The Brown Sari

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It was Minku who pulled out the sari from a dark corner inside my cupboard.

She had been on a cleaning spree for the last couple of days after her arrival in India. Yesterday it had been her book shelf and cupboard . This afternoon, my cupboard seemed to be the target .

“Amma I never knew you had this sari. It is so lovely! Where did you buy it from?” she asked shaking out the folds and pulling  it out of the hanger.

I looked at the fabric she was holding aloft in her hand- a beautiful printed silk pochampalli sari in brown with a burnt orange border. I had fallen in love with it the moment I had seen it on the shelf  inside the shop.  But my mother had felt it was not suitable for a sixteen year old girl.

“It is meant for older women Priya” she had said,  trying to get me interested instead in a blue  sari on the shelf below.

But I had been adamant!  My grand father who had accompanied us to the shop decided to humour me and pay for it. My mother wasn’t so sure.  Not only did she feel it was too dull  for a young girl  but also that the the cost was too high for something that wasn’t in her opinion that attractive. Then  ofcourse my dark complexion was the final clincher about its unsuitability !

But despite her protests, her father ie my grandfather had asked the salesman to pack it and had paid for it. It was his gift for my sixteenth birthday and he had wanted me to have what I wanted.

We went home with me, holding the  the sari  packed in  brown paper, close to myself while my mother went on grumbling about how I had made her father throw away a large part of his pension money for the month, on something so expensive.

I had worn the sari for my birthday which also happened to be the day we had the  farewell party for the tenth standard girls at my school. I had felt like a princess. It was my  first sari and mine in every way.  I had felt very grown up and smart as I walked out of home balancing myself on my high heeled slippers with the pallu swirling behind me in the breeze.

The farewell party and afterwards had been such a blast !! We had gone for a film – the entire class together occupying a full row inside the movie hall. And then after the film when we were standing together near the panipuriwala and stuffing our mouths with panipuris, a little urchin selling flowers had come up to me and tugging at the pleats of my sari had handed me a single rose saying “Didi this is for you” . I had looked at him pleasantly surprised wondering  why he was giving it to me.

“No I don’t want it. You will lose money if you give our flowers like this for free” I said pinching his cheeks.

“Oh it is not free Didi. That Bhaiya standing there  has paid me for it” he had said pointing across the road.

All our eyes turned collectively in that direction. It was a crowded pavement that faced us with an assortment of people walking up and down.

“Are you sure it is for me?” I had asked unsure,  because there were with me, Pinky , Afsa  and Ruby  who were by far the most beautiful girls in our group and who constantly attracted admirers.

“No no it is for you. He said to give it to the girl in the brown sari” said the urchin

The three beauties looked surprised . I realize now that they were  probably a little hurt that a plain Jane like me had attracted the attention that they rightfully thought was theirs. We went on  quizzing the little fellow but he had not been able to give us any further leads.

“ Be careful. Must be some weirdo” Afsa had said finally. Pinky and Ruby had nodded in agreement. I had also pretended to agree, though secretly I had been thrilled that I had stolen the show that evening!!

“Amma, why are you smiling” asked Minku looking closely at my face.

“Oh nothing baby.. just brought back a lot of old  memories” I said giving hera hug.

“It is such a beautiful sari. Why have I never seen you wear it” she asked  me.

“Your Appa did not like these colours much. He preferred  brighter colours” I said folding the sari carefully.

“ But why did you care about what he liked. He was not wearing these colours. You were” she said with her brow creased in a frown.

I looked at her face, marveling at how strongly she expressed herself!  How had I , a woman who had spent her entire adult life learning to please the man in her life by molding herself in every way possible to be exactly what he had wanted in a wife, produced a daughter who was as individualistic as I  was a conformist?

“Minku it is not so simple” I said finally.

“Of course, it isn’t Amma. It is called Patriarchy and it has been perfected over centuries. Women like you have allowed yourselves to be so subsumed by it that today you live by what someone else has defined for you. And even when he is not there in this world “ she said, glaring at me!

I knew what she said held so much of truth that I could not face her. But it hurt when she spoke like that! I could feel tears welling up in my eyes

“Hey..Amma now don’t cry. I did not mean to hurt you. I know you are missing Appa a lot. But that is also because you have never tried to have a life outside of what he designed for you. And now with him gone from this world and me abroad, you do not know who you are or what is your purpose in life” she said lying down on my lap

I ran my fingers through her hair , pulling those baby plump cheeks and admiring at how easily she had summed up my life. I looked at the sari that lay folded beside me on the bed. How strange it was that at one point in my life I had known what I had wanted and had pushed for it despite opposition. When had I become this woman who had started living her life, pleasing others?

But  it wasn’t that Murali was a monster or something. If anything, he  had been a very charming  man. It was difficult to say no to anything he had wanted. He could be quite persuasive  but yes, he was rather opinionated. When he had said I looked good in yellow , everything I had bought had been yellow. When he said he didn’t think chiffon suited me I had put them all away and had switched to silks. It was not just the clothes I wore but everything else in our lives was defined by whether he liked it or not.

“Listen Minku, why don’t you wear this sari for  Shreya’s wedding reception this evening. I think we can find a blouse  that will go with it ” I said.

“No Amma, I am not wearing this. You are going to wear this and we are both going for the reception” she said getting up

“No Minku, I don’t feel like coming with you. I have been feeling tiered in the evenings since my surgery” I said trying to find an excuse.

