Finding my mother’s saris

The first time I wore a sari, it came right off. I had chosen to wear chiffon and pearls and my grandmother draped my sari gingerly while I yelled that I was late. It was my 12th standard convocation ceremony and I wanted to look amazing. But when I reached school, my gawky body betrayed me and I soon stood in a pool of chiffon and my own laughter. Thankfully, the pearls were intact.

I got my second chance with saris in college. Being a (possibly pretentious) Fine Arts student, I was in love with handloom and for me handloom only meant cotton. I scoffed at my mother’s Kanjeevarams and made the trek to Kalakshetra in Chennai, to pick up cotton saris in greys and browns and other ‘subtle’ colours. I wanted to skip free of my colourful Tamizh heritage of Rama blues, lotus pinks, sunset oranges and drape myself in earth tones.

I never wish I’d known better, because the sari isn’t just a garment, it’s a state of transition that defines growing up. Girl to woman. Rebellion to understanding.

This became all the more apparent to me when I started a project, ‘In Her Mother’s Sari’ ( where I asked women to tell me what their mother’s sari meant to them. It opened up a beautiful conversation with so many women across the country who wrote to me, with their stories and their memories. I was suddenly aware that nearly every Indian woman looks upon the sari as a ‘coming of age’ piece. When you are given your first sari, it is your first step into the adult world. It’s hard to not be emotionally invested in it.

This is probably why I am unable to think of the sari as just another piece of clothing in my cupboard, it is such a happy associative memory for me. It reminds me of waking up early to the scent of ‘pujai’ (incense mingled with delicacies) and the sound of MS. Of days where the only agenda was to look pretty, meet family and gorge on everything in sight. Even my dad approved of me on sari-days, as my dangerously-low-waist Levis flapped away (safely hidden) on the washing line, pockets full of lint and angst.

But then, there are friends who tell me that saris are an encumbrance. They’re uncomfortable and they don’t really like wearing them, except on occasions. Maybe that’s because the ‘adakkam’ (Tamil word for feminine/graceful/polite/dormant?) that’s enforced on us from childhood, comes through finally when you wear a sari for the first time. Your first outing is a lesson is sitting still and not making any sudden (un-ladylike) moves for fear of being sari-less. But ‘adakkam’ is really just a hateful word that makes me think of something plugged-up and waiting to break free. I’m happy to say that my sari wearing days have long lost that dormancy. As I find myself comfortably draping one, crossing my legs, uncrossing them, folding them and walking for hours in saris, I am no longer held back by ‘adakkam’ so much as I am set free by the sari. It is a sexy piece of clothing, all hips and waist and subtle curves. An outfit that says ‘woman’ in italics, underlined and bold.

This year, when I turned 30, my uncle gave me the only saris he had, that had once belonged to my own mother. There were four. Being adopted when I was young, I hadn’t really known my mother. I had seen photos, I had heard that she was docile and kind (unlike me, apparently). And terribly intelligent. So when I saw something tangible that actually belonged to her, I wasn’t sure how to feel. It was like looking at someone through the cracks of a closed window. You only catch a glimpse.

The saris of course, were all Kanjeevaram silks. In parrot green, pinks, mustard and audacious gold. The borders were antique, broad and rich and falling apart in that elegant way that only something old and beautiful can. Who knew a piece of silk could mean so much.

With the saris, I now have more than just the image of a woman. More than, nice things that people say about her and her academic achievements. More than photographs where I hunted for familiar features and certainly more than my own hazy memories. I now know something real about someone I never really knew.