Last year for Eid al-Fitr, this clumsy white girl wore a sari for the first time and lived to tell the tale.
For those of you who do not know how a sari is designed, it is comprised of three pieces – a cropped blouse, a petticoat, and a huge swath of fabric. With the help of what I’ve decided is pixie dust and wizardry, the blouse and petticoat is donned and then the expansive stretch of cloth is artistically draped around the wearer.
The result is that you look like a gorgeous South Asian princess and instantly radiate grace and poise.
When it was time for Eid al-Fitr last June, I had been invited to a few different celebrations at the homes of my students and friends and was told that this was my big moment to wear a sari.
My friend had brought a handmade sari from Bangladesh for me, created by her fashion designer sister who had hand-painted golden and orange flowers on the long, red stretch of fabric. My friend and I had purchased a simple cotton blouse and petticoat to go under the sari so I was all set.
Determined and adventurous, I researched how to put on the dress, turning to my faithful friend YouTube for guidance and insight. The beautiful Indian woman in the instructional video confidently swathed the perfectly-folded fabric about her body, tucking it in here and there, neither breaking a sweat or shedding a tear.
I, however, proceeded to shed many tears and sweat profusely while spending forty minutes swearing exasperatedly at my sari, folding it, bunching it, painfully contorting my body, and stabbing myself with safety pins. When I finally tossed the final length of the fabric over my shoulder, I glanced into the mirror to see a tall, sweaty, angry red burrito staring back at me, radiating neither grace or beauty.
So, on the day of Eid, I scurried over to my friend’s home where she had promised to help me get dressed in my sari and help me look like a beautiful princess. She ushered me into her bedroom (after shooing out her husband) with her twelve year old niece in tow.
“Do you know how you want the sari draped?” she asked me, spreading out the fabric on the bed.
I glanced up from untying my sneakers. “Wait – there are different ways to drape it?”
My friend’s niece snickered at me as she pulled out her phone to Snapchat the following moments of cringe-worthy hilarity. “Of course there are different ways to wear it. Just do it in the traditional waterfall style, apu.”
My friend surveyed me up and down. “Yes, the traditional way will be best, and we will cover your sides because it is a religious holiday.”
“There was an option to not have my sides covered?” I can never keep up with the rules of female modesty among my South Asian friends, so I generally try to cover all of the things and pray that nobody is offended. But now they’re saying that exposed sides are sometimes okay? I’m so confused.
“We sometimes let our sides show at weddings or festivals, but not for religious celebrations,” my friend explained, handing me the petticoat. “Put this on.”
I quickly kicked off my jeans and reached for the cotton petticoat as my friend and her niece gasped dramatically and my friend quickly looked away, her face flushing. “What?” I exclaimed.
“We normally put the petticoat over our pants before we take them off.”
“Oh my gosh! I’m so sorry!” I yanked on the petticoat, my face burning in the same shade of red as the fabric. I had feared that I would be unintentionally indiscreet at some point today, and I had been right.
After I put on the blouse while apologizing profusely, my friend worked quickly, folding the fabric onto itself and tucking them into my petticoat. She walked around me, wrapping the fabric about me, fixing unruly pieces of the fabric as she went. Next, she folded a length of the fabric into eight pleats the length of my forearm, which she proceeded to tuck into my skirt by my right hip.
Finally, she placed the decorative drape of fabric over my shoulder and affixed the final safety pin before she stepped back to survey her work. “It’s done.”
“I can’t breathe,” I gasped out.
My friend’s niece shrugged from behind her phone. “That’s normal.”
As I came to terms with my severely limited oxygen intake for the next eight hours, I gazed at the sari in the mirror, admiring the perfect pleats at the front and the detailed embroidery across my chest and shoulder. It was beautiful.
“You look like a notun bow,” my friend said happily, smoothing out my skirt and adjusting the loop of fabric at my back.
“A new bride,” she explained. “On the days after her wedding, when she goes to visit her family and in-laws, she will wear saris like this one, simple yet pretty cotton ones in colors like this.”
“Do I want to look like a new bride?” I was slightly appalled.
“You’re lovely – don’t worry! Everyone will be so impressed that you’re wearing a sari.”
What people don’t tell you is that it’s not exactly a walk in the park to wear a sari. You will end up spending the entirety of your time dressed in a sari constantly adjusting something, as something is always falling apart or slipping out of place.
I also learned the hard way that while wearing a sari, you must take smaller, graceful steps, which I am not very good at doing, since I generally traipse around New York City like a gangly, hurried giraffe.
So for the rest of Eid al-Fitr, my friends and their aunties chased me around their homes, fixing the shoulders of my blouse, tweaking the folds of the cloth at my back, and telling me to sit still and let them bring me platefulls of deliciously spicy fried food.
In retrospect, this was probably born out of the realization that I was one poorly-placed footstep away from my entire outfit falling off in front of their entire family and scandalizing everyone, so they had decided that it would be in everyone’s best interest for me to just chill and stuff my face with food. I wasn’t mad about it.
It was a fantastic day. I loved being part of my friends’ traditions and spending time with them and their families. In many ways, it felt like spending Christmas with my own family, our quirky family traditions weaving in with the other cultural or religious traditions. I felt welcomed in and cared for by my friends, not just as a teacher at the local community center they were involved with, but as a friend, albeit one continually on the brink of a devastating wardrobe malfunction.
But of course, the best part of Eid was when I arrived home, unraveled the sari, and took my first deep breath in thirteen hours.