LIFE & LETTERS

Pallu, Pleat, Power

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On the sari as a message of competence, maturity, professionalism and a new cosmopolitanism
The sari in the urban office space is a message: see, I can handle this extravagant, ancient garment without zippers and stitches and convenient buttons. I can wrap it round and tuck it in strategic places without looking absurd. I can walk around, climb up stairs, carrying yards and yards of excess fabric on my person, without tripping. I can battle the elements in an auto in this intricate garment of free-form material. I am a safety-pin snob so I leave the pallu free on my shoulders. I can do all this, and I can do it with splendid efficiency and humour. I can walk in beauty, I can work in beauty.

It means I can take what you will throw at me, so throw carefully. Take me seriously.

In a recent Facebook conversation, freelance journalist and writer Rohini Mohan, 31, writes that she makes it a point to wear the sari to ‘non-field interviews to meet politicians, government officials’. “It helps prevent the, ‘How many years have you been in journalism’ question,” says Mohan, who has reported for several years on human rights, hunger, politics and religion and maintains unseasonably, unreasonably youthful good looks.

“While working in Delhi, I realised it was something people noticed. They assumed I was more mature, older, married, whatever. I wear it to non-field interviews because it’s comfortable, I feel efficient, less pesky reporter and more confident interrogator. I feel, like my mom did, the determination of going to work,” she says.

The sari invokes a professional aura, a grown-up purposefulness. Mohan singles out Delhi when she speaks of the professional effect of the sari. In south India people even sleep in saris, she says. But this is probably true of a generation. My ma has to plead with my Bengali grandma to change out of a sari at night. Yet, Mohan has an interesting anecdote from Karnataka too. “Once, in Karnataka, as a bunch of reporters, including sari-clad me, stood outside a hotel in which MLAs were being horse traded for the BJP, after a whole day they promised one-on-one interviews with the BJP president. I was not a full-time reporter in Karnataka, no one knew me, and I didn’t have a camera. Still, I was the first one called for the interview,” says Mohan. She is a consummate wearer of the sari and puts me to shame: she can “drive a Scooty, run up steps and belt a full thali in a sari”.

Freelance journalist Neha Dixit, 28, has similar stories about interviews with politicians. “I once wore jeans to an interview with Sharad Yadav [the Janata Dal-United leader]. He completely dismissed me. We were talking about women’s reservation, and he [said] what would a big city, higher-caste girl like me know about women’s reservation. After that, I started wearing saris to office on reporting days.” Dixit has been a fan of the sari since her college days in Miranda House, “We used to wear saris with sneakers and cloth bags,” she says, but the decision to wear the sari for assignments was prompted by the need to be taken seriously.

During her stint at a television channel, the sari became a point of conflict; the office wanted the corporate suit which has a ‘modern’ look, but Dixit stubbornly played the journalistic card of not being a corporate employee and dressed in saris and salwar kameez. For her recorded shows, too, she wore saris, and it led to some matrimonial rejections. “Some of my aunts were using my show as a matrimonial advertisement and a couple of guys thought I looked too old for them,” she giggles. She was undaunted; for her the sari remains a much more potent form of power dressing than the corporate suit.

Supriya Nair, associate editor with The Caravan magazine, who initiated this Facebook conversation and has a one-sari-a-week rule, also invokes the sense of professionalism it bequeaths; she speaks of saris as workwear. “I think the sari simplifies things for me as workwear, in the same way as having six navy blue suits hanging in their closets makes life easier for some men. I usually don’t have to worry about dressing up or down for a meeting or for dinner.”

I often wear the sari to office; I try to make this the day of the weekly edit meeting. The voice carries better in a sari, I find.

I first wore the sari to work after a defeat at the office; a request for leave was turned down and I was called, perhaps rightly, for running away. It punctured my self esteem and I felt the need to accomplish something. I decided to drape a sari on my own. It was my first time; I was a sari virgin. I pleated the sari slowly, painstakingly moving my hand back and forth like the back-panel of the harmonium. When I went in to work, nearly all my colleagues, several of whom observe Monday mourning rites and work in silence, came up to compliment me. If I had been a Facebook photo, I would have collected 108 likes in two minutes.

