A Sari for a Month for Newsweek

A sari for a month. It shouldn’t have been a big deal but it was. After all, I had grown up around sari-clad women in India.My mother even slept in a sari. I occasionally wore saris for weddings, holidays and to the temple. But wearing a sequined silk sari to an Indian party was one thing. Deciding to wear a sari everyday while living in New York, especially after ten years in western clothes carried my whimsy to the realms of the fantastic.

The first day was a disaster. The sari is six yards of fabric folded into a graceful yet cumbersome garment. Like a baby, it requires constant molly-coddling. When worn right, it is supremely elegant and unabashedly feminine. However, it involves sacrifices.

No longer could I sprint across the street just before the light changed because the sari forced me to shorten my strides. I had to throw my shoulders back and pay attention to my posture. I couldn’t squeeze into a crowded subway car for fear that someone would pull and unravel my sari. I couldn’t balance four grocery bags in one hand and pull out my house keys from a convenient pocket with the other. One evening, I lumbered around the apartment, feeling clumsy, constrained and angry with myself.What was I trying to prove?

The notion of wearing a sari everyday was relatively new to me. I didn’t wear saris while growing up in India and during my college years- when most Indian girls try out saris for the first time- I was in America. As an art student at Mount Holyoke, I hung out with purple-haired painters and rabble-rousing feminists wearing ink-stained khakis and cut-off T-shirts. During a languid post-graduation summer in Boston when I sailed a boat and volunteered for an environmental organization, I wore politically correct, recycled Salvation Army clothes. After getting married, I became a Connecticut housewife, experimenting with clothes from Jones New York and Ann Taylor. Over the years, I tried to talk, walk and act like an American.

Then I moved to New York and became a mother. I associated motherhood with saris. I wanted to play the part. I wanted to teach my three-year old daughter Indian values and traditions because she would be profoundly different from her peers in religion (we are Hindus), eating habits (we are vegetarians), and the festivals we celebrated. Wearing a sari everyday was my attempt at being a role model. It was my way of showing her that she could melt into the pot while retaining her individual flavor.

It wasn’t just for my daughter’s sake that I decided to wear a sari. I was tired of trying to fit in. Natalie Cole could never speak to me as eloquently as M.S., a venerable Indian singer. I couldn’t hum the lyrics of Lauryn Hill or Ricky Martin as easily as I could sing my favorite Hindi or Tamil songs. Much as I enjoyed American cuisine, I couldn’t last four days without Indian food. I was Indian after all. It was time to flaunt my ethnicity with a sari and a bright red bindi on my foreheadI was going to be an immigrant, but on my own terms. It was America”s turn to adjust to me.

Slowly, I eased into wearing the garment. I owned it and it owned me. Strangers stared at me as I sashayed across a crowded bookstore. Some of them caught my eye and smiled. At first, I resented being an exhibit. Then I wondered. Perhaps I reminded them of something- a wonderful holiday in India or a favorite Indian cookbook. Grocery clerks unconsciously enunciated their words when they spoke to me. Everywhere, I was stopped with questions about India as if wearing a sari had made me an authority. One Japanese lady near Columbus Circle asked to have her picture taken with me. I had become a tourist just steps from my home.

But there were unexpected advantages. Indian cab-drivers raced across lanes and screeched to a halt in front of me when I hailed them. When my 3-year-old daughter climbed high up the Jungle Gym in Central Park, I gathered my errant sari and prepared to follow, hoping that it wouldn’t balloon out like Marilyn Monroe’s dress. One of the Dads standing nearby watched my plight and volunteered to climb after her. Chivalry in New York? Was it me or was it my sari?
Best of all, my family approved. In her baby voice, my daughter ooh-ed and aah-ed when I pulled out my colorful saris. At night, when I cuddled her in my arms, scents of the vetiver, cumin, sandalwood and jasmine escaped from the folds of my sari and soothed her to sleep. I felt as if I was part of a long line of Indian mothers who had rocked their babies in this way.
Soon, the month flew by. My self-imposed regimen in a sari was coming to an end. Instead of feeling liberated, I felt a twinge of unease. I had started enjoying my sari.

Saris were impractical for America, I told myself on the last day. Impractical and constraining. Besides, a sari wasn’t really me. Saris and skydiving didn’t mix. I had better revert to my sensible khakis.

Perhaps after one more day.

This article originally appeared in March 2000.