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Starting the sari

“Did I do it right?”

I stood, looking at Nisha, like a child who wants to be told they’ve done their homework properly. She just laughed at me a bit and started untying my sari. “You did okay. I can’t even tie a sari on my own,” she said kindly. She called over to a few of the other women in the house. We’d gone to Nisha’s house before her son’s wedding for lunch and to say hello. A bevy of guests were streaming in and out in full wedding gear, stopping momentarily to look at the two gora who were sitting in the living room. Every one would get an introduction from Nisha: “This is cousin’s wife’s brother,” “This is niece who is coming from Hyderabad,”  “This is brother-in-law but really to me he is like actual brother.” It didn’t matter that none of these people spoke English or knew what she was saying. They would all smile and shake our hands as Nisha reminded us how excited she was to have us there. “Everyone saying to me that you would not come. No one is believing that I work for white people.” We were happy to be the living proof.

The women quickly got to work on fixing my sari. They unwrapped me down to my sari blouse and petticoat and then started twirling me back around, tucking it in tightly as they went.

Finalizing the sari

They debated for a bit over which style I should have – should my pallu (the long embellished end of the sari) wrap around my back, in the most common way? Or should I have something fancier? Should I wear it the Gujrati way, where my pallu is in the front? They tucked and pinned me in various formations until they settled on bringing the pallu to the front due to the beading of my sari. So I waited as they pleated my skirt in a very exact manner, tucked it in then pleated the pallu and pinned it to the front. It was so complicated that I was afraid to move. It wasn’t irrational – the whole thing was held together with a few tucks and drapes along with 4 strategically placed safety pins. But I certainly had to admit that it looked much better than when I had done it.

Nisha was not impressed with the simple earrings I had chosen – I thought that the sari was embellishment enough – so she gave me bangles to wear. “You looking like real Indian girl now,” she said as we walked out of her house in a long line of wedding-goers. I certainly didn’t feel like an Indian girl as I walked though her village to the car – every single person was openly staring at me and I could understand why. We were a full hour outside of Mumbai’s city limits (two hours from our house) in a small town next to the salt flats. And here was this white girl in a sari and white man in a suit walking along the road chatting with their Indian friend as though nothing was amiss. I don’t think its a stretch to assume that our presence was unusual.

Me and all of Nisha's "train friends"

We drove to the venue – we hit a huge amount of traffic, which was worrisome since we’d already left the house much later than expected. By the time we reached the venue it was 8:30pm. The invitation had said the whole thing would be from 7pm to 9pm. But of course, in Indian time this meant something entirely different – the hall was just filling up as we walked in. No one with any social graces would have actually shown up at 7pm. It made me glad we’d gone to Nisha’s first- we probably would have shown up right “on time” and found ourselves sitting there for quite some time.

The venue was an interesting place for a wedding – a whole row of empty lots amid a huge apartment complex had been converted into spaces for receptions and then were cordoned off with curtains to look like walls. You walked in through a door with a chandelier above but we quickly realized we were still outside. In a place where the months of rain are pre-determined there’s no need to protect with any kind of cover. The rocky ground was covered with carpeting and in front of us were chairs and a stage with two red thrones on top. As it was a Muslim wedding, most of the women sat on one side and the men sat on the other – although it was insisted upon that Daniel and I sit together. I looked around at the array of colors – every woman had brought out her best sari for the occasion and the beads shone across the room. Only a few women in hijabs wore black, but each wore enough gold to balance it out.

The wedding party

Soon after we arrived the bride and groom entered – they’d already done a private ceremony that morning so they were already married. Irfan, Nisha’s son looked excited and bewildered. The bride looked happy but overwhelmed and frightened. She was probably also about to pass out from a heat stroke – she was wearing an elaborate sari that must have been weighed down by the incredibly intricate and vast amount of beading that covered it. She wore multiple necklaces and earrings and a hoop in her nose that rivaled the size of her head. I could barely move in my sari – I couldn’t imagine how she felt in hers. Not to mention that she and her new husband had only met once before they were married. I couldn’t help but think of the refrain from Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye and Golde sing about first meeting each other on their wedding day – maybe we’re not so culturally different, even if in our culture the traditional arranged marriages have given way to Western ideals.

