“Four sarees in a year should be enough. How many more does a woman need?” the male voice barked.
“Only F-O-U-R?” the female voice screeched. “What do you take me for? A maid servant? Well, listen carefully. No decent helping hand would come to work for only four sarees a year!”
A door slammed, and the female voice went up an octave. “And I’m not an illiterate village woman that you can keep in the house with four sarees….”
I was having my morning coffee and almost spilled the hot liquid. I knew both the voices well, and I had to agree with the lady. Times are bad and it would be difficult indeed to get a skilled full-time maid servant in Dhaka with the promise of only four sarees a year. And this man was expecting his wife to be placated by four? Really? The wife was being quite nice since she was only screaming; most wives of my acquaintance would throw him out of the house, if not something more drastic.
I have often wondered why men are so averse to women’s sarees. It is not that all men are miserly with spending money. And I have full compassion for those that cannot afford to spend much. But look at my own father. He was a smoker and spent quite a lot of money on his cigarettes. He also loved fancy colognes, and used to bring back expensive perfumes for my mother when he went abroad. But when it came to sarees, he really bungled things up. Apparently, right after marriage, he bought a pair of coarse cotton sarees for his newly wedded wife who then burst into tears, packed up her things and went to her parents’. Her first words to my grandmother were, “Who did you marry me off to? He got two BT sarees for me.” BT refers to Bangladesh Textiles, but what my mother meant was the coarse single-colour sarees that were widely available in the late sixties and early seventies, and were very cheap. There were not so many varieties of affordable cotton sarees in those days. Of course, things were patched up, but my mother never forgot the “insult” and anytime my father blundered, she would regurgitate this episode.
Sometimes I think that I inherited my passion for sarees from my mother who was notorious in her younger days for buying sarees wherever she went. When my father was stationed in Kushtia, she found ways to buy Indian sarees for real cheap. If anybody ever reproached her, she would baulk and say, “I earn and buy my own sarees. What’s it to you?”
During my early teaching career, I decided to wear sarees regularly after a male student made the mistake of addressing me (in shalwar kameez) as a junior student. Initially, wearing a saree was a hassle, but as time passed, I started to fall in love with the garment.
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One of the biggest charms of wearing a saree is when you are also able to wear it well. On one occasion I saw a friend of mine who wears her sarees elegantly holding the folds of her saree sideways and saying, “You think it’s pretty? Oh, but it’s more than twenty years old. Yes, yes, I’ve preserved it well!” Another time, “I bought it for real cheap! It was on sale.” One does not necessarily need expensive stuff to look good, but certainly needs to know how to carry it off. A bit of matching jewellery and suitable sandals certainly help.
At the time I was leaving for my graduate studies, a colleague had exclaimed, “Your sarees! What will happen to your sarees as you are leaving for five years at least?”
I stared back at her, “I’ll lock them up, of course.” I certainly was not going to give away the precious hoard I had accumulated over the years. What was she thinking? Musty smell? Well, I would be visiting every year and would put them out in the sun.
But how I missed wearing sarees on a daily basis in the US! I used to run around in trousers and kurtas and was much admired for my ethnic outfit and jewellery. My heart, however, cried out for my sarees that I had left back home. I had taken only a red and white one to wear on Pahela Baishakh and a grass-green jamdani my mother had given me. Finally, on the day of Pahela Baishakh, wrapping myself in that white saree with red and black block prints and embroidery, I hurried into the venue of the Carbondale Pahela Baishakh programme. I had worked there the previous night helping out with decoration, but there still were a few things that needed to be fixed.
A senior student came forward with a wide grin: “Shubho Noboborsho! Are you new in town? Who are you with?” I was taken aback because I was working on the alpana the previous evening (in baggy trousers and an over-sized T-shirt), and he was there too. How come he did not recognise me? I realised that my saree had actually transformed me like Cinderella at the royal ball.
I was wondering what to say when his wife yelled from the other side of the room, “Moron! Are you blind? It’s Sohana!” He went round-eyed and exclaimed, “Oh, of course! But I did not know she even had a saree.” He paused and asked, “Did you wear it by yourself? Who helped you?” I beat a hasty retreat before he could ask any more moronic questions.
Because of my allergies to materials other than cotton, from the very beginning I was into handloom and cotton. After a while, I failed to notice anything except those two particular kinds. Ask me about silk, chiffon, or katan, I know next to nothing. I am not even into the jamdanis—coveted by most saree connoisseurs. But I am absolutely in love with Dhakai tant sarees. I also love the vegetable dyed ones. A year into my graduate studies, when I came back to Dhaka, I took a few more back with me. The admiration and appreciation that a saree garners from the westerners are difficult to match. Most of my classmates did not quite believe that it was just one long piece of cloth. They were sure that it was some kind of Eastern gown and somehow stitched from the inside. I had to demonstrate to two of my English Department friends once to make them believe it. The next year, I took two sarees as gifts from Bangladesh for them to try out.
I truly believe that sarees are the most elegant and beautiful dress on earth. Moreover, what other dress can one wear in so many different ways? Once upon a time, I used to think that like many other hobbies, my fascination for sarees would also wear off. So far it has not. Moreover, the way cotton and handloom sarees are evolving, I doubt it will happen any time soon.
Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor of English at ULAB