Gone are the days when women would come up to my mother on the streets of Edmonton, Canada, and ask her how she managed to keep such a long and lovely piece of cloth from falling off. Since the 1970s, the sari has become fashionable in the West, but in India — where a woman’s identity is often wrapped up in this simple, traditional attire — its popularity is starting to unravel.
Like most Indian girls, my grandmother, who began her life in Suchindram, a tiny village in South India near Kanya Kumari, began to wear a sari when she reached puberty. It was six yards of material, wrapped around and tucked into a petticoat, and draped over the left shoulder on top of a short blouse. She had cotton ones for everyday wear and silk for special occasions.
She got married at the age of 14, fortunately to a very good man, and had my mother, the first of five children, at the age of 16. As her children grew, she should in all likelihood have graduated from the 6-yard to the 9-yard sari, but somehow no one had the heart to impose it on this diminutive woman, standing barely 4 feet 10 inches tall. She seemed to need all her strength for the multitudinous tasks thrust upon her, without having to carry around another 3 yards of cloth.
Then, when she was 39 years old, her husband suddenly died. According to strict tradition, she should have traded in her colorful saris for pure white ones. But her children put their foot down, saying it was sad enough that they had lost their father; they didn’t also want to aggravate it by stripping all the color from their mother’s life.
So she continued living in her saris, and as she aged, mostly Kanjeevarams. Named after a small temple town near Chennai and known for its silk weaving, these saris came in deep colors, and were thought socially appropriate for elderly South Indian women.
My mother too began wearing saris in her teens and wore them throughout her early married years in Mumbai. She wore one when we arrived in Edmonton in December 1969: It was minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
In the beginning of our life there, she even wore them to work. But after a couple of winters battling to manage a sari under a heavy winter coat and snow boots, she slowly began wearing pants. They were more comfortable and practical.
Now retired and having lived more than 40 years in Canada, she reserves saris for social occasions: dinners with friends, weekly trips to the temple, and visits in India. She still has a great fondness for and appreciation of saris, and will remember precisely who wore what sari where. And no special occasion is complete without her presenting me with one … which I dutifully put away in my closet.
My closet is now located in Delhi. It is full of exquisite saris, all shades and styles, all expensive, all presents, mostly unworn. My mom thinks that since I live in India now, surely I’ll be wearing saris more often, but somehow they rarely come to hand. I was spoiled by growing up in Calgary with jeans and t-shirts, and I still turn instinctively to my comfort clothes. I do wear saris about three times a year but the occasion had better be pretty darn special for me to consider getting one out.
And if I’m bad, my teenage daughter is worse: She lives her life mostly in shorts, which she feels are ideally suited to the Delhi climate. I have to argue with her to get into the occasional salwar kameez — they are just basically pants with a long top, I say to convince her.
This is not just a reflection of her Westernized upbringing: On the streets of Delhi, or any large Indian city, you’ll see fewer and fewer saris, particularly on the younger women. It seems to be a matter of comfort, having and exercising choice, and perhaps even a refusal on the part of many Indian women to be the repository of traditional fashion.
I was the eldest grandchild and therefore had the privilege of knowing my grandmother the longest. When she lived with us for a few years in Canada, I would sometimes sleep next to her on school holidays so we could talk late into the night. I asked her once why she didn’t wear a sleeping dress to bed. She laughed, saying that it certainly looked more comfortable, but she had lived in a sari and would probably die in a sari.
My grandmother passed away several years ago. I have one of her saris in my closet. It is deep-blue silk, and has small checks and a simple border. I sometimes touch it and smell it to see if I can catch a trace of her. I haven’t worn it yet.
Ranjani Iyer Mohanty, a writer and academic/business editor.