With everyone watching, the bride and groom went up on the stage and photographers and videographers started taking photos and placing them in various positions. The guests eventually started moving over to eat dinner – the bride and groom were still forced to stay up on the stage at their thrones as various well-wishers could come to greet them. As we sat to eat, multiple guests came over to take their picture with us, giggling as they touched the ends of my sari and looked us up and down. One of Nissa’s nephews, who spoke English, started telling people that Daniel was a famous cricketer for his own amusement. Another female relative took over watching us (on Nisha’s direction) and made sure to stuff us with as much food as possible.

Meeting guests while the garlanded bride watches

When we finally went to say hello, the bride was being outfitted with an entire dress of garlands. Our new caretaker explained to me that when she had been married a few months ago, the garlands were so heavy she could barely stand. As we wished Irfan and his new bride well the photographers snapped away. Nisha looked on proudly. As we left we both gave her a big hug and thanked her for inviting us. “No, no thank you for coming!” she said earnestly, “I am so happy you is here. You is my honored guest.”

“No, no,” Daniel said, “It’s really our honor to be invited.” And it truly was. I couldn’t say I was sad to take off my beautiful but incredibly heavy and cumbersome sari at the end of the night, but I was so glad we had been invited and welcomed in.

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So Sari

I don’t think it will surprise anyone to find out that I know nothing about saris. While they are all around me every day, I don’t understand their intricacies. It’s kind of like certain types of fashionable clothes in New York – I see that everyone is wearing it, I’m just not so sure I can pull it off (or even get it on!).

The time had come, however, where I needed to deal with my fear of the sari. Our housekeeper’s son is getting married on Sunday, and since Daniel and I will already be sticking out quite a bit I knew I needed to make sure I was dressed properly.

My wonderful friend A agreed to lend me her sari (since they are actually quite expensive and I’m not quite sure when I would need one again…) but told me I needed to get a sari blouse (the only part that needs to be fitted). Her sari was beautiful – its bright red with lots of beading and embroidery. I figured I was lucky to have such a great sari to wear that getting the blouse would be no problem. She left me a note with instructions that ended with, “It shouldn’t be too difficult (famous last words in India).” So I set out on a mission.

I first went to Amarsons, an Indian department store which I figured would have a good selection. I walked up to the sari department and explained my conundrum. The salespeople looked at me like I was a confused child – how could I possibly not know how to purchase a sari? Not know how to wrap a sari? Not know what colors and styles went with my sari? They took pity on me and quickly got to work. I felt a bit like a drag queen – sequins, sparkles, beads and anything that shined was floated out at me. They were convinced a very intricate beaded number that matched the sari was perfect. I wasn’t so sure – it seemed a bit overboard. And then I looked at the price tag – 1,400 rupees (about $30). It seemed a bit crazy for a tiny blouse that didn’t even cover my stomach (to be fair, that’s how all the sari blouses are. But its still not a lot of fabric!). I said I’d think about it.

I walked out feeling dejected. Our driver, Malcolm, shook his head and told me that I was going about it wrong – I needed to have the top made. “It will be better ma’am. You just go to a tailor and he’ll make it up for you.” I wasn’t so sure I wanted to leave it to the last minute so I insisted on going to another store.

I went to one of the ubiquitous Fab India sotres where I was greeted by a particularly dour woman. I asked where the sari blouses were and she pointed me towards the section. “Which one do you think is best?” I asked her. She looked me up and down. “Madam, you don’t buy something to match a sari like this. It should already match. We Indians don’t do this mix and match. Besides, I do not wear saris.” The last point was clearly a jab – most modern women in Mumbai have given up wearing saris day to day and now wear either kurtas or western clothing.  Maybe she thought it was silly that I was trying to be traditional – although saris are still the outfit of choice at almost any formal occasion.

“Why don’t you just wear a dress,” she said, seemingly exasperated. I tried to explain that I wanted to wear the right thing.  She sighed and handed me a cream colored top. I tried it on but then had to ask her one more favor – “Can you help me wrap the actual sari? I don’t know whether it matches unless I try it all on.”  Bemused, she slowly started wrapping the material around me, tucking the folds into my pants and twirling me slowly.

