Friday, May 7, 2010

Whose Sari Now? A mother and daughter connected by six yards of silk

In honor of my mom this Mother's Day, here's an essay I wrote years ago, for The Boston Globe Magazine.

Whose Sari Now?
By Lylah M. Alphonse

I am sifting through my heritage, looking for something to wear. I'm standing in my mother's closet, looking at a sea of saris.

The array of colors and textures dazzles me, from the rich silks my grandmother wore as a young woman in the 1930s to my mother's gaudy prints from the 1970s.

Many of my mother's saris are old and valuable, worn by women in her family for generations, so I have to pilfer carefully. While she loves my newfound appreciation for saris, I'm not supposed to take any without her permission. Besides, some of them actually still belong to my grandmother, who doesn't know my mother has them (apparently, sneaking saris runs in the family). My mother has no idea how many saris hang in her closet, but she knows when I've been looking through them. I leave no traces, but she is omnipotent and can sense a disturbance in the force.

I stare at the saris greedily. That black one would look great on me; it's embroidered with silver and a little dusty, and I take it because I know my mother prefers gold. Others -- a delicate rose-colored lace, a heavy cream-colored silk with a red and gold border -- I don't dare touch. They instantly transform me into a 5-year-old girl in awe of her mother, who, enveloped in yards of shining silk, has become a goddess. She is radiant. I am afraid I might smudge her with my grimy hands.

My mother never showed any such fear. She would turn around in front of the mirror, checking from all angles to make sure the sari was folded and pleated and tucked properly, asking me to adjust the hem with a careful tug. And I would, even though I was content to sit on the bed and dream of wearing a sari of my own. I happily wore the silk and satin outfits she picked out for me. In these clothes, I felt elegant and grown-up.

But I grew older and things changed. As a teenager, I hated the brightly colored mirrored tunics created especially for me with good intentions by relatives I'd never met. I refused to wear them, or anything else that marked me as "different." A sari was out of the question. I was different enough already: I couldn't wear beribboned barrettes in my kinky-curly hair, my eyes weren't blue, and I wasn't allowed to wear makeup. I adhered rigidly to the code of 1980s prep-school chic: Tretorn sneakers, baggy sweaters in pale pastels, turtlenecks with the necks carefully scrunched down.

Even now, the bulk of my wardrobe is made up of American clothes. I own plenty of little cocktail dresses and a couple of formal gowns. But when I realized I'd be attending five weddings this coming summer, I didn't even think about wearing them or buying another dress. This summer, I would wear saris.

In India, I wore them to parties to blend in; this summer I will wear saris to stand out. They are as formal and appropriate as any full-length gown, but mysterious and exotic in a way that a sheath dress simply is not. Saris provoke comments, admiring stares, questions -- all the things I used to want to avoid. And there's an added benefit: With a sari, I can be sure that no one will show up in the same outfit.

My mother picked out my first sari for me, an elaborate gold-embroidered affair, in 1995, years later than she had planned. She was patient and my grandmother proud as they showed me how to wear it and walk in it. Now I have a small collection of saris of my own, but none right for the weddings. So I head to my parents' place and start to browse. Carefully.

I choose five ornate saris from my mother's closet. I remember how gorgeous she looked in these saris, how I felt watching her get dressed. I drape myself in the yards of shimmering peacock blue that I hope she will lend me and survey myself in her mirror. My mother has always told me how much I look like her. Now, as I gaze at myself in her sari, I finally see what she means.

Copyright The Boston Globe, 2000.

Since I wrote this a decade ago, I've continued to add to my sari collection, stealthily and non-stealthily, buying some on my own and inheriting others from my grandmother after she passed away. My wedding dress was actually a sari -- the same one my mom wore for her 25th wedding anniversary, in fact. I haven't been to any weddings recently, so my 5-year-old has yet to see me fold and pleat and tuck the yards of gorgeous fabric, but no doubt she will soon. And I'm looking forward to the day after the inevitable teenage rebellion has passed, when I can wrap her in one of her own.


Barb said...

As always, it's a pleasure to read this story. I too await for that day, when I see my granddaughter learn how to fold and proudly wear a sari. Happy Mother's Day!

Tehmina Alphonse said...

This story made me smile then,& made me smile again today as i reread it.
I have fond memories of my Su-Massi & Mamaiji and their closets.
Both of them had completly different reactions. SuMassi always giving me carte blanche to take anything & everything,& Mamaiji, warning me not to touch on pain of anything & everything.
I hope I can be there to show all of my Granddaughters how to drape a sari for the first time.I feel that is a rite of passage every little girl should enjoy.