Dad took home a whole lot of Mum’s clothes when we emptied out her room at the rest home. In his downstairs bedroom, where the curtains are always drawn, sagging cardigans hang alongside trackpants and a few musty salwar kameez. The sarees are presumably still at the bottom of the dresser in his bedroom upstairs, but it’s hard to know for sure. We try to avoid going into the house. Dad, 94, worries we’ll steal their things.
The wonder of mum’s sarees used to unfold on Sunday mornings, when she draped one of the impossibly long pieces of cloth from her wardrobe over her body. She wound, tucked and pleated the seamless garment meticulously. Eye-level with her navel, I held the material taut as she folded it back on itself to make pleats tucked into her petticoat. When finished, she would float down the stairs to the waiting Hillman Hunter. The car filling with the sweet scent of clove, her choice of breath freshener.
Mum was the only woman who wore a saree at St Martin’s and the only parishioner in Mount Roskill whose midriff was visible at Sunday service. The stone-cold church in an Auckland winter wasn’t hospitable but mum had acclimatised. Photographs taken soon after she emigrated from Fiji show her wearing a thick white poloneck under her saree, with an ochre-coloured cardigan on top. She grew used to New Zealand’s icy winter chill, reverting eventually to the conventional flesh-baring choli (blouse) and insulating herself with a concealed flannelette petticoat, thick and fleecy like my winter bedsheets.
Sarees go back 5000 years to the dhoti, a loincloth first worn by Buddha’s followers. Evolving to cover women’s upper bodies, they were uncut and unstitched, fastened instead with knots; ancient Hindus believed piercing woven cloth with scissors and needles invited impurity. Between four and eight metres long, the choice of saree length depends on how you want to wear it. And there are dozens, if not hundreds, of different drapes.
Mum chose the most popular drape, the nivi. The ritual would start by tucking one end of a six-metre saree into her petticoat, winding it anticlockwise until it came full circle. It’s a bit like wrapping yourself in a towel after a shower. Next, the other end was turned into pleats made along its width. This pallu is drawn across the right hip, hung over the left shoulder and fastened to the choli. She finished off by transforming the saree’s undraped, middle portion into lengthwise pleats tucked into the petticoat near the abdomen.
A game of sartorial Twister to the uninitiated, dressing in a saree takes two minutes for the most accomplished wearers. It took Mum ten, a little longer on special occasions when the softer, printed chiffons worn at church were swapped for thicker, embroidered silks (although purists champion handwoven sarees unpierced by needles, embroidered sarees are increasingly popular).
Sometime between my brother’s graduation and mine the wearing stopped. Mum’s fingers, cruelled by arthritis, were no longer up to the required intricacies. Strokes had become an unwelcome fixture of her life. I remember the first one, watching her topple over the heater the night David Lange was voted in. I laughed, thinking she had tripped. The strokes stealthily whittled away her life’s pleasures: lawn bowls, driving, writing, talking, dressing up.
Never overly sentimental, she wordlessly converted to salwar kameez, the tunic and pants pairing fashioned by the Moghuls. The complexity of dressing was reduced to a hook-and-eye fastener on the back of the kameez (long shirt) and a drawstring on the salwar (pants) worn underneath. The hanging sarees were folded and put into the dresser.
Born and raised in Auckland, I was never offered Indian outfits. There was instead a garish best dress bought two sizes too big so it would last. Red and white striped with butterfly sleeves and a sash tied at the back. Pink floral-patterned silk with a white lace collar. When I started buying my own clothes, I gravitated to black.
It was during a holiday in Fiji when relatives had me first try on a salwar kameez. I was 14. ‘Kaafi sundar larki, nah?’ the women in the store clucked. I didn’t see a beautiful girl. I saw a gangly teenager with big eighties hair cemented with hairspray, in an outfit with too much colour and with pants way too baggy. I imagined the boys who teased me the most at school, Andrew and Wayne, and their trademark taunt, ‘I am liking it hot’, with faux-Indian accents and wobbling heads.
‘I don’t like it,’ I said, leaving the outfit in the fitting room. The women shook their heads but said nothing.
Years later in Wellington, where Chris and I married, Mum tried her luck by buying me Indian wedding jewellery. They were modest pieces by Indian standards, ostentatious by mine (I got around in a pair of stud earrings). The 22-karat gold necklace and earrings, no small expense for a pensioner, were a welcome inspiration for my wedding outfit. Possessing neither a peachy complexion nor a discernible bust, I was ill-suited to the melange of meringues on offer at the bridal stores. I opted instead for my own variation of the ghagra choli, a long skirt and blouse. The skirt, from an upmarket store, was embroidered cream silk from India. The blouse was tailored from purple silk bought during a work trip to London.
There is no such thing as too much gold at an Indian wedding. Brides have been known to dress in zardozi (metal) embroidered wedding sarees, burned after wearing to retrieve their gold. In this spirit, Mum wore an electric-blue salwar kameez embroidered in gold and paired with her own 22-karat jewellery. She was as elegant and gracious and delightful as I could have hoped for on my wedding day. But the mother of my childhood was gone. Her outfit sat slightly askew on her stooping shoulders. The long hair she used to gather into a bun had been ravaged by alopecia, so she supplemented it with a wig. She shuffled more than she strode, her body battling the cold front that had hit Wellington. I’m ashamed to admit I wanted her to be younger, to have more sparkle. It was a happy day, but my heart sinks when I look at Mum in the photos.
We were living in Auckland when I got pregnant, around the same time Mum had the stroke that sent her to Gracedale. The rest home was near her house and around the corner from the old St Martin’s church, recently bulldozed to accommodate the South Western motorway. Furnished in beige and brittle cheer, Gracedale occupied a site that once housed a borstal. Mum and I had been there years earlier when, in an earlier incarnation, it was a landing point for Vietnamese refugees she had helped resettle.
