I lay in bed a few nights ago, thinking about the woman who would be arriving the next day from India. I would be greeting her. “It would be nice to wear a Punjabi,” I thought, the long cotton tunics and matching pants that I had learned to wear in India. But I didn’t have them anymore. “I could wear a sari,” I thought. I had plenty of those.
I had not for one split micro-second considered wearing my Indian clothes since I’d had a woman turn one of my red silk sari’s into a short, strapless wedding dress, cutting up a second sari for the lining. I had so many of them, even after the laundry next to the ashram in Ganeshpuri failed to return a couple. It had taken me a long time to notice that two were missing – the laundry, from long experience with Westerners, knew this was a good risk to take.
As I lay in bed, in the dark, not sleeping yet, I knew I wouldn’t wear a sari to work the next day, but I could wear a sari, I thought to the huge fancy dinner Saturday night. I pictured myself in a perfectly wrapped, graceful sari, taking everyone by surprise. There would be a good number of Indian women at the global conference dinner, and it could be my way of diminishing the barriers between our cultures. I loved the idea. I got up and told Fred about it with the peculiar excitement I get sometimes when I’ve come up with something brand new.
As soon as I had voiced the idea, I drew back. Maybe I should dress a little more ordinary. I shouldn’t draw attention away from the people who were the real stars of the night, the ones who had conceived of and worked for over a year on this event.
And besides, I didn’t have a sari petticoat.
The next morning, in the early grey of dawn when I could have been writing, I looked online for an Indian clothing store nearby. Nothing. I found sari petticoats for sale online, but they would not arrive on time. Who did I know who was Indian who I borrow from?
A woman at work had married an Indian man and lived with her Indian mother-in-law. I Facebooked a message to her and she replied quickly. No, she didn’t have one. “My friend uses a regular slip,” she suggested, but I knew you can’t wrap a sari with a regular slip.
I showered. I moved through the still-early morning, still at home. Another local friend who knew so many people also had no ideas. And then I thought of all the women in my town who had been or still were part of the ashram world I had once been so completely a part of. I went through a few possibilities in my mind, trying to think of one who would speak to me and quickly alighted on Yvette, the beautiful French woman who I thought would still be friendly. She was not one of the sourpusses who crossed the street when I came along.
I Facebooked her. An hour later I left a message on her home phone.
Yvette called back that afternoon, friendly. Of course she’d lend me one.
That evening I went upstairs to the closet I rarely open and pulled out the plastic box in which I knew the sari’s were folded, the box I had chosen about 20 years ago because it fit under my ashram bed, the only storage space I had back then.
I opened the box. They were as fresh in their air-tight box as if I had put them away a few days before. Each one had its own story – this one had been a gift from Christina, the Italian friend of Antonioni’s wife. This one had once been Hemananda’s and I remembered the morning when Gurumayi had spread out Hemananda’s old sari’s and invited us to the secret conference room to pick one.
I tried on the little cotton blouses, each one a different color but absolutely identical. I had hoped to find one where the sleeves were not so tight, but then I remembered how the seamstress, somewhere in Bombay, had measured me and made them all exactly the same. I could still get into them, but only just.
“Let me see if I remember how,” I thought. Something in me was eager to re-enter these waters. There was something I wanted to feel again. I began tucking and folding, but one thing went wrong. I clicked on YouTube and watched a 4-minute video made by a young woman and remembered the step I had forgotten.
The dinner was now two days away. Will I do it, I wondered as I went through my days. No. Yes. Maybe.
And then I was packing for the weekend, packing two other dresses that would work just fine. I just had to slip one over my head and I’d be done. And now there’s just a few minutes before my ride arrives and I watch myself pull out the ironing board, iron the blouse, choose the blue sari because the drape of it is so beautiful – the stiffer fabrics do not hang so sweetly – and I take them with me, still not certain.
It is time to dress. There is no mirror in my single room. “I’ll try,” I think. “Maybe it won’t work.”
The blouse, the sari still look perfectly pressed. They have made the journey well.
I tie the petticoat tight at the waist. I get my arms through the tight sleeves of the little blouse and pull each little hook through the tiny stitched eyelets made of matching thread. I lay the sari on the bed, look closely at the silk to determine which side is the right side, the one with the strongest colors, and I begin to tuck, seeing myself standing in that room in Ganeshpuri, the cool smooth floor, the square column in the middle of the room, the two pink bedspreads, mine in the corner, Kevali’s under the window.
I pin the sari at my shoulder then begin the pleats at my waist, the tricky part.
There were always beautiful women in the ashram who wore their saris perfectly, like swans gliding. Though I had tried hard somehow I had never quite pulled that look off. You can look so frumpy in a sari if you don’t get it right.
I tucked the pleats in and went out to the bathroom to look in the mirror over the sink. It looked all right. In fact, I think I nailed it. How could that be – how could I have wrapped this sari better than any sari I had ever wrapped before?
I stepped out into the evening, the silk caressing me. I moved easily, at home in the garment that I knew looked like an evening dress, but that I knew I could stack wood in if I needed to.