I Fell In Love With Saris During The Pandemic, & Came Home To Myself
I found myself mesmerized by images of gorgeous, colorful saris, transported at once to my past and to my potential future.
I admit I’m hard-pressed to explain why I’ve bought fifteen saris in the past six months. Especially since I’ve only worn two saris in the last year and a half, one last Diwali and one a few weeks ago during my family’s celebration of Durga Puja, a Hindu festival honoring the Goddess Durga, which coincided with my daughter’s second birthday. Even before the pandemic, I only wore a sari twice or thrice a year at key cultural events, such as Diwali, or milestone celebrations, like Indian weddings.
I’ve always been fascinated by saris, how six yards of cloth can transform itself into the most flattering drape for a woman’s body while also transforming the body of its wearer, highlighting curves she wants to accentuate while providing graceful coverage for areas she’d rather not. The sari has been both everyday and exotic to me. Growing up in New York City and later in suburban New Jersey, and visiting family in India yearly, my mother and grandmother wore saris daily — cotton, chiffon, and crepe silk at home and on errands; grand silks, gilded with zari, elaborate gold threadwork, for special occasions.
My mother is masterful and meticulous at draping a sari, her pallu gathered and pinned over her shoulder while each fold of her front pleats is evenly gathered and tucked at her waist. Through the years, I’ve witnessed many Indian aunties complimenting her on both her saris and how she wears them. She would come home after a long day of wearing slacks and a blouse while seeing patients at the office, or donning scrubs in the operating room to deliver babies, and change into a sari to get comfortable.
Friends who came over after school and on weekends were treated to Indian snacks like chana chur (think Indian Chex mix) by my mom dressed in her trademark sari, bindi, and gold jewelry and they would ask me if she was always this dressed up. I’d laugh and tell them, “That’s nothing, you should see her when she goes out.” We rarely had name-brand clothes, but whether dressed in jeans or a salwar kameez, I learned from her to leave the house kempt and well-appointed.
Rather than searching for the latest trends in pandemic loungewear — much more suited to my life as the mother of a toddler who works from home in a small town — I found myself mesmerized by images of gorgeous, colorful saris, transported at once to my past and to my potential future.
Meanwhile, I’ve always found the process of putting on a sari laborious, from tying a petticoat tight enough to give myself rope burns (my mother insists this is necessary so that the sari doesn’t fall off), to squeezing into the practically stitched-onto-you blouses, to the final alchemy of transforming six voluminous yards of cloth into a well draped sari, where every part is in harmony with each other and my body. I even once wrote about the perils of “peek-a-boob,” a wardrobe malfunction resulting from not draping a sari just right.
Given all of this, it’s hard to rationalize how and why, several months into the Covid lockdown, I found myself scrolling through online sari purveyors, most of whom are themselves Indian women obsessed with saris. Rather than searching for the latest trends in pandemic loungewear — much more suited to my life as the mother of a toddler who works from home as a writer in a small town — I found myself mesmerized by images of gorgeous, colorful saris, transported at once to my past and to my potential future.
Perhaps, that is exactly why saris beckoned to me during a time when my life had shifted dramatically from being a childless writer soaking up the cultural offerings of frenetic city life to a mother of a toddler adjusting to the calm but isolating trappings of small town life where outings were most often hikes or ice cream pit stops.
As discomfiting as it is for me to get into a sari, I feel like a goddess once enfolded within one. I also have a sense of belonging, as if this piece of clothing that shares my own cultural origin story was created just for me. When I’m draped in a sari, I’m filled with a deep-seated love for my body, my culture, and my identity.
Of the handful of saris I had before the pandemic, most of them were bought for me for my own wedding or for the weddings of my siblings. I had no hand in selecting them. So, I’ve been relishing the chance to choose saris based on my own preferences of colors, styles, materials, drape. I was already fairly knowledgeable about several different regional styles of saris, from translucent Jamdanis and colorfully embroidered Kanthas tied to my father’s Bengali heritage to heavy, elaborate silk Kanchipurams and lighter Mysore crepe silks tied to my mother’s South Indian heritage. I’ve also enjoyed immersing myself in learning about new styles of saris from other regions, such as embroidered Lambanis and blockprint Ajrakhs. But my favorite remains the colorful geometric weaves of Patola Ikats. I’ve surprised myself by buying styles I’d never heard of before in bold colors I might never have risked in normal circumstances – bright red, deep pink interwoven with dark violet, turquoise ombré.
Every time a sari arrives on my front porch, it’s like Christmas… actually more like Diwali, when new clothes are part of the festive celebrations of light and renewal. I usually wait until my daughter is asleep to open up the package, unraveling the sari fold by fold, my eyes marveling in its colorful splendor, my hands running over the texture of the fabric and its embroidered body and borders. And then I carefully wrap them back up and place them in the special clothing storage boxes I bought just for this purpose. In truth, I’ve only worn one of them and that was just a few weeks ago at our family’s home celebration of Durga puja. (My mother helped me wear it because why drape alone when I have access to a master draper?)
On her second birthday, she looked at me the same way I once looked at my mother in a sari, like I belonged to her while also belonging to myself.
The styles and weaving techniques of saris vary widely from region to region as do the materials and prices. Simple cotton saris can be inexpensive, while silks generally cost more. I bought a range of silk saris costing on average between $150 to $250 each, which interestingly is more than I spend on wardrobe staples like jeans, dresses, or purses. As more and more handloom textiles are being replaced by mass-made machine ones, it’s nice to invest in time-honored crafts and their artisans.
I’ve built a collection, which while much smaller than my mother’s, is probably brighter and more eclectic and most importantly, my own. But given the pandemic and having a toddler who cannot yet be vaccinated, when will I wear all of them? I have no idea. Perhaps that’s part of what attracted me, the lack of agenda or utility. The act of buying these saris was a leap of faith to a time when we would once again dress up and celebrate together. Acquiring them helped me believe in that future time while also remembering what my body feels like when adorned in a sari.
My 2-year-old, Daya, has only seen me in a sari twice. On her second birthday, she looked at me the same way I once looked at my mother in a sari, like I belonged to her while also belonging to myself. I think she believed my sari was part of her birthday celebration. She tucked herself away under the folds of my pallu in an impromptu game of peek-a-boo which helped me see that saris can fit into life with my toddler. I wonder when and if she will wear a sari and what she will one day make of this collection I accrued while the world paused even as she was blossoming with new words and skills.
Perhaps this can be the start of a new tradition, where I wear a sari on Daya’s birthday as I serve up birthday cake and paisam, a milk-based pudding made to commemorate special occasions (I’ll have to learn to make it first). I don’t have adequate answers or explanations for my newfound obsession, but as we gather with family to light the diyas and prepare festive treats this Diwali, I’ll be wearing one of my treasured new saris.