The first time I wore a sari was when I was celebrating Diwali. My host family was out of town so I spent the day with Dolly Ji, our instructor. After nine years of wrapping saris on helpless Bridge Year students, she has it down. In about five minutes, Dolly Ji had wrapped my Sari perfectly and secured it with safety pins so that it wouldn’t come loose during our celebrations. That night I ran around playing with sparklers and lighting floating lanterns with ease thanks to Dolly Ji’s stellar sari wrapping. Wearing a sari is so easy, I thought naively.
The next time I had to wear a sari did not go quite as well. We were going to the engagement ceremony of Dolly Ji’s niece, but Dolly Ji was too busy to help all the Bridge Year girls wrap their saris. “Just ask someone in your homestay,” she told us.
The night before the engagement I stayed up until midnight watching YouTube videos on sari wrapping. I wanted to wrap my sari by myself. Most of the time, as long as a I studied long enough and tried hard enough, I could do things myself. Sari wrapping would not be one of those times.
The morning of the engagement, I attempted to wrap my sari. It did not go well. All of the beading and jewels that made my sari so beautiful made it very difficult to pleat. My folds were messy and despite using handfuls of safety pins, I couldn’t help but feel that it would fall off me the moment I walked more than a few steps. With a sigh of defeat, I realized I would need to ask someone to help me if I was going to make it to the engagement.
Stepping out of my room, I went across the hall to ask one of the doctors who rented a room in my homestay for help. Unfortunately neither she, nor her roommate knew how to wrap a sari. I began walking towards the stairs, figuring I would need to ask my homestay mother for help, when the third girl who rents a room in my homestay, a Banaras Hindu University student named Kanchan, called out to me as I passed her room. I had hardly spoken to her at all before this. While the two doctors spoke English, she spoke Hindi, with a little of English. Unsurprisingly, she looked at me in confusion, given that I was wearing the sari blouse, which looks like a crop top, the petticoat, a long skirt that goes under the sari, and the sari itself, which was only half tucked into the petticoat and I was carrying the rest of it in my arms.
“Ye sari hai,” I said, which translates to “This is a sari.” She looked at me with a smile. It was pretty obvious that it was a sari but I didn’t know how else to explain that I needed help wrapping it. “You wear?” she responded. “Ha, lekin mujhe nahin aatee hai,” I responded, which meant “Yes but I don’t know.” At that point I was really wishing I had my phone with me so I could use Google translate, or at least I had thought to look up the word for “help.” Despite my lack of Hindi skills, she understood what I was asking and pulled me into her room to begin wrapping my sari.
While I felt relieved that I had somehow communicated what I needed, I soon had a new problem on my hands. It turns out that if you haven’t had practice, it’s really hard to wrap a sari on someone else. Dolly Ji’s skill had made me think it would be easy. Her first attempt took about 20 minutes. She started by tucking the non-beaded end into my petticoat and wrapped it around once. She then wrapped it around me again, and put the rest of the fabric over my shoulder so that it hung down to my knees. Then she took all the rest of the fabric and began pleating it and tucked the pleats in at my waist. I thought it looked great, and much better than my earlier attempts. “Bahut achchha!” I exclaimed with gratitude, meaning “very good!” She looked at me and responded “no, no, no.” I was confused, it seemed pretty good to me and she had already done more than she needed to. Nevertheless, she spent probably another half an hour redoing the pleats and wrapping so that the fabric hung perfectly and the folds lay flat. After putting in the safety pins to hold it in place, she stepped back to admire her work. She said a few things in Hindi that I didn’t understand, but one that I did “sundar,” meaning beautiful. “Dhanyavaad, dhanyavaad,” I repeated, unable to express my gratitude with just one “thank you.”
As I hurried to catch a rickshaw to the event, I couldn’t help but feel surprised at how much she had worked to help me. She had offered to wrap my sari even though we never talked. She kept working to make it perfect even when she could had just stopped. She was excited to help me even though we could barely communicate. I didn’t know how to respond.
Recently we have been talking about gift culture in our group. In a gift culture, people give without expecting anything in return. It’s very present around India. Strangers will invite you in for a cup of chai, workshops will ask that you pay what you can give, and people will help you with anything whenever you need it. I’ve found that both wonderful and nerve racking. I’m not used to being given things without expectations of reciprocation. Though I continue to feel awkward at times, I’ve started to embrace this culture. Kanchan gave me both the gift of a beautifully wrapped sari and an insight into a culture I would soon see even more of.
P.S. I finally learned to wrap a sari.