“It doesn’t look good. You need to have one made if you insist on wearing this thing,” she said as she finished. I looked up – she was right. It didn’t really do justice to the beautiful sari to have the plain cream top underneath. I thanked her and left the store.

“Ok Malcolm… as always, you are right. Let’s go to a tailor.”

He chuckled at me and drove me right to a shop that knew what to do instantly. And the price tag: 250 rupees. It was a typical ending to my search – I’d tried to do it my way when in the end, I would always have to find the proper Indian way to go about it. I wont have it until Saturday, but here’s hoping it looks good!

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Everyone is always telling me that India is full of contradictions – the modern city of Mumbai can quickly morph into the old hierarchical maddening Bombay.  Nothing displays the contradictions in a more quirky way then the city’s nightlife.   From the outfits to the hierarchy to the cost to the location, it’s a completely different side to the city altogether.

The first thing that struck me was that many of Mumbai’s ‘trendiest’ bars are situated in hotels (I have to put trendy in quotations because it seems like nothing stays trendy for long – places that open here one month can be declared ‘over’ by the next. But of course, how would I ever know?).  Last night, for example, we found ourselves driving into a suburban Hyatt, near the domestic airport. It was corporate on the outside and seemingly the last place you’d find young people gathering to spend their evening.

Our car drove up and was stopped. As is standard at every hotel here, the trunk was opened and mirrors on long poles were placed under the car in order to confirm that we were safe to enter.  A petite woman in a security guard uniform with a bindi on her forehead searched through my purse as I made my way through a metal detector.  Even in our suburban enclaves there’s no escaping the realities that Mumbai has faced in recent years.

We walked into an empty bright lobby. We could have been in any generic Western-styled hotel in any part of the world. The vibrant, dirty, humid air of Mumbai had been replaced by a contradictory sterile interior accented by a few Indian-style paintings and pieces of furniture.

We went downstairs to find a line of thirty people trying to get into the bar.  There was no method to the madness, just various people in all kinds of outfits trying to jostle their way to the front of the pack. We moved to the side but soon found ourselves the center of attention for the bouncers, who were eager to let us pay and come in.

I looked back at the sea of faces that didn’t seem fazed or bothered.  No one but me had apparently noticed (or at least reacted to) the white people who were allowed in first.

This particular bar is called China House, and I’d heard quite varying descriptions before we showed up:

“Oh, that place is really fun if you want to dance.” (White expats who are new to the city)

“It’s a cool bar if you want to go out in Bandra and not have to drive all the way to South Bombay” (Indians who grew up in the US but now live in Bandra)

“I hear that a lot of hookers go there since it’s expensive to get into” (South Bombay Indians who dislike anything in the north)

Yes, these are the multitude of testimonies you’ll hear about almost any bar in Bombay – places come and go so quickly that it’s impossible to ever know what to expect. But since I’m not usually a late night person anyway, my expectations are low. As such, I’ve just been open to trying everything new.

And this certainly was new – not only am I clearly not used to being ushered into bars based on the whiteness of my face, but its also always jarring to experience the difference between “inside and ‘outside” – the difference in what people wear.

It’s bizarre to watch  — While you certainly see a variety of clothing on the street (from saris to kurtas to jeans and t-shirts), there’s nothing like what you’ll see INSIDE a bar. Women come into clubs initially covered up  (a scarf will be strategically wrapped around clothes when outside), but once they come in it’s a free for all.  Designer dresses, mini-skirts and tight-fitting clothing surround you – you could quickly forget you’re in Bombay and wonder whether you had somehow wound up in Miami.  And the men fit the bill as well – guys with gelled back hair wear Armani exchange tops underneath blazers while sipping on their overpriced martinis and glasses of scotch.

I stood and watched throughout the night. The crowd and danced cheered when the DJ played Justin Bieber or Usher while others tried to have conversations over the music. But when we finally left we were spit back out into Mumbai. The rain poured down, all the drivers ran red lights, and a Bollywood tune overtook the pop music still running in my head.

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