone would help me pin my sari. P, the bride, had mentioned that there would be some ladies there doing hair, makeup, and sari pinning, so I chickened out of wrapping my own and decided to use the bridal service. Standing there in my petticoat and blouse, I found out that I’d have to head down a flight to the sari/hair/makeup room.
Carrying my sari, I wandered down the hall in my underwear to get draped. In retrospect, I could have just changed the whole outfit in the sari/hair/makeup room, but my mind doesn’t always jump to the most logical conclusion. I am betting there are still some porters reeling from my inappropriateness. And the sight of my sexy green petticoat.
I arrived at the room where several women were in the middle of hair and makeup. A young girl was assigned to wrap me. She was quite short, however, and it was clear soon enough to me that this wasn’t her best task. She’d been pulled off of curling irons to pin me up, and I was starting to regret it. After 15 minutes and six or seven pins, an older woman pushed her out of the way, snorted (no kidding – snorted) and whipped me around, securing the sari with about four more pins.
Sari pinned, I headed down to meet DiploDad and the DiploBoys. That’s funny, I feel a little cold. Gah! Looking down, I realized that unlike my earlier draping experience, the sweet young thing who started the pinning went for a more sexy approach and half my side was open and exposed like the underbelly of an orca whale. I tried to shift the sari, but with all the pins, it was clear it wasn’t going anywhere. Suck it up – er – IN – and drive on, I thought.
Meeting up with the DiploFam, DB2 said, “Mommy, you look beautiful” as only a 6-year-old who still loves only his mother can say. DD smiled at me. DB1 quit snarking at me for a moment and smiled too. “This,” I thought to myself, “is awesome.”
For the remainder of the evening, I sat, drank, danced a bit with DD and the DBs and yes, even managed to pee. I have to give a shout-out to Kalpana, the very nice restroom attendant at the Taj who helped me smooth my pleats and my confidence so I could return to the party.
I got some heartfelt compliments, not only on the sari itself, but how I looked in it. I felt regal. I felt beautiful.
I wore the blue sari the next day, bringing V with me to help me drape it so it wouldn’t take me 20 minutes of playing “Find the Sari Pin” to get undressed. 5 minutes. 2 pins. Boom. V promised to help coach me through it slowly and repeatedly until I can do it by myself, and do it quickly.
But only if I promise to wear a sari in America, just for a day, to do normal daily things, and take pictures for her. Hah. She thinks I won’t do it. But as I’ve already walked through the Taj in my underwear, Trader Joe’s in a sari should be a piece of cake. Game on, V – Game ON.