My mother wore sarees for the most part. In the last couple of decades, the salwar kameez wriggled into her closet, becoming the preferred garb. In the last decade or so, she added trousers to her wardrobe and sarees became occasional wear. She finds them inconvenient now. The irony is she did a lot more wearing a saree than she does now. She commuted to work, cooked, cleaned, raised three children and went to church in a saree. As a child, I would gawk as she took her time to pair her saree blouses and accessories. She still takes care and pride in her appearance, unlike her firstborn. Sometimes, I’d pull out her saree from the laundry bag and drape it clumsily around me. Just to feel the soft fabric against my skin, and smell her scent as I admired my eight year old self in the mirror.
Many years later, as a new bride, I wore sarees everyday, at home and to work. Those days, there was a saree seller who would come home once in a few months with Bengal cotton sarees. It was an event, he would unpack his huge bundle and spread his goods as he spoke about the new arrivals. He never left without making a sale. Sometimes, it was guilt at having him open up everything but mostly, it was that little girl who wanted a collection of timeless sarees, just like her mother. Most likely, it was because he was a brilliant salesman, wise to the ways of women.
Even after my daughter was born, I continued to wear them with ease. I travelled in local trains, on the bike and with the baby in my arms. It was the easiest garment to breastfeed her as a tiny human, discreet and convenient. It felt elegant and feminine in a way, nothing else did, not to mention the sheer sensuousness of how the drape fell.
By the time, baby number 2 happened, life changed. I was in a fast paced corporate job with crazy hours and no sarees in sight anywhere. The beautiful 6 yards came out on festive occasions, a few times a year. I kept thinking that I would go back to wearing sarees when I turned 40.
Forty is just around the corner and that old whisper in my head has found new voice. I’ve been wearing old favourites more often and realise that I need more cottons and some new blouses. It gets easier to wear everytime I choose to drape a saree instead of reaching out for my denims. I had stopped buying everyday cotton ones and the rare purchases were silk. Not really my first choice but more appropriate to the events they attended. Almost all my cottons went to Amma as it seemed a pity to have them just sit and occupy space. That lot is long gone now, she uses her sarees really rough, like how I wear my jeans. Sarees are a slower, more graceful garment, feminine and soft. Yet, they also mean business when tucked in at the waist. I forgot how cool they are in our summers, it’s only now as I wear them a little more frequently that old memories come alive.Like, how we would fold sarees after they were starched with rice water (kanji vellam), not the ready to use starch available now. Mom and I would hold the saree and pull it straight as we worked through its length. The two of us would then fold it so that it was perfectly aligned.
A new saree was an extended event as she would go through her bag of saree falls and blouses to see if she had any that matched it. I remember her sewing the fall herself, sometimes I would do it for her. Those slow afternoons with no cable and internet don’t exist anymore.
There would be the inevitable visit to the matching centre to pick the perfect shade of material for the blouse, always coordinated. It was an era of conformation and aesthetics depended on everything being in sync. The neighbourhood tailor would bear the brunt of complaining women as they found fault in his stitching. It didn’t stop them from coming back to him, time and time again. Oscar tailors– that was the name of his outfit. I remember him as a good natured fellow, humouring the ladies and expertly handling them when he delayed on deliveries. There would be design books and almost all the ladies pored over it and decided to do something they always did.
It takes a tiny community to drape six yards of cloth. Weavers to retailers to matching centres and tailors before the fabric hugs the contours of your body. In that sense, it is a shared experience that makes for memories that linger.