Was It Me, or Was It My Sari?
I Wonder: Was It Me or Was It My Sari? Strangers smiled and Indian cabbies raced to pick me up—but after a month, I was ready for my khakis By Shoba Narayan Newsweek, March 13, 2000 A sari for a month. It shouldn't have been a big deal but it was. After all, I had grown up around sari-clad women in India. My mother even slept in one. In India, saris are adult attire. After I turned 18, I occasionally wore a sari for weddings and holidays and to the temple. But wearing a sequined silk sari to an Indian party was one thing. Deciding to wear a sari every day while living in New York, especially after 10 years in Western clothes, sounded outrageous, even to me.
The sari is six yards of fabric folded into a graceful yet cumbersome garment. Like a souffle, it is fragile and can fall apart at any moment. When worn right, it is supremely elegant and unabashedly feminine. However, it requires sacrifices.
No longer could I sprint across the street just before the light changed. The sari forced me to shorten my strides. I couldn't squeeze into a crowded subway car for fear that someone would accidentally pull and unravel my sari. I couldn't balance four grocery bags in one hand and pull out my house keys from a convenient pocket with the other. By the end of the first week, I was lumbering around my apartment, feeling clumsy and angry with myself. What was I trying to prove?
The notion of wearing a sari every day was relatively new for me. During my college years—the age when most girls in India begin wearing saris regularly—I was studying in America. As an art student at Mount Holyoke, I hung out with purple-haired painters and rabble-rousing feminists wearing ink-stained khakis and cut-off T shirts. During a languid post-graduation summer in Boston, when I sailed a boat and volunteered for an environmental organization, I wore politically correct, recycled Salvation Army clothes. After getting married, I became a Connecticut housewife experimenting with clothes from Jones New York and Ann Taylor. Through it all, I tried to pick up the accent, learn the jargon and affect the posture of the Americans around me.
Then I moved to New York and became a mother. I wanted to teach my 3-year-old daughter Indian values and traditions because I knew she would be profoundly different from her preschool classmates in religion (we are Hindus), eating habits (we are vegetarians) and the festivals we celebrated. Wearing a sari every day was my way of showing her that she could melt into the pot while retaining her individual flavor.
It wasn't just for my daughter's sake that I decided to wear a sari. I was tired of trying to fit in. Natalie Cole had never spoken to me as eloquently as M.S., a venerable Indian singer. I couldn't sing the lyrics of Ricky Martin as easily as I could sing my favorite Hindi or Tamil songs. Much as I enjoyed American cuisine, I couldn't last four days without Indian food. It was time to flaunt my ethnicity with a sari and a bright red bindi on my forehead. I was going to be an immigrant, but on my own terms. It was America's turn to adjust to me.
Slowly, I eased into wearing the garment. Strangers stared at me as I sashayed across a crowded bookstore. Some of them caught my eye and smiled. At first, I resented being an exhibit. Then I wondered: perhaps I reminded them of a wonderful holiday in India or a favorite Indian cookbook. Grocery clerks enunciated their words when they spoke to me. Everywhere, I was stopped with questions about India as if wearing a sari had made me an authority. One Japanese lady near Columbus Circle asked to have her picture taken with me. A tourist had thought that I was one, too, just steps from my home.
But there were unexpected advantages. Indian cabdrivers raced across lanes and screeched to a halt in front of me when I stepped into the street to hail a taxi. When my daughter climbed high up the Jungle-Gym in Central Park, I gathered my sari and prepared to follow, hoping it wouldn't balloon out like Marilyn Monroe's dress. One of the dads standing nearby watched my plight and volunteered to climb after her. Chivalry in New York? Was it me or was it my sari?
Best of all, my family approved. My husband complimented me, my parents were proud of me. My daughter oohed and aahed when I pulled out my colorful saris. When I cuddled her in my arms, scents from the vetiver sachets that I used to freshen my sari at night escaped from the folds of cloth and soothed her to sleep. I felt part of a long line of Indian mothers who had rocked their babies this way.
Soon, the month was over. My self-imposed regimen was coming to an end. Instead of feeling liberated, I felt a twinge of unease. I had started enjoying my sari.
Saris were impractical for America, I told myself. I would continue to wear them, but not every day. It was time to revert to my sensible khakis. It was time to become American again.
Narayan is a writer living in New York City.
Topic: traditions and customs