Like most Indian families, ours has a closet in our home that houses a plethora of Sarees. It is a closet largely relegated to special occasions and family reunions. It is a closet fallen into disuse.
My relationship to the Saree closet has evolved in strange ways.
When I was younger, my mother would remind me with misplaced pride that, one day, these Sarees would all be mine. It was a particularly underwhelming promise to a thirteen year old whose commodity of aspiration was bootcut jeans with fringing on the hem.
High school graduation rounded out the best part of a Bildungsroman with the Saree as its central motif. My mom tied it for me with great ease, sticking a pin in every so often, placing the Pallu just right. I was resplendent at weddings and at galleries. I owned the Saree like it was a part of my identity.
It was still a special occasion thing though. The Saree closet played second fiddle to flashy Sarees from flashy vendors. Those were the currency of my teens. I didn’t want the traditional, staid Mysore silks stashed away for generations. I wanted bright gota work, crepes that clung to my skin. I wanted exotic.
Years went by without any reminders of the Saree closet. I left home and lived comfortably amongst midi dresses and flared skirts. When the yearning came it was sudden and overwhelming. It hit me while I was in Germany, completely alone and, for the first time in a while, desperately lonely. It came with a barrage of tears and a sense that I had lost something I never quite had. It came with a haunting pang that I had become rootless, had nothing to tie me to an identity.
I watched video upon video looking for a skill my fingers couldn’t quite grasp. My access had been cut off from the day I forwent a Saree for bootcut jeans. I returned home and asked my mom to teach me the skill. But my fingers seemed not to get it. They seemed to resist.
I wore a dark pink Saree to my college graduation. My mom tied it since I didn’t know how. She had neither the the deftness nor the ease of the past. She prefers blouses and leggings since they’re easier. She seems to be losing access too. It is dying.
I went to the national archive in New Delhi last week and scoured through catalogues of court orders, poetry, epistolary records from the last 400 years of Indian history. Heaps and heaps were in Arabic, even more so in Persian. I couldn’t understand a word. Not the Masnavis of Khusrow, not the histories of Abu Fazl. I spoke to the administrator at the desk, a teacher and author fluent in Urdu, Hindi, Persian and Arabic. He told me that the only people who came here were researchers and students. The last entry in the register was from months ago.
Bollywood has film upon film exoticizing Indo-Persian culture: Mughal-e-Azam, Bajirao Mastani, Padmavat. We have fuzzy, erotic memories of Mughal history in Qawalli nights and bellydancing classes and butter chicken. What we don’t have is access to their words.
So much of who we are has been lost. Ancestries are becoming harder and harder to trace. Hordes of us are leaving home to study abroad, to escape traditionality, to “make something” of ourselves. Our access is being cut off.
I have friends whose families carried their Indianness with them when they left. They created imitative cultures that mimic the lives they remember leaving behind. There is a diasporic fondness that compels them to perform their Indianness through ritual and tradition. Yet so much has been lost. The physicality of environment cannot be retained by wearing a Lehnga to prom. Language is embedded at home, not in liberal arts classrooms where multiculturalism is encouraged. Performance is not the same as being.
It is the same in India. Politics are intertwined with culture in ways that are erasing the stories of our past. Just as Farsi was erased from our histories by the British, Islamicate culture is being erased by a Hindu nationalist agenda. The lived experience of a Saree is being erased by aspirations of the West.
The postcolonial complex comes full circle: the desire to disavow one’s identity followed by an inevitable longing to recover it when it’s far too late. Clinging to traditionality seems almost farcical in the face of convenience, modernity and the need to assimilate. Yet the terrible, unnerving fear of loss makes it impossible not to want something to hold on to. The British erased so much of us, physically, intellectually, emotionally. Collectively, we lost chunks of our histories.
Individually, I am losing mine too. I want so desperately to keep it alive. I want to speak the languages of my ancestors but I don’t even know who they were. I want to live the abstraction of Indianness without performing and exoticizing it. But I don’t know how to tie a Saree myself.
There is something of a sadness to the Saree closet now. It sits tucked away as much in disuse as it was before. I don’t know if it can be revived, even if I told myself I’d wear the Sarees everyday. It will be passed down through the generations, inherited as a symbol of past glory. I’ll carry it with me when I move out, carry it through time as a momento. The Sarees will be repurposed as tablecloths and cushion covers and sheets. Someday they will be used as kitchen rags until they are unrecognizable. Someday they will be figments.