The first day I wore a sari, every single person on the hospital compound where I was working as a volunteer nurse had an opinion. "Miss, looking gorgeous," said my first-year nursing students, while my savvier third-years shook their heads: "Miss, the sleeves are not nice; they are old-fashioned."
"Apke ckuri kaha hai?" asked the community health workers.
"Nahi malum," I said ungrammatically, wondering about the correct Hindi for "My bangles fell off and broke."
The operating-theater nurses were characteristically forthright: "Nice try, but the hair is not OK." (This was true, but it was the monsoon season, so I felt I deserved some slack.) The male medical staff perked up and grinned, and the rickshaw wallahs leaned on their handlebars, leering.
On several occasions during the day, women I didn't even know stopped me, adjusted a pleat here and a tuck there, then moved on without having said a word.
I ended the day sweaty, bedraggled and completely bemused -- but also determined to repeat the process until I got the hang of it.
I hoped wearing a sari would make working in India easier, that it would offer some small insight into the culture, that it would help gawky, WASP me finesse the demure-flamboyant dichotomy every Indian woman understood. I didn't anticipate that my relationship with those fiendish five and a half yards of material would come to mirror my yearlong encounter with the subcontinent itself, or that something as simple as cloth would carry in its folds countless traditions, prohibitions and assumptions that would wrap around me and change more than my appearance.
I had ample opportunity to hone my sari-wearing skills because I was working in Bihar, one of the poorest states in India, located directly beneath Nepal and somewhere back in the 19th century. I am a nurse practitioner, and I'd got it into my head to volunteer for a year at Kurji Holy Family Hospital, which is run by the Medical Mission Sisters in Patna, Bihar's capital. I taught in the nursing school, struggled in Hindi classes, ate in the hospital cafeteria (greenish curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner), did my laundry in a bucket in my bathroom and lived in a hostel on the hospital compound. And I learned quickly that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a grown-up, professional woman, I needed to wear a sari.
As with many things in India, however, acquiring one was dramatically more complicated than I'd foreseen. First off, I had to get the material, which involved an expedition to the Aladdin's cave of Patna Market, a medieval warren of narrow streets crammed with open-fronted shops, their walls mosaics of jewel-toned cloth. I stood, looking white, damp and awkward in my skimpy khaki skirt, and pointed hopefully at various breathtaking lengths of material; two kind Indian friends who'd escorted me took it from there and, after fingering my choices and pronouncing them suitable, launched into fusillades of bargaining with the elderly men who sat sipping tea behind the counters.
On my first such expedition I walked out of the shop with five and a half yards of airy, blue, synthetic stuff, light as the breeze and about as manageable. I thought I was finished, but no, we'd hardly started.
I still needed a blouse and petticoat, so we handed over the sari length to men who instantly picked out the perfect complementing colors. (This year in Patna, you'll be interested to know, the blouse color is matched to the lighter tones of the sari pattern.) Then we bought "falls," lengths of cotton to be sewn around the sari's hem so you don't destroy it when you catch the front pleats on your toe rings and drag the back border through monsoon mud.
We bought drawstrings for the petticoat, proper open sandals and glass bangles to match the sari, because you're really not dressed without them, and tiny gold earrings and a gold necklace because ditto. Then we stuffed ourselves and our bags into two rickshaws and dropped the whole mess off at the tailor (everything made to measure), after which I collapsed.
I pondered the expedition as I sucked down lukewarm water and tended my sunburn that evening. The market had been populated by what felt like Bihar's entire citizenship, choked in dust, besieged by beggars and threatened by towering ramparts of garbage. It had also contained more hand-dyed, hand-embroidered silk, chiffon and satin than a Milan runway, at about a thousandth the cost.
The process of getting what I needed had been, as was often the case in India, efficiently complex: So many fiddly things to buy, but those dress wallahs could pick out the perfect blouse piece in less than 10 seconds, and everything I'd needed, down to petticoat drawstrings, had been right there on the street. The merchants themselves had been equally ready to spend hours finding the perfect shade of blue and to charge me triple the price when they did. There had been organized chaos, cool satin in my hands and scorching sun in my eyes, limitless, simultaneous opportunism and hospitality. I drank some more water.
Once I got over the feeling that I had been not on a shopping expedition but in a rugby scrum in a sauna with a million people, it was time to learn how to get dressed. Just as there was a way to wear your sleeves (elbow length this year, with just a little puff at the shoulder) and do your hair (in a sleek bun, which was a problem given my peroxide-streaked pixie cut), so there was a way to wear your sari.
The nurses who lived in my hostel literally dressed me the first few times, yanking my petticoat like Mammy in doing up Scarlett's corset in "Gone With the Wind" and informing me that my blouse, which felt as if it was cutting off all circulation to my arms, was too loose. They wound, pleated, draped, tucked and pinned for 15 minutes while I dripped sweat in the 110-degree monsoon heat, because you have to turn off the overhead fan while you put on a sari, otherwise the five-and-a-half yards of cloth take off in different directions. Finally, my patient helpers pointed me toward the full-length mirror on the stairs: "Go and see!"
