Which little girl doesn’t remember her first time?
I was three, visiting my grandparents in Sadiya, a hard-to-reach area on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra. My father’s youngest sister, Bhanti Pehi, anointed herself my favourite aunt, as the youngest so often does. One afternoon, she squeakily opened the Godrej almari to unveil a row of her saris. I chose a striking blue silk number and she wrapped and pinned, wrapped and pinned, wrapped and pinned me into it.
And so as I read Mama’s Saris by Pooja Makhijani (illustrated by Elena Gomez) to my daughter one recent night, the main character’s pleading to wear a sari on her birthday evoked that sweltering summer day as the family gathered around the dirt courtyard to coo at me draped in six yards of glamour.
In the book, which is about an Indian immigrant household like that of my childhood, saris are saved for special occasions. Mama usually wears grey sweaters and brown slacks to work. But as her child turns seven and Mama prepares for the birthday party, she takes out a fiery orange sari to wear, which happens to be the same she wore exactly seven years ago—to bring her baby home from the hospital.
“Mama unfurls it. It shines like the afternoon sun. I watch her tuck one end into her petticoat and pull the other end over her left shoulder. Then she folds the pleats, weaving the fabric into an accordion between her slim fingers.”
And then the envy and awe most of us will remember from watching our own moms readying themselves in grown-up gear, from pearls to shiny shoes:
“I feel so plain next to her.”
The sentiment, of course, fuels the girl’s desire to wear a sari, too. Nothing else, not her corduroy jumper nor a mirrored chaniya choli, will do.
Like me, the little girl in the book chooses, out of the suitcase her mother keeps under the bed, a blue sari.
New York-based Makhijani’s children’s book, beautifully and colourfully illustrated by Gomez, will delight mothers and daughters who share not only a special relationship with each other—but also with the sari.
In her book, a little girl fights to wear one. The implicit irony, of course, is the reverse battle sure to come in the teenage years, when Mama will want her Indian daughter decked in a sari and the daughter wants to be anything but dutiful. And then there are the tussles with the actual cloth, fighting to keep it just so, straight, folded, flowing.
As a young woman, my sari-wrapping was marked by awful verbal exchanges: telling my mother that her pleat-making skills were atrocious. My mother responding that I should just grow up and learn to dress myself. And on and on.
But something special passed between mother and daughter amid the reams of silks and chiffons in those dressing sessions, lessons conveying a connection to home and past, to womanhood and wisdom. As the sari slowly goes out of fashion, pushed out by the cocktail dresses and business suits of New India, this book reminds me why there might never be a classier counterpart.
I confess I still haven’t learned to put one on, relying on the help of an available maid, beautician or auntie now that we’re in New Delhi. Thankfully, for the baby-girl set, saris these days come ready-made, pleats and pins intact, able to be slipped over their little heads. It’s easier said than done, though, and I’ve had my share of fights trying to make a bewildered eight-month-old look cute. Now I wait for the day that she, like this book’s protagonist, will beg me to help her don a sari.
After a few more nights lulled to sleep with this 32-page book (available on Amazon.com), I have a feeling that will be pretty soon.
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