Despite my Indian heritage, I regularly get “tangled in the textiles,” to paraphrase this snappy how-to video, only to resemble a frat boy in a toga three times his size. An especially ugly incident involved a wedding reception, the bunny hop and a desperate sprint to the ladies’ room to avoid coming, quite literally, undone.
In an effort to raise my newly-wed cred four years ago, I was signed up for a series of sari draping “workshops” (thanks, Mom!) on a family trip to Mumbai and cheerily informed I would be starting ASAP. I sought exit strategies that had proven successful in the past, but the 98-degree heat did little for my reasoning skills. It’s how I ended up in a sweltering Breach Candy apartment, home to Sushila Auntie, a petite sixty-something with a tight smile and egg-shaped glasses.
“Beta, we’ll have you draping this thing in your sleep,” she proclaimed, in a murky combination of English and Gujarati. My classroom was her starkly furnished bedroom, bordered by foggy, full-length mirrors, containing nothing but a tiny tape recorder blaring the Gayatri Mantra on repeat.
Sushila Auntie usually fired a series of draping instructions, after which she would peer at me expectantly. In return, I offered a clumsier, choppier rendition of the steps. Occasionally, hands planted on the hips of her pastel nightgown (ironically, I never saw her in a sari), Sushila Auntie would toss in a tip on bending down “gracefully.” If my folds were especially tidy, I’d be treated to morsels of gossip from Mumbai’s effervescent wedding scene.
Most classes ended with the sari defiantly tumbling in a massive heap around my ankles and me finding inconspicuous ways to cover an exposed tummy. Soon enough, Sushila Auntie acknowledged I was far from one of her star pupils, who were experts in swathing themselves virtually anywhere, from moving vehicles to airplane bathrooms. Pleats off-center and safety pins askew, I’d undoubtedly earned a spot in her sari klutz hall-of-fame.
Years later, I attended a Bollywood-themed bridal shower, complete with the obligatory sari-draping contest. The catch? Crafting the outfit from a single roll of toilet-paper. As I pieced together Sushila Auntie’s words of wisdom — or what I remembered of them — my teammate and I ripped and wrapped, finishing well under the 3-minute mark.
“Avant-garde,” murmured the radiant bride-to-be, gazing at our crisp, Cottonelle creation. With a strapless blouse and pleated skirt, it was hardly traditional.
But then again, neither were we.
Aarti Virani is an arts and culture writer based in Hoboken, New Jersey. She has written for publications including Vogue India, The Wall Street Journal and Travel + Leisure. A previous version of this post appeared on her blog, In Transit. Follow her on Twitter at @aartivirani.