“Please, you look so nice in a sari,” my mother encourages as she wraps the fabric around me, seemingly having a plan in mind. I used to always watch her wear saris, wondering why she bothered mummifying herself in these impossible-to-manage window curtains. Now it was happening to me and I tried my best to grit my teeth and not roll my eyes as I lifted my hands in the air, almost in surrender as she continues to work on the pleating of the skirt.
There are a number of things wrong with this picture. One, I don't like being dressed up like a doll. Mainly because I'm an adult and have been dressing myself for years. Typically, if there's an outfit so complicated that I cannot put it on myself, then I choose to go with something more reasonable.
You know, like a normal human being.
But more importantly, being dressed up like this usually implies that at some point during the wedding we are about to attend, my mom will likely float around the room with me at her elbow, greeting people and saying things like, “This is my girl Dora! Isn't she so grown up now?” Then the other person will say something along the lines of, “Yes, she's become so beautiful! Why hasn't she gotten married yet?” I hate this reaction more than anything because it gives my mother ample opportunity to turn to me with a wide smile plastered across her face and the words 'I TOLD YOU SO' practically illuminated in a neon sign above her head. I usually fidget and fumble my way through this conversation, giving half-answers and smiling sweetly so they will focus on how dumb and pretty I'm trying to be.
This leads me to the main reason I hate wearing saris: they inherently represent marriage. Many people will try to argue with my theory, but hear me out. Since the age of five, my parents and my friends' parents have been dressing us up in saris for innocuous things like talent shows and cultural performances. Even I can admit that little girls wearing saris like grown ups is painfully adorable so I have few complaints there. But as we get older, our parents restrict us from wearing saris because it is “too grown up”. When I was a teenager, the thought of wearing a sari to an event was an unnecessary measure at best. It seemed sassy, presumptuous and even attention-seeking. It simply wasn't appropriate at that age to surrender the look of innocence completely. We may have pulled it off at 5 years old, but wearing saris at 14 years old made us seem less innocent. We looked provocative to men and that was a sinister message. While looking grown up is adorable for a toddler, for a young woman in puberty, looking grown up is threatening and untimely.
As I reached my 20s, something changed. All of a sudden, my mother was asking me about wearing a sari left and right. Every event, every Eid, every tiny little thing was an opportunity for her to dress me up. To say I was annoyed by this is an understatement. My rational mind makes it nearly impossible for me to go along with things just for the sake of being a spoke on the wheel. I'm much more interested in why I have to be a spoke in the first place when I would much rather be the wheel (or better yet, I'd rather be inertia, moving the wheel forward). My mom pleaded with me to wear saris more, that it would make her happy, that I was grown up now and I had outgrown salwar khamizes.
How one outgrows one type of clothing for another is beyond me.
Despite her efforts to thwart my suspicions, I knew the reason she was pressuring me was because it was marriage picking time. Ah yes, that wonderful time in a girl's life where her self-worth and intelligence are summed up by an article of clothing wrapped around her body 50 different times in 50 different ways. Somehow, this flimsy garment is supposed to indicate to the world that I am virtuous and proper, that I have social graces and a good family name, that I went to college and graduated with a prestigious degree, that I am funny and smart and kind and giving. Somehow, a sari would be indicative of my life.
This theory has a double-edged sword aspect to it, in the sense that, while wearing a sari inevitably earns you more compliments then you'll ever hear within your community, not wearing one ensures that your womanhood is not yet developed. For example, as I had predicted about the wedding my mother and I were going to attend later that night, I had gotten tons of compliments from everyone for being beautiful, sweet, funny, mature, etc. However, 99.9% of the time the compliments would end with, “So when are you getting married?” To have someone compliment you on your looks and then segue into a question about marriage pretty much implies that your beauty is only worth something if a man wants to make you his wife. While there are always talks of marriage buzzing around a young Bengali woman, it is especially top of mind when she's wearing a sari.
I'll give her credit, my mom knows me well enough to ask me to wear a sari to make her happy, exploiting my weakness to fulfill all her wishes. She knows that if she says what she's really trying to do (dress me up like a Bollywood doll and take me to a wedding where other bachelors' parents are bound to be hunting for fresh meat), that I would laugh for a long time and then walk away, wiping the tears from my eyes while calling out behind my back, “Good one, Ammu.” So instead she maneuvers my psyche, playing emotional manipulation in the way that mothers have perfected over time, almost like a game of Battleship. She's sinking my ships, my excuses and objections, and she's a master at it.
So here I am, arms still raised like I'm participating in a Black Lives Matter protest as she tsks in irritation and has to redo the pleating on the skirt. I want so badly to poke fun at her for trying to perfect this unperfect method of dress, but I choose to hold my tongue, knowing that one more smartass comment will make her angry. I bite my tongue and look out the window of her bedroom trying not to laugh at the charade of it all. In a few hours I will be showcased around a large room full of people in the Bengali community and they will all judge and see if the girl in the sari is the kind of wife they've always envisioned her to be.
And the girl in the sari will be smirking inside, watching as the outdated customs of her culture try to envelop her, capture her beauty and spirit into a definable term so that the light that radiates from within her is not threatening, but attainable.
But a flower is inherently beautiful by nature. By picking the flower, you are destroying the very thing that gives it its luster: the freedom to thrive and exist wherever it chooses to bloom.