“Amma, come on.. you had a hysterectomy eight months ago! Don’t tell me you are still recovering from it! You have been managing fine,  living by yourself. So why should it suddenly make you tiered when you have to come out for a function ?” she asked,  looking exasperated.

“I don’t know anyone there” I said , making one last attempt to get out of the situation.

“Amma, you are not some social recluse. You used to go out with Appa for all his office functions and speak to his colleagues and their wives. They were not exactly your friends” she said challenging me.

I knew she had a point. But somehow, I just did not feel I was that same woman any longer. Hell, I did not even feel like I was a woman any more!  My uterus was out of my body, my husband out of this world.. what was left in me ? I couldn’t stop the tears as they started welling up in my eyes . My body started shaking with sobs

“Amma please stop crying” said Minku hugging me close .  I continued sobbing , clinging on to her, thinking how strange it was , that today at fifty two, my twenty eight year old daughter was playing the role of mother.

We fell asleep afterwards,  holding on to each other like that.

When I awoke, I found Minku was up and getting dressed up for the reception. She was wearing her favorite black chiffon sari and for me she had ironed out the brown and burnt orange pochampalli and a matching blouse.

“Come on Amma get ready,  Meanwhile, I will get you some tea ” she said walking out towards the kitchen.

“Listen Minku, I don’t think I should wear this sari. I will something in white or cream” I said going towards to the cupboard

“No, you are going to wear that sari” she yelled  from the kitchen

“What a brat”  I thought fondly as I went into the bathroom to have a shower.

When I came out,  I found Minku armed with a cup of tea in one hand and her make up kit in the other.

“Come on drink this up quickly Amma. I want to do your face and your hair” she said

No amount of protesting would stop her. But finally when I looked at myself in the mirror, I looked different. I think  I could see glimpses of that sixteen year old again.

My pallu felt like it was flying  again as we stepped out of the house. And when we entered the hotel where the reception was being held I felt like I was back at my farewell party.

Minku was pulling me along and introducing me to all her friends. I knew she was determined to get me to mingle with people.  But this crowd, the people and the music, all of this was overwhelming me…! I wanted to sit down

“Minku please let me sit somewhere I need to breathe” I told her

“Amma are you sure you wont   slink away?” she asked me doubtfully

“Of course not!  Now please go and get me a glass of juice.  I am feeling thirsty  ” I said moving outside towards the lawn where there were fewer people.

“Alright. Please go and sit by the pool” she said

But I made my way in the opposite direction from the pool  In her effort to get me liberated , Minku was behaving exactly  as her father had  in his desire to enslave me. I felt rather annoyed. I wasn’t going to have this kid  tell me where to sit!!!

I wandered along aimlessly  in the lawn until I  found a  table under a gazebo . I  plonked myself down on one of the chairs, hoping this table was part of the wedding reception arrangements. But frankly, I was now beyond caring.

“ If anyone comes here to sit then I will move away” I thought as I removed my feet from my slippers and placed them on the chair opposite. There was a gentle breeze blowing and I felt drowsy. I felt sixteen once again. I closed my eyes and started humming a tune from that film we had gone to watch.

I must have been couple of minutes into this bliss when I sensed  a presence near me. I opened my eyes with a start. He was standing there – a tall man with grey hair and  beard holding two glasses of wine in his hands.

“ I am sorry I can’t offer you a rose today but would a glass of wine suffice? ” he asked extending a glass towards me. His eyes were twinkling mischievously. I felt my eyes locking into his like I was under a spell.  And then I who had never even touched alcohol  in my entire life,  found myself extending my hand in his direction and taking a glass.

“Cheers… to us !” he said raising his glass  in a toast.

“To us” I replied raising mine

I wanted to ask him so many things .. like why had he not come forward and introduced himself that day. Why had he chosen to give me the rose and not to one of my beautiful friends

“You were the most interesting and exotic in that group of ordinary girls” he said as though reading my mind.

I flushed with pleasure.

He walked over across the table towards me . I waited quietly , my heart beating wildly. He was now very close and I could feel his breath on my face . When  he bent towards me I closed my eyes and felt myself drifting away…..lost!

“Amma, please wake up” said Minku shaking me

“Huh… what happened” I asked startled , putting my feet down from the chair opposite.

“What were you doing sitting so far away from the party?” she asked scolding me

“It was very pleasant under this gazebo. So I sat here” I said

“Well this is not part of the reception scene. It is an intimate dinner setting for two. Cant you see,  candle sticks, the cutlery and china is all laid out ?” she asked looking at me like I was some kind of an idiot.

Yes indeed the table had china and cutlery laid out – a table for two. I had been sitting on one of the chairs and  had put my feet up on the  one opposite it,

There was one empty wine glass in the dinner place opposite mine  with a few drops  of wine sticking to the bottom of the glass . I looked around for the other glass that seemed to be missing.

As I pushed my chair away , put on my slippers and got up,, I felt something crunch under my foot. Minku heard it too!

“My God Amma you have just smashed a wine glass with your foot! ” she said picking up the broken pieces from the grass below.

“Oh is that so “ I murmured moving away from the spot and bumping into her.

“Easy.. Amma, Don’t sway like you are drunk.. Or are you? Your sari smells of wine” she said giggling

I joined her giggles and  we walked away  holding each other ,  towards the building and the noise of the wedding reception.

But I must confess, I couldn’t resist sneaking a glance behind me to see if he was still standing there somewhere.