This was easier said than done, because when you wear a sari properly, the front pleats touch the ground so that your every step can encourage them into an enticing sway. This creates limitless potential for disaster, as I discovered when I tried to board buses, climb stairs or jump over puddles. Nevertheless, I made it to the mirror that first morning and encountered someone I barely recognized: She was thinner than I remembered being, with the skinny neck and twiggy collarbones that all foreigners seemed to acquire in India, and she was far more feminine than I, holding herself with a kind of forced, upright grace amid all those diaphanous folds. She moved very slowly, and took small steps.
I was intrigued, and also worried that the whole undertaking, image and sari together, was going to fall apart at any minute. Since I felt that way about being in India in general, this was not encouraging.
As the months passed, however, I grew less worried, more encouraged. I learned to function in a sari; I could dress myself, teach a class, start an I.V., squat in dung-ridden village dirt, cook a meal, ride pillion on a motorcycle.
I also learned that my relationship with my saris underwent certain cyclic changes, just as my relationship with India did. At first, I couldn't get enough of it. Here was concrete, immediate evidence of my hoped-for transformation through travel: I literally looked like a different woman. Here, too, was a small concept, dress, which women were eager to talk about and which brought me closer to them as I tried to master it.
Sitting around chatting about your new wedding sari while you get your palms hennaed is a lot like sitting around under the hair dryer in an American beauty salon. And once learned, all these exotic bits of arcana -- the right colors for bangles, the tricks of pulling the sari flat over your bottom, the proper placement of toe rings -- brought me approval, respect and an increasingly Indian (well, Bihari) appearance. This in turn made me less self-conscious and other people more forthcoming: I had a lot of conversations in Hindi while the kitchen staff tried to show me how to fold my achal (the shoulder pleats) like the movie stars did.
When I finally succeeded in getting my achal just right, the result was indeed flowing, romantic, impossibly feminine. I floated around for a while, enjoying the novelty of it, feeling attractive in a way I'd never felt in the States. Then I began to be irritated by the petticoat's tight drawstring, which bit into my waist, and by the heat generated by layer upon layer of synthetic material. I began to be annoyed by the way I always had to guard my movements so as not to disturb my wrappings, and the way I couldn't readily slump, run or take a nap -- and forget trying to go to the bathroom over a hole in the ground, especially when the "ground" was a filth-spattered platform in a swaying train, with gravel spitting up through the hole from the tracks.
I began to be irritated with the way outer restriction created inner restraints as well: I often caught myself dropping my eyes submissively when I passed men on the street just to avoid the inevitable sizing up and the ensuing comments or grabs. I grew weary of complicated grooming, of rising early to dress, of always looking just so, of never seeing women with a hair out of place (unless they were from the lower castes, but even then their behavior was codified: Their hair was supposed to be a mess).
The rules and lore of the sari, which had at first seemed exciting guidelines to transformation, then useful tools for cultural integration, began eventually to feel like weights pressing me into the "modest, demure and self-effacing" mold that shaped the lives of so many Bihari women. Wearing a sari was changing me, all right, and the change frightened me.
So, for a while, I quit wearing it. I wore a shalwar kameez, the cooler, more comfortable long tunic and harem trousers ensemble favored by many Indian women. Or I rather aggressively gave up and, sporting a T-shirt and long skirt, trundled around the compound like your basic sun-faded traveling slob, ignoring the vocal dismay of students and staff. I went to Katmandu, Nepal, for a vacation and sat in cafes drinking lattes, eating scones and watching Americans cruise around in (horrors) shorts. I returned to work in Bihar.
And gradually, my saris and I came to terms. As India morphed from an alien land into the home of people I loved, so my sari became not a source of instant transformation into an uncomfortably different identity but just a manifestation of part of me, something newly disciplined and feminine, something unnerving that I owed to my year in India.
India is a country of paradox and its clothing is no exception. Those oppressively hot, uncomfortable folds of cloth drape life in a patriarchal, poverty-stricken, monsoon-ridden city, but they also bedeck their wearers' determination and resilience. When I arrived in India, the women in faded red saris who crouched by the side of the road breaking stones with hammers were ciphers to me, symbols of oppressed women everywhere. Slowly, while not ceasing to mourn their misery and work for its alleviation, I began to decode their individual strength and appreciate their singular lives. My sari was one of the keys that unlocked doors, started conversations, initiated interactions, and I found, in the end, that I was grateful for it.
In fact, now that I am back in the States, I hold the memories close and ponder the firsthand experience of what it takes to hop through monsoon mud with a bundle of beets in one hand and sari folds clutched in the other. I will never be able to wear a sari as beautifully as Indian women do, nor will I ever handle the difficulties it signifies with the tough grace they show. But last December, I was the only one at a black-tie Christmas ball in Boston wearing a peach chiffon sari, and do you know, it looked beautiful when I waltzed.