By Nina Sudhakar
Photograph by Saima Desai
I am standing in a pool of orange and gold, rhinestones glittering on its surface. I am only knee deep, but after flailing helplessly for twenty minutes it is clear that I am drowning. It takes several additional minutes to accustom myself to this fact, for it feels like a failure as fundamental as forgetting how to breathe. Resigned, I sink to the ground, letting the bright neon waves consume me.
The first time I ever draped a sari, I was 26 years old and, in typical fashion, already running late for something. I was living in Washington, D.C. and had committed to an annual banquet organized by my law school’s South Asian students association. There was no specific dress code, so I decided at the last minute to trade my cocktail dress for a sari. After all, there were stacks of these garments gathering dust on the high shelves of my closet, gifted to me over the course of numerous visits to relatives in India. For what other purpose was I hoarding these if I couldn’t find an excuse to wear them?
I’d worn saris before, but they always seemed to appear on my body fully formed, shaped by the nimble hands of my mother or grandmother. I used to love watching my grandmother drape her saris, her confident fingers moving purely from muscle memory. While she formed perfect pleats without even looking, I’d run my hands over the hundreds of saris in her almirah. One in every conceivable combination of colors, each one with a story, a history, a purpose: This one is a polyester blend which I got the last time I visited you in the U.S.; it’s for wearing around the house. This one is pure cotton, which I got in Mumbai and which is woven and block printed entirely by hand. This one is pure Banarasi silk and it was given to me on my wedding day; it probably has enough gold zari to melt into a necklace.
My grandmother had an encyclopedic knowledge of provenance, materials, and craftsmanship techniques that continually surprised me. The only time I thought about the composition of my clothes was when I did laundry, and even then, just to check that a tag didn’t say “dry clean only.” I wondered whether her expertise stemmed from her artistic nature. For years, before her eyesight grew worse, she had sent us dolls with faces she painted by hand and traditional Indian outfits she sewed in miniature from fabric scraps. Deep down, though, I sensed that when you spend a few minutes every day consciously clothing yourself, letting fabric pass fluidly through your fingers, you simply notice these things.
* * *
Perhaps years of watching relatives drape saris convinced me it would be easy. I thought, being Indian, it might somehow be imprinted in my maternal chromosomes. But it was a skill to learn like any other, to be honed over years of practice. I had never asked anyone to teach me, so now I was left with yards of chiffon that would not resolve itself into an outfit.
The fabric seemed like a magic trick, the one where the magician pulls handkerchiefs out of a black top hat and they are all tied together and keep coming out forever. Was a sari always this much fabric? Which shoulder does the pallu go on again? And how on earth am I supposed to make pleats? In desperation, I turned to Google for answers. Midway through the fifth YouTube video that rushed through all the important parts, I realized I had a better source. I called my mother.
After she finished laughing – a solid several minutes of laughing – she began instructing. Tie your petticoat high and tight enough to account for the weight of the fabric. Measure the length of your pallu at the back of your knee before you start draping. Fold between your thumb and index finger for the right size pleats. It’s always difficult to tell someone how to do something that’s second nature to you, particularly when you have to distill decades of wisdom into simple commands. As we finished, I looked in the mirror and saw that my pleats were uneven and my pallu too long, but I was too buoyed by the feeling of accomplishment to care. How quickly six yards becomes nothing when you have a hundred years of women guiding your hands.
Nina Sudhakar is a writer, photographer and lawyer. Originally from Connecticut (by way of parents from India), she most recently lived in London and is currently based in Indiana. Her work is forthcoming in The Equals Record, BLYNKT online and Stoneboat Literary Journal. She writes about travel and culture on her website Project One Thousand.