There’s only so much you need to tuck in, to make sure your feet don’t show, and yet keep the delicate edge save from being trampled on. You swivel the entire length of the drape around, gauging silently and just knowing, as if by magic, just how much leeway you should allow. It’s something you feel in your bones, your fingers deftly follow suit, working the pleats, while your waist welcomes the tight knots, and learns the perfectly-timed tucks and knows every obstinate tug.
You know just how much play to allow for, so the cloth makes room for flexibility and movement. That stray, puffed out triangle that clearly belongs in no-mans land, but invariably forms awkwardly at the right hip? You pinch it loosely, lazily. And then you leave it be, of course. Because you’ve learned over time, that not everything has a perfect place in which to fit into. (Sometimes it’s okay to stick out, you tell yourself.) You do what you always do, you envelope it beneath the swathe that drapes over your side, across the chest and down your left shoulder.
Eventually, you figure out the long and short of it. The length you allocate to the cascading bit that flows down your shoulder, that crucial part that weighs the garment down, keeping it in place, will dictate how many or how few rippling pleats you will end up with. Longer, makes you look slimmer. Shorter, makes you look dowdy, they tell you. Pin it up neatly, it keeps the fuss out of your face. Pleated perfectly, is prettiest, they coax you to make a habit of that perfection.
But much trial and error will result in the inevitable realisation that there is no perfect long or short to it. The perfect length is in fact any length you want it to be. Maybe like me, you figured early on that neatly pinned is not your style. Unbecoming as it may be, gathering the pallu in exactly the way it allows itself to be gathered and carelessly slapping it over your shoulder came most naturally. And it stayed that way, to become the only way you ever wore your pallu.
From doing it over and over, you learn how every kind of fabric falls differently. How a freshly starched kota or cotton sari has a way of surrounding you a few inches outside of your body. The much better behaved, well-used cottons, softened with multiple wears and washes know the curves on your body and cling to them lovingly. Heavy silks needed taming, with pins and clips you showed them the way and eventually, mastered wearing them too. The chiffons and crepes were never your thing – too lady-like, too prim and proper, and way too many pins.
Sometime last week, I caught myself wondering where this all began, the fascination for the saree and jogged my memory back to when I might have picked up just how it was done, this business of draping it. Like a baby elephant with knobby-knees and shaky legs, picks itself up and takes that first step, minutes after it is born, knowing how to drape a saree came quite naturally. Baby elephants take that first miraculous step like naturals, and I remember the first time I put a saree on all by myself the steps just unfolding in my mind, almost like the saree put itself on me.
I don’t remember ever having learned the ways, in the conventional sense. Nobody showed me how it was done. No step-by-step tutorials or hands-on demonstrations. Most of it came through mere observation.
If one ever needs proof that we learn, and more importantly imbibe, cultural subtleties through osmosis, this is it. The rest, I’m putting down to instinct. Because ever since the very first instance I put a saree on all by myself, I remember feeling so perfectly comfortable, like I was in a second skin.
For as far back as my mind can stretch, I remember watching amma get dressed in front of the teak cupboard with the full-length mirror. It was my grandfather’s, I was told. A single cupboard, with just one door that opened left to right, it held pretty much all the clothes both my parents owned, for the longest time. Until the first steel cupboard came home, long after my sister was born, because that was finally when my parents could afford one.
I mostly just watched in awe, as amma draped her saree on, with that casual comfort and perfect ease. Whether we were in a rush, whether she had half an hour to get dressed; whether she was angry, happy, sad or overjoyed, whatever the mood; whether it was a slippery crepe, a heavy kanjeevaram or a shy and impossible to pin-down chiffon, he did it like she owned the art of wearing her saree. And she wore them a lot and all the time. Even today, when I think of her, I picture her in a saree, with her red Gopuram kumkum bindi perfectly large and round, moulded with the back of a pen dipped into Vaseline and followed by kumkum. Her style, it was easy. It was simple. It was comfortable. And just so impossibly graceful.
So perhaps some of it is genetic, or natural. Because I took considerable interest in sarees when I was growing up, even collected a decent number for my wedding trousseau – a process that began very casually many years before the boy I was going to marry even came into my life. Clearly it was more about the sarees than the wedding. Or the trousseau. And then when I moved to Goa, somehow that excitement waned, and all my sarees remained in Bangalore under amma’s able care and experience. Until recently, when my facebook and twitter timelines have begun to be inundated with so many gorgeous women in their fabulous sarees.
Something stirred within me, and I longed to wear them again. Goa doesn’t give me enough occasions or opportunities to. I work from home, I barely ever socialise at events that justify a saree, and I’ve been to less than half a dozen weddings here.
The opportunity finally came when I was in Bangalore last month, and I excitedly picked out two sarees to wear when I went to meet friends. I surprised myself when I was able to drape it in no time at all, no pins to boot. Its been about six years since I did it last. So maybe, like cycling and swimming, draping all 6 yards of a saree, is a skill we never forget?
A delightful saree-date happened, with these lovelies dressed in their sarees as we had planned.
It was supposed to be a quick date but four hours of non stop chatter, giggles, shock and awe stories and a thunderstorm later, we realised it was nearly dinner time, we’d polished off half a chocolate pie, one of us didn’t have a ride home and the other had successfully missed gym. Apparently hanging out in a hip café in Bangalore, in a saree was totally normal. And if there’s one reason to love and hang on to your girlfriends, it’s for making losing track of time seem so natural.
A couple of days later, I hung out with these lovelies, dressed in their sarees as we had planned again.
More beers than I usually have on a weekday afternoon were consumed, and a lot of colourful food was eaten. We then waddled over for ice cream, while two of us convinced the third that it was perfectly fine to continue on that pre-planned shopping spree, and change out of her saree in a changing room. But that outing however, didn’t go plan. On account of overeating and food coma. I suppose meeting friends to drink beer and overeat to a point where you have to cancel all plans and head home for a nap is also totally normal.
I hadn’t bought a saree in years, and so when the latest purchase arrived last week, I couldn’t even wait to get the false stitched before I wore it. It was a horribly rushed morning and I had just 5 minutes to decide if I was going to wear the saree and actually put it on. The decision was made in half a minute and the saree worn in about three.
Last week, after a long, long wait, I finally got tickets to watch the National Award-Winning Konkani film Nachom-ia Kumpasar. The event didn’t seem like a saree-worthy one, but I decided I was done waiting for the right occasions. Women across the country have been wearing them everyday, bringing them out of the recesses of their cupboards, and several thousands have been wearing them day in and out for generations now. My grandmother’s generation wear them through all seasons, times of day and year, whether going out, staying in, whatever the case may be. So many take public transport, some drive, walk through city traffic and go to work in sarees. I don’t see why I need to wait for an occasion.
So I wore a saree to the movie. And lunch afterwards. By the end of it, we’d decided we’re going to try and meet every so often for a catch-up. And we’re going to wear sarees. Of course.