Initially we left most of Mum’s clothes at home, at Dad’s behest. ‘She’ll come home soon,’ he said. My siblings and I agreed because we were tired, and it was easier than discussing the intractable truth. One by one though, the salwar kameez moved across to Gracedale for weddings or birthdays or other increasingly rare occasions calling for something other than elasticised pants and zipped microfleeces.
We moved to Sydney that year, but my baby son and I often flew home to check on Mum. Once, soon after Hari started walking, I took them both to Cornwall Park. By then trackpants and acrylic tops, pilled by Gracedale’s industrial washing machines, were Mum’s wardrobe staples. Hari’s toddling and her ambling weren’t so different: slow, tentative, stopping at whim to pick up a stick or to admire a blossom. The spring sun was warm on our faces and everyone was smiling.
It was the only walk Hari and Mum took together. Soon after, she broke her leg. She eventually got back on her feet only to be felled by another stroke. It now took two rest-home carers to shower and dress her before propping her into the chair where she whiled away her days.
• • •
Weddings were the glue in Mum’s family. They reunited her with siblings and their offspring, now scattered around the world. She was devastated not to be well enough to fly to Sydney for my cousin Navleen’s wedding.
I wore a saree.
I could have chosen a more practical occasion. Navleen and her Irish fiancé, James, wed on Sydney Glass Island—a barge converted into a glass-encased wedding venue. The prospect of negotiating gangplanks, sea legs and narrow flights of stairs in a garment that could fall apart with the slightest tug was daunting. But I persisted, borrowing a deep-pink saree embroidered with gold floral-paisley detail and bordered in green.
YouTube was my friend. I watched at least four ‘how-to’ clips before the wedding. On the day, my hands shifted between holding the fabric in place and hitting pause on a step-by-step tutorial on saree wearing. My teeth became a dressing implement. I could have done with an extra pair of hands, like Kali, the powerful black goddess and destroyer of demons.
Now I just needed to figure out how to walk. Each step came with the fear of unravelling. Like a middle-aged fitness freak, I had calculated the day’s steps: from house to taxi, taxi to boat, minimal movement on the boat, back home. Finding a workable gait, I clutched Chris’s elbow and shuffled to the taxi, a tentative geisha making her debut.
It was impossible to miss the gathered wedding guests at Darling Harbour, dressed in every imaginable colour and flecked with gold, like an array of exotic birds gathered for an ornithological exposition. My cousin Anju took one look at me and said, ‘We need to fix your saree.’ She escorted me, deflated, into Sydney Glass Island’s claustrophobic bathroom and silently remade the saree’s pleats, tucking them closer to my belly.
Mum would have loved being there. Her niece getting married under a bright Sydney sky, the harbour bridge in the backdrop one moment, Fort Denison the next. All against the soundscape of the pundit (Hindu priest) chanting in Sanskrit. She converted from Hinduism to Christianity when she got married but kept her hand in both religions.
‘We all worship the same God,’ she said whenever I quizzed her on religion.
‘Deep down she was always a Hindu,’ one of Mum’s sisters told me on the phone the day after she died. We had her dressed in a recently bought pale-pink salwar kameez for her funeral and invited a pundit to offer prayers alongside an Anglican vicar. I wore a black dress that slipped over the head and belted at the waist. Anything more complicated would have been too difficult.
I own one saree, which Chris bought for me as a spontaneous birthday gift from a store called Rups Big Bear in Mum’s home town of Lautoka, Fiji. A deep-green chiffon, it has, like most sarees, three design elements. The endpiece, used to make the pallu draped over the shoulder, is sewn with hundreds of tiny black sequins and stitches that form marigolds in various states of bloom. The border, running along the hem, is a thick band of more sequins. The field, little of which is visible when the saree is worn, is unembellished. Like many contemporary sarees, there was also a second endpiece, cut and used to sew a matching blouse.
I wore it to my cousin Sanjay’s wedding last year, also in Lautoka. Prasads had flocked from all over the world, taking over the local hotel. Leaving nothing to chance this time, I earmarked matriarchal saree doyenne Aunty Uma to help. I wasn’t alone; when I knocked on her door, there were three cousins queued ahead of me. I’d left my run too late. My sister saved the day, but not before I returned to my hotel room, looked out at the big old palm trees worried by the breeze and quietly sobbed.
‘You know you can buy ready-made sarees,’ Aunty Uma said after the wedding. The recently invented ergonomic saree comes with ready-stitched pleats and pallu, an elasticised waist, Velcro fasteners and built-in pockets. It takes just a minute to put on.
‘But that feels like cheating,’ I said. The joy of sarees comes not just with the end result. Like origami or baking a cake, pleasure comes in the creating. How satisfying to tuck a saree, making sure the hemline stays straight. To savour the repetition required when making the pleats. To wander back to those early memories in my mother’s bedroom, with its Formica dressing table, and to look through venetian blinds at the lawn my Dad mowed every week with his Masport 4-Stroke. To recall the off-key variation of ‘Für Elise’ playing on the jewellery box holding the brooches Mum used to fasten her pallu.
The time will come when we will sift through my parents’ belongings, apportion mementoes, sell furniture on Trade Me. I’ve earmarked a saree, the one Mum paired with the poloneck all those years ago. It’s bluish green like clear water on a coral reef. She wore it when she brought me home from the hospital. Who knows what state I will find it in? The moths might beat me to it. I may have little choice but to risk the wrath of the gods and cut it into cushion covers or a summer dress.
Jocelyn Prasad is finding her own voice after having worked for years as a spokesperson for others. She’s writing a novel set in early-twentieth-century Fiji, where her forebears settled as indentured labourers.