The first time I wore an Indian sari, I was a college student traveling with 8 other people for five weeks during the summer. (As an aside, if you can avoid India in July, you’d be best advised to do so.) The sari had belonged to an elderly missionary who had since retired to the United States, so it wasn’t exactly top sari fashion or anything, but it was durable polyester and it was a good practice sari.
Two of the people on our traveling team were a college-aged brother and sister duo who had been born in India but moved with their family to the US in late childhood. The first time I wore that polyester sari, that sister enlisted the help of some of the other female travelers, in order to teach us all the art of sari tying at once.
We learned that there’s an underskirt, and that it’s best to cinch the drawstring on that uncomfortably tight, because that’s basically what holds the rest of the outfit together. We learned the sari itself is a big 9-yard long rectangle of fabric. You tie a knot in one corner and tuck it in the right side of your underskirt, and then start wrapping the thing around your waist, right to left. There are these pleats that you fold in the front, and we learned that the first one is the trickiest to fold because it’s meant to hang straight down like the other ones, but it’s hard to get it to do that. Unless you haven’t got hips, in which case you might be a guy, and probably stopped reading this post about twelve sentences ago.
Apparently the more pleats you can incorporate into the front, the more beautiful the sari is, and therefore the more beautiful the wearer. Evidently I had a good amount of pleats, because when I emerged from the room with my first ever sari, Sari Sister’s brother said, “Wow. Wow.”
One of the female members of the team said, “Here comes Amy Carmichael!” which I took as quite as nice a compliment, because Amy Carmichael has always been a hero of mine.
In subsequent years, I acquired a new sari when I was asked to be in Sari Sister’s wedding, and then I got some shalwar kameez from Pakistani friends when I lived in London. So, even though most of the time my old fashioned polyester sari spends its time as a curtain, and wedding attendant sari lies folded in my cedar trunk, every so often, I have the opportunity to wear one or the other.
Four years ago, I was thrown into Now Church’s Christmas pageant for the first time. At the end of the pageant, the narrators say, “And people from all walks of life, people from all corners of the earth, will come and worship the One who brings us light.” Then people, dressed up as people from other countries or times, or, say, bikers with tattoos, come down the aisle one at a time and leave something at the altar, and sing a song.
Dismayingly, I don’t currently have any South Asian friends in this part of this country, so the chances of my being able to wear a sari or shalwar kameez to, for example, somebody’s baby’s first birthday party, are nil. So the pageant seemed like as good an opportunity to bring those outfits out. I chose the old school sari. But then the next two years, I wore shalwar kameez, so I really haven’t tied a sari since December of 2008.
Yesterday I discovered that maybe sari tying is not like riding a bike. I couldn’t remember which direction to wrap it. I pleated the pleats in the right direction, but then somehow the rest of the thing wrapped backwards, so that I was flinging the end over the right shoulder instead of the left, which made the pleats flatten and try to go the opposite way. At least, I thought, I can still get a decent number of pleats in here.
But then I went to the dressing room to see if I could round up some assistance and maybe, unbelievably, someone who actually knew how to tie these things. “Miss Jenn,” one of the pageant’s little angels asked with some concern, “Why is your belly showing?” I had forgotten how much that would’ve freaked me out as a kid.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “it soon won’t be, if I can figure out how to wear this right.”
“I’m sure,” said the angel’s grandmother, “you’ve seen bellies before.”
“You probably have one,” I said. “Do you?”
“Yes,” said another little angel. “But mine is thin.”
Totally “de-pleated,” as it were, I returned to my office to resume my fight with my attire. I managed a makeshift, belly-hiding drape, and, while narrating the story of Sweet Baby Jesus, tied and retied saris in my mind. So that, by the second showing of the pageant, I had got it right.