Apr 11 2009

My Fair Backpacker – or – An American Goes Sari Shopping in India

Sari, Mehndi, & Bangles! -- photo by Nicole

Sari, Mehndi, & Bangles! -- photo by Nicole

In India, everything is beautiful. Well, okay. Not everything.  But the women are gorgeous. Stunning. In fact, I noticed this even before I got to the subcontinent. While sitting on the plane and waiting to take off, anxiously anticipating the twenty-something hour flight from San Francisco to Bangalore, it was hard not to notice that the airline attendants — all women — could pass for models. It was also hard not to notice my dirty, holey cargo pants and extra baggy, don’t-harass-me shirt in comparison to their sleek pencil skirts and perfectly coiffed hair.

It was a theme that would be repeated during my stay in India. I even heard local women in Bangalore complain about the appearance of backpackers one day. “They come from all these rich countries and they are always dressing the same. They look so dirty and smelly…” Well, I could only assume they weren’t talking about me. But I decided then that I was going to ditch my unisex travel uniform of khaki pants and boring black top. I was going to dress like the beautiful Indian women I saw everyday: like the South Indian housewives who pinned jasmine flowers in their hair and dripped with gold and jewels for only a trip to the neighborhood market; like the professionals who floated through offices in silk salwar kameez; like the college students who sauntered through the high-end shops on MG Road in designer jeans.  In short, I decided to look like a lady instead of another “dirty” backpacker.  I decided to buy a sari.

Mysore Saree Udyog--photo by Nicole

Mysore Saree Udyog--photo by Nicole

Shopping for saris is, in fact, very serious business in India.  Apparently.  There are fabric shops and tailors almost every few yards on the main streets.  On a day off of work, I set out to do some preliminary reconnaissance for my mission.  Walking up and down Tippasandra Road, the long, dusty main thoroughfare in my neighborhood Indira Naga, I passed shop after shop with beautiful fabrics piled neatly on the walls just waiting to be plucked and tailored by someone who knew what she was doing.  A few dupattas and salwar kameez later, from the dangerously stylish chain Fabindia, and I was back home, feeling a little better about improving my slovenly American appearance (not to mention spending all day among the effortlessly chic women of South India).  But I was still sari-less.

The search dragged on, and with only a few days left before I jetted off to Thailand (and dwindling funds after several trips back to Fabindia) , it was time to enlist reinforcements.  I asked my host, a knowledgeable, motherly local named Shirley, for her advice.  ”You must go to Mysore Saree Udyog.  It is the best place to find saris in Bangalore.”  My roommate Malin, herself a lovely, trend-setting Swede, and I jumped in an auto-rickshaw and sped off to Commercial Street and stopping in front of the hallowed grounds of Mysore Saree Udyog.

Take Your Pick, Sari Shopping--photo by Nicole

Take Your Pick, Sari Shopping--photo by Nicole

We walked up the winding stairway, past the costume jewelry shop with a mental note to return there later, to the entrance and found ourselves in a large open space with generations of women, grandmothers and young women, comparing colors, textures, fabrics, and prices on big white pedestals.  And there were endless saris to compare, in hundreds of shades, with sparkles and embroidery; every color and fabric imaginable lined the walls in perfect stacks.  Immediately, several men in suits and  ties approached us.  “Good day, Madame.  Can we help you?”

Before I knew what was happening, we were at a table of our own, Malin seated in a plush chair watching as I was led to a mirror where I had saris draped over each shoulder.  “What do you think of this color Madame?”;”This is silk from Mysore, Madame?”; “Madame you are looking very nice in this one.”  More than a little oerwhelmed, I pointed to a blue one with an olive and gold pallu and was whisked back to the mirror, where a tiny woman with very fast hands was wrapping and folding, pulling at my belt and tucking the pleated portion down the front of my pants.  And suddenly, there I was wearing a sari.  My own long sleeve shirt and jeans sticking out from the ends making the image only slightly less graceful than I had imagined.  “I’ll take it,” I said, not realizing that I had no idea how to wrap it myself until I got home.

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-- Nicole hails from metropolian Conway, South Carolina. While she's not busy doing Southern things like eating biscuits and heavily buttered grits (often together), she likes to travel to other countries and eat their food. Her favorite exotic treats include: Icelandic Skyr, South Indian dosa, British Jaffa Cakes, and Austrian strudel.

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