The Indian sari, if worn correctly, is a beautiful thing. I should know—I’ve been sneaking into them my whole life. Just ask my under-appreciated and overly frustrated father.
As a child, the sari was even more important to my existence than my ever-so-holy Lee Press On Nails (cheap, over the counter, extend-a-nail for kids on a budget who wanted to look like a two-bit country western singer). Unlike those detachable four-inch plastic nails, I honestly believed I couldn’t live without the sari—to me, it wasn’t just fashionable, like the hot, new acid-washed jeans everyone had to have. The sari was about tradition. It was downright patriotic. The Indian woman’s number one fashion choice said a whole lot about India without saying anything at all.
Some people thought it was the venerable Gandhi who masterfully led the way to peace in my country of origin (through the troubled 40’s and 50’s), but I suspect it was the unassuming sari that kept India from falling apart, one yard at a time. And I was determined to devote my life to its adoration. Needless to say, in the small Texas town I grew up in—if you could call it growing, more like marinating—I was alone in my adoration. I was a one-boy army in a world populated with ignorant fabric-dingbats and the only one in my family who had enough sense to realize that the sari wasn’t just for formal parties, graduations, and Sunday dinners. That’s probably why I kept getting into them.
Once, my mother caught me in her closet, about 3/4 of the way into some much needed sari worship. I was getting into her cherished wedding sari, the one that she said never to look at, let alone touch. She kind of saw me eying it nervously one afternoon like the last drumstick on earth while she was cleaning out her closet. It was a red silk number with at least fifty pounds of gold threading and tons of expensive beads and tassels. It looked amazing on and off the rack, and the shocked expression on my father’s face when he saw me getting into it was priceless and worth all the trouble I got into.
I don’t know what the big deal was. Even though I was only four feet tall, I looked pretty good for a boy.
“You’re not a girl!” my mother wailed, reminding me of the obvious. “Boys don’t wear saris. What has gotten into you?” she screamed as I finished getting dressed. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time, to just get the thing off the ground, over my shoulder and around my body, like a proper Indian lady. Besides, it was safer to get dressed in case my father wanted to beat some sense into me. I could run faster without it being wrapped around my feet and tripping me. Plus, I was closer to being fully dressed than undressed, well on my way to Miss India 1984 than myself, a boring old teenage boy. But poor “old-fashioned, out of touch Papa” did not see the world my way—through saffron colored glasses.
“Are you possessed by the devil?” my mother marveled. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
I didn’t answer. Instead, I ignored her and tried to sneak out the door hoping she was too stunned to move. That meant having to get around her and out the door. It was going to be hard because she was blocking my way with her slightly bent over fifty-something year old Indian lady body.
“Don’t blame India or the sari, or the devil,” I pleaded, racking the fat manila folders in my mind that were stuffed with excuses for such tough situations. Sadly, in my haste, I went with the first folder and missed the nifty little ‘do not use’ warning slapped across the top. “I’m Prince from Purple Rain,” I assured my Mum, “that’s why I’m getting into the sari. Prince is very talented and also a lady sometimes. But people like him.”
Mum wasn’t buying it. Any hope of emancipation and wearing the sari out in the open went up in flames
“Prince? Who is this crazy Prince?” And then she thought about it for a moment. “No more YEM-TV,” my mother roared, blaming the television as usual. As far as she was concerned, everything stupid came from television. “No more TV for you kids. We should have left you kids back in India where boys are boys and girls are girls.”
When I tried to get past her, she stopped me, grabbed both my shoulders and gave me a serious all over body shake. But it was my fault for trying to run, when I should have just held my ground and tried to talk some sense into her. Not the easiest thing to do. Trying to outsmart one of my parents was next to impossible. But still, I tried to reason with her.
“Can’t we call it a toga?” I begged. “Like back in the age of the Greeks. Socrates wore a toga and he was a brilliant know-it-all,” I reminded my mom, humbly filling up the awkward image of me in a dress with Greek Mythology.“ I’ll do anything—mow the lawn, take a vow of chastity, become an alter boy, anything! You name it, it’s done.”
She took a breath but didn’t jump at my astute offer. The alter boy thing was like a grenade, my last resort, a ‘use only if there’s an emergency’ thing. It was bound to ruffle her already ruffled feathers. My parents were super religious and doing their part in our age-old Orthodox Church Service. It was no secret. Having one of their own up in the alter and away from all the normal people on the church floor for the rest of the parishioners to ogle would be too much for them.
Despite the possibility of me being ringside with nirvana, Mummy didn’t budge. “No togas, no saris, and no more dancing around with a tablecloth on your head,” she said, laying down the law.
With those words, she killed my top two reasons to live. If she had said I could not listen to my Harper Valley PTA soundtrack anymore, I would have thrown myself off the Tallahassee Bridge.
“Fine,” I said, pulling myself away from her, with the sari falling at my feet like a limp noodle. I just didn’t care anymore. I went to my room and barricaded myself, determined to not become cruelly disillusioned with the world despite having to deal with so much insanity at my tender age.
Basically, Mummy didn’t get it. Despite having seen it all back in India when she was a girl, she didn’t want to be the mother of a teenage boy in a sari. Maybe if she took the time to check me out and get over how strange I was, she would have seen past the kooky ‘boy-in-a-dress thing’ and admit I really knew how to work a sari. And if my father wanted someone to scream at regarding how his son had turned out, he need not look any further than my own mother. It was her fault, I reasoned. She did teach me everything I knew about the sari.
Contrary to popular belief, sari wrapping was not instinct. I wasn’t born with the ‘know-how.’ The instructions skipped my lazy tomboy older sister (who could not be bothered) and came to me thanks to my very own mother. My sister turned my mother down, said she was mad at our folks for not letting her go on the annual sophomore field trip to Washington D.C. But that wasn’t it. I knew the truth. It was just an excuse for her to sit in her room and read romance novels by the dozen, all day long, until her eyes glazed over like donuts. So that left me to fill my mother’s craving for mother-daughter experiences. Good for me.
And I just so happened to look really, really good.