My earliest sari memory is that of burying my face deep into my working-mother’s aanchal right after she returned from work. It smelled of Cuticura talcum powder and cigarettes. It’s a smell I still associate with Ma, who has long-stopped using that brand of talcum powder (but has not given up smoking). My mother accepted this ritual as a display of affection from her six-year-old, which may well have been the case. But the bigger truth is, I liked saris. I liked the feel of her Vimal Synthetic saris against my cheek. The patterns, big and small, were my childhood talismans, my fingers would draw them out on dust-covered glass surfaces. Whenever we had to go out, I would park myself right in front of Ma’s wardrobe. I wanted to have a say in which sari Ma wore, I wanted her to look like Rekha or Jaya Prada in those Padmalaya family drama of the 1980s. I wanted her to wear glass bangles that matched the colour of her sari. I loved watching her transform.
If my parents were worried about this part of my personality, they did not ever show it. But I suspect worried glances were exchanged.
Sometime in the early 1990s, Ma stopped wearing saris. It wasn’t a sudden decision, it was a gradual, matter-of-fact relinquishment for my mother, who was now a single woman handling an extremely stressful job (of being a building promoter) by then. Soon, her wardrobe was a sea of kurtas from Kolkata’s Treasure Island market. No more visits to French tailors for pre-puja fittings. No more Bombay Dyeing shopping. My working mother’s life had been simplified.
“I felt shackled by the sari then,” says my 63-year-old mother when I ask her about the decision, a day after India’s most sought-after designer openly shamed women who don’t know how to wear a sari. “It was not the most convenient thing to wear to construction sites that I had to visit everyday,” she says.
The first time my mother had to tie a sari on herself was when she was 12. Her earliest sari memory is not as fond as mine. “Whenever I visited my father’s ancestral home in Nawadwip (a town roughly 100km away from Kolkata), I had to wear saris to keep my paternal grandmother happy. I hated my holidays because of that. Because of the sari, I couldn’t do things that I wanted to. The pallu was always trailing behind, the pleats coming off,” she says.
My mother eventually developed a love-hate relationship with the sari. “Whenever I wanted to look beautiful, I would reach out for a jamdani or a potla. But I never could accept it as a work-wear,” she says. This was probably the reason why my mother never actively encouraged my sister to wear saris. “When we were growing up, we graduated from frocks to saris. It was a societal thing. Even our friends and relatives gifted you saris when you hit puberty. Obviously, I didn’t want my daughter to feel compelled to wear a sari,” she says.
She remembers how girls in her college were neatly divided into two types — girls who wore saris, girls who didn’t. “And obviously girls who didn’t wear saris were considered to be of a certain type,” she says.
In Satyajit Ray’s subversive Bengali film, Mahanagar (1963), Arati (Madhabi Mukhopadhyay), a Bengali housewife takes up a job as a door-to-door salesperson to meet the growing demands of a household. She, like all her Bengali Hindu colleagues, wears sari to work. The exception is Edith, a young Anglo-Indian girl who wears skirts to work and is therefore seen as a certain type by the boss, Himanshu. When Himanshu decides to fire Edith, Arati confronts him. “You don’t know what these kinds are like,” he spits.
Would she have embraced the sari more whole-heartedly had she not associated so many other things with it. “Maybe, I would have been more open to it. I still feel that I can’t move freely when I am wearing a sari. Maybe it’s just me,” she says.
When Sabyasachi said that Indian women who don’t know how to wear saris should be ashamed of themselves, he didn’t explicitly state that Indian women should wear saris at all times. But to burden them with a compulsion is unfair. “It’s a matter of choice and not matter of shame. How can anyone dictate terms about something so intensely private?” Ma sums up.
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