Keeri who loved humans

Keeri who loved humans
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Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Demise of the Sari


I hate to think: in Thalassery it's come and gone, in my lifetime. Taken over by that North Indian aberration called The Salwar-Kameez. Now I know it has its uses, stress on USES, but God help me, what an ugly costume!

   The only people who look good in a kameez are the people who would look good in anything anyway. It makes the rest of us look podgy - more podgy than ever - and yet millions of nice Indian girls declare allegiance as soon as they start talking.

   So the history of the sari - this graceful garment that has been side-lined by the 21st century:
In my house in Thalassery, when I was growing up, there were three women, and all wore mundu and veshti. White of course. Achamma did not wear a blouse but the others did. Achamma did not wear a veshti either, come to think of it. She was topless. If a man entered her vicinity she took a little thorthu and threw it over her left shoulder; she was not concerned where it landed or whether it hid anything. Her dangling pouches were a constant given of my childhood.

   All the women in neighbouring houses were similarly dressed. We were too backward or too poor to think of saris. After all you could get a mund-veshti outfit for three rupees and the sari was a luxury, compared. And it needed under-skirts and blouses to match - sort of. We did not know too much about matching then.

   But then, once every two or three years my uncle's wife, Ammu Velyamma, would arrive from Malaya. Her suitcase - that itself a wonder as it was made of leather and quite beautiful compared to our tin trunks - would contain a rainbow of saris, georgette and chiffon and all things in between. Mani, my cousin, and I, had access at will; we draped it on us and happily tripped over it, till she packed up and went, a whiff of other lands and fashion, which had briefly lighted up our lives. I also liked that she did not show too much respect for the men around - she talked to them on equal terms and they listened. I don't think the women at home liked her much.

   I was fourteen when I first asked my father for a sari. I had graduated from thick and rough Khadar skirts and blouse only recently and this was definitely a bridge too far. But Meenakshi, Jaya and Uma, in my class wore saris to school and I wanted. I blamed my mother for dying - she could have told my father how sari time had come. My father, however, looked amused and scared at the same time, if that is possible.

   Finally I got one when I was almost fifteen. It was white nylon and had huge roses on it - the print more curtain than clothes. What did I know! The problem was it tumbled; it refused to be tucked in anywhere. Wherever you tried to secure it, it escaped, and in inconvenient places, like in front of a roomful of strangers. There is a class-photo of me in that recalcitrant garment; you can see I was more concerned with the sari than the photographer. The class is looking at the lens, but I am somewhere else.

   I learned about the deft use of a nappy-pin much later.

   Now, when I go to Thalassery, the women, all except the Ammammas are in salwar kameez. Like a tribe of penguins. The thing is, it can look great on top of leggings - if you have the legs for it. It also looks great as harem trousers if you dare wear a short, very short ,top and show your belly button. I don't think Thalassery is going to get that far, ever. Is it?

   So who wears a sari now? Well, it is taken out and aired and exhibited at weddings, like a form of extinct life. Women get married in it. But mostly they spend their lives in a nightie, a smocked kaftan , with a frill at the bust for modesty.

   Now that I live in England, I long for sari weather. I have a wardrobe full of saris though I live in Kaftans and trousers and such like. They do nothing for me, only exacerbate my inferiority complex about my existence here generally. When I wear a sari, I glow; I put a pottu on my forehead and a large flower in my hair. I am on top of the world.

   But - this year, I have worn a sari exactly three times. Right, here we go. Tomorrow on, I'm going to wear a sari, every day. If it gets muddy in the garden, it shall be hitched up as we used to do when we played throw ball or tenni-quoit in College.

   Once I played tennis in a sari, in the school were I taught; this was in 1978. My opponent , my Head of Department, insisted the ball bounced twice under my sari before I got the shot in.