It was the NPR piece, “Love is Saying ‘Sari'”, that made me reflect on my connection to the sari as well as my own experiences with potential loss and the importance of leaving a legacy.
My sister and I sit in my parent’s bedroom as my mom looks through her sari(s), gently touching the fabric and examining the borders of each almost as if she is looking at a collection of dolls, elephants or other knickknacks that someone collects. She sighs about not having anywhere to wear them as she has worked two jobs…days, evenings and weekends…most of her adult life. She finally says to us, matter of fact, this is the sari I want to be buried in.
My dad calls to tell me that he is going to ask my cousin for the number to a lawyer so he and my mom can put together a will. My mother was diagnosed with late stage ovarian cancer four years ago and I feel incredibly lucky and privileged that she has lived long enough to see me get married, finish my doctoral degree, and meet my little one. I don’t want to think about losing a parent let alone end of life logistics related to what my mother will pass onto my siblings and I.
My thoughts turn to the countless number of saris that she has painstakingly folded and stuffed in a number of places, in a suitcase or bureau. They are stuffed so tightly that, if I pull one out, an endless rainbow of brightly colored sari(s) fall out on the floor – magenta, green, red and yellow. Each of them tell a story… the faded off white wedding sari; the geometric patterned sari that she wore when she first came to the U.S.; and the stiff Kerala sari that one of her brothers bought her.
As a Malayali, born in India but raised in the U.S., I have had an interesting relationship to the sari. In college, it was some sort of cultural badge of honor for my friends and I to know how to properly put on a sari. And if you knew different styles of draping, Gujarati, South Indian or Bengali, then you were a bonafied sari expert.
The sari has also represented some sort of class equalizer. To the naked eye you would not see any clear socioeconomic distinctions between me and my friends or my mother and other aunties. You can always hide a cheap pair of shoes under the endless folds of material.
In professional or social spaces, I can always count on continual “oohs” and “ahhs” over me if I don a sari. In these moments, I reluctantly play the part of a cultural tour guide talking about bindi and mendhi.
The sari also has a meaning for me related to bodies and body image. I grew up seeing aunties of all sizes and shapes wearing a sari, many times proudly exposing stomach rolls and back fat.
There are many unexpected lessons I have learned from six to nine yards of cloth. As I carefully fold and put away my wedding sari and my manthrakodi in my NYC apartment, I think about my mom. When my mom’s time comes, she will have passed along more to me than she will ever know.
Contributed by Rani Varghese, an Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work at Adelphi University in New York, received her MSW at Smith College School for Social Work and her doctoral degree in Social Justice Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Rani identifies as a social justice educator, feminist and mother-academic. She has taught in the fields of Social Work, Education and Women, Gender & Sexuality studies and brings an interdisciplinary lens to her teaching and scholarship.