The sari is perhaps the most elegant article of women's clothing in the world. It’s simply one piece of cloth six metres long and about a metre wide, and comes in a wide variety of fabrics from simple cotton to the finest silk. I was given many saris at the time of my wedding by Pradeep's relatives. I love the beauty of the sari – but learning to wear it properly is another matter! Let me explain how to do it…
First, I put on a short blouse handmade by a tailor to fit snugly to my upper body. Next comes a cotton petticoat, fastened at the waist with a drawstring. Now the tricky bit begins. I wrap the sari once all around the body, the edge being tucked into the petticoat. Then I must form the front pleats, making about four or five pleats of similar depth. It's difficult to make these pleats look neat and uniform, and even more difficult to keep them properly in place as the day goes on. I usually cheat and secure the pleats with a strategically placed safety pin. Then I wrap the free end of the sari once more around my body and then once again pleat it carefully before bringing it across my chest and over my left shoulder. The end should fall approximately to the knee. I would inevitably find that the end was either too short or too long and I would have to go back to the pleating stage to make adjustments.
In the beginning I found that wearing the sari was a tedious chore. I could never get it to hang just right, and I was constantly worried that it was somehow going to unravel. At this point, I would call in Pradeep's sister Nimmi for an emergency consultation. In all the years that I have known Nimmi, I have never once seen her in a sari that wasn't perfectly draped. Even at the end of an exhausting day at a family wedding, she would look as elegant as ever. She was ever willing to help, and with a few judicious tugs and some refolding she'd have my sari looking just right - at least for the moment!
When I became pregnant, I began to realize what a useful garment the sari is. As my belly swelled, I simply had to release one pleat of the sari. No need for a maternity wardrobe! The sari is also the perfect garment for breast-feeding. I could loosen my blouse and tuck my baby in for a feed, while the sari remained draped modestly, completely covering both baby and the breast.
Women in the mountains wear saris, even when working in the fields or climbing trees to cut leaves for fodder. The first time that I watched this tree-climbing operation I was astonished. The woman wrapped the free end of her sari around her waist and then between her legs, tucking it in at her waist. Her sari was suddenly transformed into a sort of baggy pantaloon, much more suitable for tree climbing. Then she clambered rapidly up the tree, using her small sickle to help her get a grip on the tree trunk. She might have to climb 30 or 40 feet before she would reach a strong leafy branch. Crawling out along the branch, she would hack at the leafy twigs and send them fluttering to the ground. When her task was done, she would climb back down the tree as quickly as she had gone up. After tying the leafy branches together into a huge bundle, she would then unwind the end of her sari and re-drape it over her left shoulder.
I remember thinking at the time – Well, if she can climb a tree wearing a sari, I should be able to cope with wearing one on a social occasion! Over the years I lived in India, I gradually began to enjoy wearing a sari. Now, in Canada, I occasionally open the drawer that contains my sari collection and select one to wear on a special occasion. When my daughter Sonia got married last June, I had one of my favourite silk saris made into a two-piece outfit for her wedding. The shimmering blue silk with its patterned gold border looked suitably elegant for that very special occasion.