I worked with splendid efficiency that morning, supported by superbly helpful colleagues: requests were processed right away, calls were connected without delay, rounds of chai-coffee were offered. The workday’s dryness was smoothed out; it also seemed I was wittier in a sari—casual observations drew bona fide laughs. I felt a warm thrum of competence. Before the mirror, I drew myself up to my full height—five feet too few inches—and the effect is bracing. Has anybody else had the impression that the sari can gift a couple of inches to the wearer?

The fun had begun even earlier. When I had stepped out of the gate of my colony, a gaggle of autorickshaws had slowed down to ask where I would like to go. Autos had never slowed down for me, or anyone I know, of their own accord. On the streets of Delhi, this is a rare tribute. But then, the young woman in a sari walking out unescorted has become a rare sight; most girls I know wear the sari only to their own or their best friends’ weddings.

A recent glossy advertisement for coffee shows Anushka Sharma sulking because it’s her cousin’s wedding and she doesn’t know how to tie a sari. “Sari pehenna kisko aata hai?” she asks, voicing the annoyance of an urban cross-section. Her friend/boyfriend Imran Khan does, however, because he once played Sita in a college play. The question is, would he know how to tie a dhoti? The likely answer is that Sharma might know because she once played a character in a play.

A recent (and excellent) story on a Wall Street Journal blog titled The Rise of the Sari-Tying Class talks about the demand for such classes. This, too, evokes the sense of the sari as a fancy dress outfit, a special-occasion expedition for which you need help. Several of the young women featured in the article were getting ready for their weddings. Indeed, the sari on the young woman is sometimes seen as a costume.

Anubha Bansal, who has worked in the sales and marketing departments of corporations such as Reliance Broadcast Ltd and Infrastructure Development Finance Corporation, says that she has on occasion been asked not to wear a sari to work. “Clients are always pleasantly surprised to see me in a sari, though. I remember this one time, when a rather reserved and difficult client who only spoke business came up to me to compliment me. It opens up a point of conversation, so I often wear saris to client meetings,” says Bansal.

Yet, we are used to seeing an older generation of star women professionals—Chanda Kochhar, Kalpana Morparia, Naina Lal Kidwai, Meera Sanyal—only in saris. It might have been more a matter of course and less a conscious statement, as Dina Vakil, former resident editor of The Times of India, Mumbai, says about herself.

Vakil, who started working with the paper in the 1970s, has the reputation of never repeating a sari. “Young women today seem to want to invest them with meaning and mystique—they see saris as a form of power dressing, of conveying a sense of competence, an aura of maturity,” she says. Vakil found newsrooms in India rather relaxed about dress code, compared with New York where reporters were expected to go on assignment in suits. For her, the sari is more of a uniform.

“But there was the odd occasion at The Times of India when someone would come up with an uptight remark about a colleague’s dress du jour. The cartoonist RK Laxman, for instance, once looked askance at a young woman’s free-flowing skirt and remarked acidly, “Is this any way to dress in an office?” He himself was always in uniform—black trousers, starched white half-sleeved bush shirt. Come to think of it, I was in uniform too. By the time I became editor of The Times of India’s Mumbai edition in the early 1990s, the sari was my second skin, and I leaned towards a neutral colour palette—whites, off-whites and a hint of gold. I would hope Mr Laxman approved.”

Vakil, too, mentions the benefits of the strategically-chosen sari for the political interview. When I interviewed an Odisha chief minister some years ago, he immediately warmed to the fact that I was wearing a Sambalpuri sari—or a Bomakai, I forget which—and we got along famously after that.

Since I grew comfortable in a sari, I usually wear one to the rare evening do that will have me. For some of the same reasons that the sari works as office wear, it works as evening wear. It gives the impression that you made the effort to dress up, that you know what you are doing, that you walk in beauty. Of course, it is also true for me what they say about Sonakshi Sinha: I can only do the sari. I am too squat for dresses; besides, they are expensive. My saris are all legacies, hand-me-downs from my ma and grandma and other family folks.

There is another thing about wearing the sari to a party in Delhi: it confers affluence. A lot more people have started making conversation with me at parties. Some of this could be because of the noticeability that Mohan speaks of. But mainly, I think, a sari suggests that I have a car and chauffeur who have driven me to the party, and house staff to manage my laundry. For most people, the sari is a costume taken out for special occasions; they assume it cannot be worn in public transport—not by a woman of my age at any rate. Presumably, I would not be driving in a sari either. I do nothing to discourage this impression, much as I take pride in being able to travel by public transport in a sari. Managing a sari in an autorickshaw requires highly-developed motor skills. The wind hurls the pallu away from you, and swells the bottom half of the sari like a toadstool. The consummate wearer knows the little tricks to handle these things, I have learnt with time.

