By Nivedita Nambrath ’23 for Fall 2020 Issue
One of my favorite parts of visiting India is going sari shopping with my mom. Sari shopping is a journey in itself that requires the dedication of a full day. We’ll wake up early in the morning and walk from our grandparent’s house to the nearby Meenakshi Temple – a grand and venerable institution that is a popular stop for auto rickshaws and street vendors. Here, we find an auto rickshaw, and perhaps we’ll also buy a string of jasmine flowers from one of the women sitting outside the temple. My mom will put the jasmine flowers in our hair, their white buds shining against our black braids. Then we’ll have to assert ourselves against the auto rickshaw driver, who will try to charge us extra – rickshaw drivers are always adept at spotting foreigners and trying to rip them off. But, with a bit of haggling, we’ll reach an agreement. We’ll load ourselves into the autorickshaw and then we’ll be off, exhaust fumes flying behind us as we race into the Indian traffic – a notorious aspect of Indian life that is a daily frustration for locals but a source of romanticism for the visiting tourist. I can’t help but feel overjoyed by the chaos of Indian streets – the sheer anarchy that takes place on those hot and dusty roads feels like liberation in comparison to the sterility of American suburbs. Once we reach the sari shop, we may have to take off our shoes. Inside the shop it is quiet, in stark contrast to the raging outdoors. Agarbatti, or incense, burns in the background, and some devotional music may be playing softly on the speakers. Entering the shop feels similar to entering a temple – here in this sanctuary is safeguarded something beautiful and sacred. The shop employees welcome us and treat us graciously, leading us inside the shop. Lining the walls are rows and rows of saris stacked upon each other, impeccably sorted by color and textile. Blues and greens on one side, purples, golds, and reds on another, Kanjeevaram saris and Mysore silk on this side, cotton silk for more casual wear on the other. It is an ecstasy of color, patterns, and diversity, an embarrassment of riches. A shop attendant will ask us what we are looking for – we will suggest some color or textile – and then the process begins. The attendant will bring us over to one table and pull saris out from various shelves with rapid precision, refining his selection as we indicate what we like and don’t like. Within minutes, tons of silk are spread out on the table, and then are folded up within seconds to make room for more. We will learn about handlooms and textile mills in far parts of India, techniques of pattern printing and dye-making and embroidery that have come from distant parts of the subcontinent to create the sari before us. Then, the employees will help demonstrate what different saris look like on us. We will have silk draped around us, pooling at our feet and running over our shoulders. It is impossible not to feel like a goddess or a queen when wearing a sari.
There is a reason that even through centuries of colonialism, Indian women never abandoned the sari. It represents feminine energy, strength, power, grace, and the invincibility and fortitude that is embodied by Indian women.
Time will slip by like silk beneath our fingertips, and soon our money will too, as we leave the shop with a bag of folded silk in our hands, back on the streets, now gold and sultry in the evening sun. We’ll hail the next auto rickshaw and breathe in contentment as we sit down and watch the city fly by, congratulating each other on a worthwhile excursion completed with great fruition.