The women in my family are columns of silk when they wear saris. Statuesque, taller somehow, unattainable in their grace and assuredness, as if they wore the fabric like power. They took small steps but also long strides. They wore high heels that daggered into the floor of hotel ballrooms, leaving behind tiny indentations in the shag as they walked. Their pallus draped over their arms and bounced gently when they moved. For a long time, I felt like I could never be them.
In my family, and in many others, when a girl receives her first sari it marks a departure from girlhood into womanhood. These yards of fabric somehow bridged the bottomless chasm between the two modes, and I never understood how. The first time it was brought up that maybe I was old enough to wear a sari and put aside my trusty salwaar kameez, a tiny fear took hold of me. What if I fell flat on my face? What if my stomach rolled over the top, squeezed between the skirt and the blouse? What if everyone knew I wasn’t ready? Irrational questions capsized my confidence over and over. So even when my mother draped the sari around me, pleating it perfectly and pinning it in place, I was ready for it to crumble off of me into a pile at my feet. I wobbled on my heels and struggled to walk in tandem with the pleats. I was so ready for everything to come undone, I could only smile painfully in pictures and sit down whenever possible. I couldn’t even imagine putting a sari on myself at that point. I wore a sari once that wedding week and spent the rest of the nights in anarkalis and suits, outfits I felt I had total control over. A sari had a mind of its own.
Putting on a sari felt like playing dress up, as if I was someone else’s doll.
When esteemed designer Sabyasachi went on record earlier this year saying Indian women should all know how to tie a sari, I wanted to scream. “I think, if you tell me that you do not know how to wear a saree, I would say shame on you,” he said at the Harvard India Conference. “It’s a part of your culture, [you] need stand up for it.” It’s not so easy, I raged online, and it’s unnecessary as hell for a man to weigh in on this. But I also didn’t know how to articulate my shame at not knowing how to tie a sari. It was like how I can’t speak Hindi or how I’ve moved so far away from my family. It was as if I had made a conscious decision to separate myself from these big parts of myself, even though that wasn’t quite true, and now I was being called out for it. I hated it.
I knew I was being dramatic, but I couldn’t help but look at saris suspiciously. I just wasn’t suited to them. I wasn’t going to be the kind of woman who could wear one. Putting on a sari felt like playing dress up, as if I was someone else’s doll. They were almost unnatural on me. But after one disastrous experience in which a “professional” sari draper at my cousin’s wedding tied my sari so messily it fell apart, I realized my doubts were all in my head. If this woman could say she knew how to drape saris even as the one she tied for me came undone in a matter of minutes, there was nothing stopping me from learning to do it myself. There was no secret door to womanhood I had yet to unlock, or an arcane riddle I had to solve. As I fixed her work, adjusting the border so it lay against my stomach rather than cinched underneath, retucking the pleats which were thankfully sewn together already, I saw there wasn’t that much to it. It required practice, yes, but it wasn’t, as I thought before, unattainable.
At that point I was done letting other people dress myself. I knew I had to learn to do it myself if I was going to enjoy wearing one at all. I could have turned to the thousands upon thousands of sari draping tutorials on YouTube, but I wanted a more personal touch. So I called Sarika Persaud, a sari draper based in New York City, to help me out.
She taught me how to do a classic Nivi style drape in about fifteen minutes, first tying it on herself so I could see the order of actions and then encouraging me in my attempts. I picked it up pretty quickly, which shocked both of us, so we spent the rest of the hour talking about the history of saris and where our fears about them come from.
My doubts around the sari’s implied femininity and immodesty were not foreign to Persaud. Nor were my feelings about it being too complicated, somehow, and only reserved for extremely special events. There was something twisted about what the sari had become in the diaspora’s imagination.
“If you look back to ancient times there was no such thing as the sari there was no such thing as the dhoti, there was a piece of cloth that people tied,” Persaud said during our chat. “The sari could be outside of gender but we don’t use it that way sadly in popular culture.”
There was freedom in the garment once, she said. It wasn’t always such a strict determination of gender or sexuality. It’s a multi-faceted object in itself, considered both sexy and modest, feminine, masculine, and non-binary. It also wasn’t a tool for body-shaming, the way it’s become. Unstitched yards of fabric are fundamentally malleable and are meant to twist around your body, regardless of size and dimension. But we’ve all been pinched and poked by aunties clucking over our size, big or small. We’ve felt exposed with our bellies out.
And maybe instead of ignoring or overcoming these doubts, we just distanced ourselves from the garment itself. And maybe, as Persaud told me was the case with her Guyanese community, we lost the knowledge because it was forcibly removed.
“Over generations I saw [sari-tying] was knowledge that was lost. Either it was beaten out of people or we started to value Western culture so much more,” Persaud said. “Even a lot of people in my mom’s generation don’t know how to tie saris but they’ll go to a tailor who’ll sew the pleats, basically sew the saris or make it into a gown that you can zip up.”
There was ingenuity in the loss of knowledge, but also a slight sadness. Something so simple and inherent felt distant, in little or in huge ways. This was the lot that came with our history, our immigration patterns, our dawning gender awareness.
After our session I felt relieved. Overwhelmingly so. As if I had crossed something off my infinite to do list that I had forgotten about. I wanted to keep practicing, like solving a rubik’s cube – once you know the algorithm you can’t help but keep repeating it. I draped a simple sari my mother had sent me last year. I took it off and retied it, trying the different alterations Persaud had shown me. I could do it. My pleats needed a little polishing, but they looked good. Their inconsistencies were practically invisible. I tried it with different tops and fantasized about wearing it in public, during the day with no wedding to go to. Wearing it on picnics and to work. I didn’t want to take it off.
I owe it all to the time I spent with Persaud. She met my humility with her own, and it was matched by the simplicity of our work. There was no power imbalance, like there is with an aunty, and there was no confusion, like when the video tutorial continues on faster than you can keep up. It was relaxed and easy, just like I’m beginning to feel in the saris I try on.