Saris also confer that undefinable thing called culture, especially the kind of traditional saris I wear. The quiet, mousy, nerdy reporter-editor becomes the soft-spoken, affluent writer from a cultured family. Indeed, for Atreyee Majumder, a graduate student of anthropology at Yale University, the sari forms part of the new cosmopolitan identity. The message is, ‘I can do a paper in a heavy-duty conference, I can do chopsticks, I can do the sari.’ Her grad student schedule requires her to present papers at Ivy League campuses regularly, and Majumder enjoys making the statement of wearing a sari where everyone else is in expensive, sharply-cut suits.

“I now feel it is the only form of formal attire in which I feel confident, intellectual, subtly aggressive, seductive, what-not,” she says. “Perhaps it is a way of re-appropriating the ‘Indian woman’ in me in a non-Indian milieu. Perhaps, it is knowing and doing the body differently. A Russian friend on whom I draped a sari, was very uncomfortable at her midriff being bare, though she would be comfortable in a bikini. In the East Coast intellectual geography that I inhabit, the sari is a ‘domesticated other’; it doesn’t invite the fear of the other that a hijab or burkha would.” Dixit, something of a regular on the international press awards circuit, agrees with the cosmopolitanism argument. She recently wore a sari to an awards ceremony in London. “It is a way of claiming my identity,” she says, “which is closely tied up with my work”.

Within the family, too, the sari is something of a maturity cloak. Last year, when my cousin got married, I fully expected to be brutally waylaid by all kinds of aunts about my own nuptials. I wore a sari every day in the week I spent among the wedding revellers. I thought that would check the damage, but I didn’t expect it to work as beautifully as it did. I was told several times “you should be next”, but I wasn’t accosted like other girls, many of them younger than me, who wore jeans and skirts. I was the only one in my generation who could drape a sari by herself; the bride needed supervision, and this proved a powerful skill. I realised I had a reputation: ‘She can even tie a sari.’ It was another way of saying, ‘She’s got her life under control.’

It’s gone to my head a little bit: the autos stopping, the colleagues listening and smiling, the family treating me like an adult. I have become a sari snob. Which is not to say that I can recognise saris and their weaves and regions, no—I’m not there yet. Only that I feel a warm thrum of accomplishment when I am the only woman in a grown-up—meaning handloom—sari and the other guests are in salwar kameez or jeans or Zara-Mango-Promod dresses, or Bollywood-style slinky saris, those chiffon-type things that are meant for tweens or young adults, far easier to walk in. (Bollywood tween sari versus handloom sari is the difference between Priyanka Chopra in Desi Girl and Madhuri Dixit/Aishwarya Rai in Dola Re.)

I said this to the man I was seeing, but he was unimpressed. I spoke of the dexterity needed to keep an unpinned pallu on your shoulder, the dance of running up stairs gracefully, holding the pleats with the fingers of one hand, the trick of riding an auto in a sari, but he was unmoved. “I think you need to carry off a pair of jeans as much as you need to carry off a sari,” he shrugs. How, how?

Some weeks later, he speaks of how vastly different we are, I listen and the ‘differences’ sound like the sparks of a rich, rewarding relationship, long conversations that last several nights—I like Bhansali, he likes Tarantino, let’s talk. Then he speaks of my “old-fashioned saris that don’t fall well”. I usually wear heavy silks or crusty cottons, both of which have minds and lives of their own. “And that three-quarter-sleeved blouse, oof, it’s such a… curiosity,” he barks, in spite of searching for a word like ‘curiosity’ to be kind to me.

I am stunned. “Is that the deal-breaker, the clothes?” I ask. “No, no, not at all,” he says quickly, before excusing himself to go to the rest room. “I can change that,” I say, after he returns.

But later that night, I realise that it is a deal-breaker. I like my sari persona.

At the end of stories like this, strong, independent girls say they decided to do whatever it is that they decide to do for themselves; because it makes them happy. But my intentions are philanthropic: I have decided that I must wear the sari for the joy it brings to others: auto drivers, colleagues, bosses, strangers at parties, the family. We must live in beauty.

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