12 February 2013

Five Metres, One Pin: Sari Shopping in Kathmandu

 Before the sari-fication: In my 'uniform'.

Last week I truly became a grown-up: I bought my first sari.

A woman's first sari-buying excursion is a milestone in South Asia, and at my ripe old spinster age of 31, I will admit that I am lagging behind. I knew that I wanted to buy a gorgeous silk sari while living here in Kathmandu, and in typical Violet Dear fashion I assumed that it would happen in a mad rush two days before leaving the country. This would have undoubtedly been the case had my lovely friend Sarah not decided to host a Bollywood themed party for her birthday. As the date approached, all of the sudden I had a legitimate reason to rush out and buy one of the prettiest things a woman can own.

The word Sari literally means "strip of cloth" and people have been wearing them in India for about five thousand years (nbd, nbd). They range in length from five to seven metres, and it is with a series of expert tucks and folds and twists that the simple length of material becomes an exquisite gown.

Now, I know myself. I am a picky broad. Sure, 90% of the time you'll see me wearing black, grey and olive green in some kind of combination of leggings, ripped up band t-shirt and jean jacket (see above), but when I buy something beautiful and keepsake-y I like to make sure that it is really perfect. I spent a few days before my shopping excursion planning exactly what colour I wanted (with the help of a facebook poll): deep emerald green, not too blangin' with too many sequins or bric a brac hanging off of it.

It was with this ideal sari in mind I headed to Dili Bazaar with my pals Vilija and Anjali.
What do you have in a dashiki or a caftan?

K, have you ever been in a sari shop? Up to this point, I had not. It was like fabric shop absolutely packed with different materials and patterns all folded up tightly and stacked floor to ceiling. You can't "browse" - you tell a man (and it always seems to be a man) what you're looking for and he selects different options to drape in front of you. The process can be quite simple if you fall in love with a style right off the bat (like Vilija did with a gorgeous yellow number) or it can be baffling and complicated ordeal. Three guesses - and the first two don't count -  how the experience went for me?

Forest green and gold. I looked like a matronly Christmas tree.

The salesman showed me dozens of green saris, and nothing seemed right. As he ran out of options in my price range (I wanted to spend no more than 3500 rupees) he started to get a bit exasperated with me and was starting to flop mint green sequined monstrosities in front of me. "No, bhai," I said repeatedly, "this green. Dark green, not light." He wanly presented me with a lime green chiffon. "I don't like that." I said. He showed me some murky sage covered in crystals. "Bhai. I hate that. I actually hate that sari." We were engaged in a standoff.

I stood up next to the shelves and began to feel the fabrics up close. I was about to call the trip a bust, envisioning myself at the party wearing a frumpy salwar kameez or kurta, when it happened. I fell in love.

"How much?" I asked. When he answered my face fell - it was double what I wanted to spend. I tried it anyway - a rookie mistake that anyone who watches marathons of "Say Yes to the Dress Atlanta" when they are hungover (who, me?) could tell you. Never try the expensive dress you can't afford, because it makes all others that follow feel cheap and gaudy.

I tried to play it cool, but he could see that I loved it. It is a Banarasi sari, which means that the silk is from Benares and took between 15 and 30 days to craft. Banarasi are characterized by gold or silver embroidery and are considered the finest quality in India. While the price was not cheap, it was literally a quarter of what it would have cost me in Canada and so I relented and decided to splurge. 

 Wearing a ripped up Pixies shirt to my sari fitting. All class, this one. All class.

The next step was alteration. Once you choose your favourite 'strip of cloth,' the end is hacked off and turned into a wee little crop top and a matching muslin "petticoat" is crafted to wear under the sheer fabric. Sarees are worn with the side of the midriff exposed, which has always baffled me in a part of the world where even the slightest hint of cleavage is considered scandalous.  
Visible boobs or knees? Whorey Mcwhoreson from Whore Chowk.
Exposed stomach? Nice respectable lady.

I have to give the tailors and the salesmen at Selection Sari Shop mad props for not even batting an eye when I took off my sweater for measurements. They acted like my tattoos were no big thang and got on with the important task of making sure my garment would be completed in two days. Our tight timeline before the party meant that we had very little leverage in the eternal battle of wills that is hard bargaining. I managed to knock the price down about 2000 roops, but I probably could have doubled that had an air of desperation not been wafting off of us. And lord knows what the price for a Nepali would have been....

Hard bargaining. I lost.

 She trussed me like a turkey. I felt like I was at Sin City.

We returned on Friday, literally enroute to the party. The sarees were ready and the owner's wife agreed to help us in the Herculean task that is getting the thing on your body. Using only one strategically-placed safety pin (one pin! for the whole thing!), she pinched and pulled and tugged and squished, and finally got my flabby (I'm 'skinny fat') translucently pale self mummy-ed up into my gown. I added a ton of make-up (the most I have worn in Nepal, by far), a bindi and an armload of bangles to complete the look.

I was still a strange, goth-y tattooed white lady  - but by god, now I was a strange, goth-y tattooed white... beautiful lady in a gorgeous Banarasi sari! I plan to wear it every chance I get in Vancouver and London - Indian weddings, non-Indian weddings, New Years parties, bar mitzvahs, Eid feasts and funerals - so just get ready... and hope that my one loadbearing pin doesn't come unfastened.

The final product. Sari bout it!


Tina Jackson said...

I loved your Sari experience, I definitly want to buy one now, they are gorgeous. Great story

Audra said...

I've been reading your blog for such a long time and you're honestly one of my inspirations. I want to live a life just like yours.

Also, funny as hell. Do yo thang!

Violet Dear said...

Thanks gal! Your comment is lovely, and made me feel really happy. :)

Breanna Stone said...

What was the name of this shop? I'm in Nepal and I would love to buy a sari but I'm at a loss as to where to start looking.