Sunday, January 18, 2009

Sari about that!

Okay. So I have notes in my travel journal from 9 years ago and I make good notes. And then I googled it - don't cha just love Google? I found a few sites with step-by-step instructions. It can't be that hard, just a tuck here, a wrap there, a pleat or 5 and we're on our way, right? Piece a cake! (Or so I told Emma, our fabulous 20 year old nanny).


Not. Let me explain. I have worn a sari exactly six times in my life. Three of those times I had women who wear saris almost every day helping me to dress. The other three times I was in Canada where I can pull off the almost-but-not-quite- properly-wrapped-sari thing as long as I walk with my head held high and avoid Little India. I like wearing saris. They are stunning on pretty much every figure - tall, short, chunky, or boney, all women look graceful in a sari. Peasant women wear them one way (you need to be able to squat whilst making bricks by hand), fashionable Calcuttans another. Some are made of the thinnest of cottons, others are of heavy silk with gilded borders. The sari comes in three parts: an ankle-length underskirt that has a drawstring waist, a short blouse that has been tailored to you and is always very snug and 5 to 7 metres of fabric. One end of the swath of fabric is usually differentiated from the rest by a change in pattern, colour or design. It is called the pallav and is about a metre in length. This is the bit that hangs over the shoulder and down the back. Apparently they make something now called an "automatic sari" that you pull on like a skirt with the pleats sewn in place in front and on the shoulder piece of the pallav. But that's cheating. And we don't cheat.


So when we were invited by Venu to his sister's wedding, Emma and I decided that we needed to purchase saris. I own two already from our last trip here - I was married in a sari! - but I cunningly didn't bother to bring them. I mean, really, who BRINGS a sari to India? Off we went to Mahatma Gandhi Road, to one of the many fabric emporia in search of the perfect sari fabric.


Emma and I have very similar taste in both colour and design of fabric and neither of us likes anything too busy, too blue or too bright. The women here look stunning in fuschia and neon turquoise with sequins but Emma and I look washed out. We were first shown into the silk room. Here saris cost between Rs 1000 and Rs 4000 ($25-$100). We were shown to little stools in front of long counters in AC comfort. Behind the counters rainbow-walls of stacks and stacks of saris in almost every colour and combination you can imagine (and then some! Emma and I have often commented that the most unlikely colour combinations are put together here and, yet, they somehow work.). The shop assistants started pulling the stacks down and flinging the lengths of fabric onto the counter in front of us Emma and I sat, shaking our heads. Too busy. Too pink. This one would be beautiful if the border wasn't orange. Do you have anything in green? What about black? Emma and I started chanting our mantra, that apparently went unheard: "simple, simple. too fancy". More neon colours and intricate patterns in sequins came out. And as the 50th sari was being piled on top and the assistants were beginning to look exasperated, Emma and I got up, somewhat sheepishly, and decided to try the other room. The room where there are no seats, no AC and saris start at Rs 200.


We did end up finding fabric that we were both happy with. Emma bought a beautiful red and gold silk sari that makes her look like a princess and I bought a black cotton sari with gold and ochre borders. We each spent less than $30. Next we hopped in an autorickshaw and whizzed back to our neighbourhood to visit our tailor. Yes. We have a tailor. His name is Sunil. Emma and I have been dropping off our clothing that wasn't quite fitting right - a little too loose in the waist, a little too tight in the arms - with Sunil for almost a month now. His little shop up on KK Road does good alterations for as little as Rs 40 ($1). A couple of weeks ago I had a salwar kameez (tunic and pants) made for me. The 5.5 metres of fabric cost me about $6, the labour was half that. Sunil is handsome and has a spectacular smile. He strikes me as a bit of a charmer, which in his line of work, dealing mostly with women, is probably advantageous. But his English is limited, and our Malayalam is less than that, and this language barrier makes him a little shy with us. After taking measurements and consulting about necklines and sleeve lengths, Sunil assured us that our sari blouses would be ready for us to pick up the day before our departure.


So once our blouses were made and we tried them on to make sure they fit (barely! Gosh they make them snug), we piled them into our suitcases for the trip to Kannur. Venu had 2 wonderful friends, Sanju and Siraj, who had come in from out of town as well and who hung out with us at the wedding. Siraj is from Andhra Pradesh where they speak Telugu, not Malayalam so, like us, he communicated mostly in English. Sanju is Keralan and, like Venu, works in a Call Centre so his English is excellent. He was so good with the boys, making paper boats and airplanes for them and taking them for walks through the village. All the young men were interested in talking with Emma - no surprise there! I believe Emma has been compared (favourably) to at least 4 different Bollywood stars.


Siraj is a teaser. The kind of boy who pulls a girl's pigtails because he likes her. He spent most of the day before the wedding, when Emma and I were attired in the easy-to-wear salwar kameez, teasing Emma that she wouldn't be able to pull off a sari. People here take pride in the sari's difficulties. A woman who can wear a sari is a force to be reckoned with. Of course he also teased her a great deal about her "lack of appetite". Anyone who knows Emma knows that she eats just fine! Even when she has to eat 2 lunches in a row as we did on the wedding day. Siraj was starting to grate on the nerves, just a bit.


The day of the wedding, Emma and I gave ourselves an hour to figure out the whole sari thing. I had neglected to bring safety pins with me so we had to run out to a "fancy shop" to purchase some. I pleated and wrapped Emma first. After a few adjustments, I thought she looked pretty good - although the pallav wasn't as long as I would have liked and she didn't feel entirely "secure". Then I dressed myself. My pallav was about the right length but I felt bulky near the waist - and no woman wants a bulky waist! Oh well. We slapped bindis on our foreheads and we figured we were ready to go.


Venu arrived in the lobby to pick us up and we all filed out of our room to go down to meet him. As Emma and I walked by the cleaning lady she hissed at us. No, hiss isn't the right word. In Kerala when people want to get your attention they create a sound that is something in between a hiss and a sharp intake of air between their teeth. And there is none of the negative connotation that a hiss has attached to it. So the cleaning lady hissed at Emma and me. Then she shook her head and started adjusting Emma's sari. I told Rob to go ahead and take the boys downstairs with him, we'd be along in a moment. The cleaning lady motioned for us to follow her back into our room.


Once in the room, she completely unwrapped Emma and, starting from the beginning, started to make perfect pleats. It took about 20 minutes for us both to be entirely re-wrapped and adjusted. Rob sent Miles up to see what was taking so long. We kicked him out using the time-honoured expression: " We'll be ready when we're ready". We returned our attention to the cleaning lady. She turned us and tucked. She held out a hand for a safety pin, and then another (one for the waist pleats, one on the pallav pleats). She tugged and flipped. She knelt and tugged to make sure the saris were the right length. When she had finely determined that we were up to snuff, she wiggled her head and opened the door. Not a word had been spoken. I pressed a tip in her hand. She handed it back. I pressed a little more forcefully. She smiled a bashful, shy smile and wouldn't meet my eyes but did accept the tip. We thanked her (one of our few non-food words in Malayalam - "nani") and headed downstairs.


The boys were a little irritated at being kept waiting but when Emma and I walked out onto that street, we had a wow moment. People stopped talking, the vendors and wallahs nodded appreciatively and Siraj didn't say a word. Not one. Boy, can Emma wear a sari.

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