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Who’s Sari Now?

Market in Mumbai

In one of my notebooks, there are two pages of handwritten notes in pencil that smeared. It wasn’t until last night I squinted through the thick fog on the page and salvaged those notes. It was written in 2012 during my visit to India.

I had two roommates, both women. We were there as artists to participate in a 12 hour art installation. But what were we to wear?

We stayed at an artists residence in Mumbai. This particular morning we sat at the end of a picnic table in the walled in courtyard. The assistant who worked there, Karuna, stood next to me and sketched a map to the nearest shopping district. She gave this info to me, the weakest link, the easiest lost, while my roomies sat across from me and talked. At the far end of the table, the owner of the residency had lunch with a man and woman, both blonde and American. I was distracted because staying there the bulk of the week, the three of us had not been offered so much as… Well, we’d been offered water. And only after me and my roommates returned from the coffee shop, finding these two strangers sitting with the owner quietly bowed over steaming bowls fresh from the kitchen, only then were we ever offered food. And it was in passing, an off-handed– oh, you wouldn’t want any food, would you? And even with Karuna sketching arterial streets on her map, I would never describe her as friendly or kind or even warm. Is this an Indian thing? A Class Thing?

I took Karuna’s sketch and Nikki, Be and I crowded into a rickshaw and zipped over to the shopping district. It was a farmer’s market springing wild from the ground in front of fancier, glass and gold shops. We walked through carts sweating handmade jewelry and shoes, fruit juices and food. The ladies ran their fingers along displayed necklaces as if strumming a harp.

We entered a building full of small clothing shops, arranged in a maze with dream logic. The mall was a variety of independent stores and clothiers we no longer offer in our corporate, unified America, all crowded next to each other like barnacles. We walked through the ground floor and fell into one shop at random. It was floor to ceiling with dresses and sari’s. I was as useless as any man in a dress shop, and watched with a kind of fascination the hypnotized gaze veiled over the eyes of the ladies as they suddenly, dreamily, floated through the fabric considering this thing, then not, then this, then not. Then, in spite of the small hot store, I followed Be up a staircase hidden in the corner that lead to a small attic hung with more sari’s and dresses. Be wandered through the offerings and I watched a small Indian man pull out sari’s at random for a grandmotherly woman and a not much younger daughter.

We left the shop, having bought nothing. We all wanted to cross the street, but how?

Crosswalks and traffic lanes are a joke. Rickshaws, buses and dented and damages cars flow like debris water after a tsunami. And though there is chaos, drivers seem to lack the anger so prevalent with drivers in the states. Indian drivers honk a unique language, signalling their intention. Here, driver’s honk in expletives only. In India, everyone knows no one knows what they are doing. Pedestrians have a right to die moreso than a right to cross.

We made it across to more clothes and more options, but I was still at a loss. I didn’t know what I wanted. Women, of course, have more options than men. I would have been happy to dress as a Muslim, head to toe in white but didn’t see anything beyond handmade sandals and simple t-shirts and cargo pants.

Once we crossed the street, the ladies separated naturally. Nikki veering off and ultimately vanishing into a alley thick with piles of clothes and fabric. Be and I wouldn’t see her again for hours, until we’d returned to the residency. But at the time I foolishly thought I was to chaperone and keep us all together. But the spirit of shopping possesses women independently. After losing Nikki, I ran after Be and she was moth-drawn into one brightly lit store with gold hanging in the windows.

Inside was three stories– a staircase leading down into a discount sari basement area, and another staircase leading to a loft with folded, newer fabric. Be and I went upstairs to the mezzanine and met two Indian men who both seemed like they’d be ideal fits in America in the 1970’s. One man did all the talking, bringing out catalogues and laying sari’s along the long white formica counter for her to examine, while the other man ran off to get tea for us and, when Be chose a couple of sari’s to try, he expertly wrapped her, tossing the last yard of fabric over her shoulder with military flourish.


Be settled on two sari’s and while wrapping up the sale, I ran back out on the street for a last search for Nikki. Her trail went cold. What choices would she have? I walked the length of one block, doubled back and went the other way. In her shoes, I’d go back to the residency since we had a mandatory group meeting that night.

I returned to Be with her finishing her purchase and we both walked the street a while. Here’s the thing: Be and I are both black, Nikki is white. Finally, Be gave in and started asking people randomly: Did you see a white woman in an orange headwrap? And nearly every person she stopped said yes, and pointed off to some direction where Nikki no longer was. Finally, I nudged Be and with time getting short we both gave in and taxi’d back to the residency, hoping Nikki returned, and she did.

Its a shame to stop there, since there’s so much more to this story. That night to follow would never be completely over. And truth told, India has never completely left my heart. Inspite of that 18 hour plane ride, I gotta go back someday…

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