Friday, March 18, 2011

The (In)Experience of Wearing a Sari to Work

On the 100th International Women's Day -- the day I was going to wear a sari to work for the first time ever -- I awoke early, anticipating not only numerous attempts at getting the sari to stay on me, but also last-minute alterations to tight-fitting blouses meant for slimmer days. Still, I managed to run late, and found that I had exactly 35 minutes to jump in the shower, wash my hair, squeeze into an elegantly-cut black blouse (that I hoped would make my shoulders look firm and shapely), and wrap the black Bengal cotton sari around myself (an effort that, past experience has taught me, requires a full 35 minutes). I then ran around frantically gathering a black shawl and a cardigan, before pulling on my fur-lined boots and jumping into my long, heavy winter coat. And as I jumped into the car where an impatient husband and three amused children with uncombed hair (mom's responsibility; enough said) were waiting, I knew that I was not the image I hoped to portray: an academic of Indian origin, displaying graceful dignity and demonstrating remarkable composure.

"But you never do, so why try? And why today?" chirped the reckless, individualistic twin from within.

"Alrighty then!" I braced myself. "Just let me manage to run into no one I know until I enter my office, God (if you are up there). Please give me a few minutes in the privacy of my office, and I'll pat down my wild hair, pin my sari in all the right places, and put on half a professional face for the rest of the day." Pin my sari? Oh no, I had forgotten my safety pins.

The first person I ran into, as soon as I entered my building, was the one person I would have most wanted to avoid. I am past worrying about her disdain for me or for others around me, but this was one day I could have done without her attitude. She looked impeccable--the good-looking, well-groomed young woman in her pencil skirt and black pumps. Every strand of hair, perfectly in place. I, on the other hand, had thrown my black Kashmiri shawl carelessly over the shoulders of my bulky coat. My scarf trailed behind me, while I clutched my cardigan and my numerous bags (note to self: throw junk in bag, downsize, fix strap). Angelina Jolie, meet the Bag Lady. My day hadn't even started yet. But why did it feel so disastrous? Ms. I-am-too-good-for-new-immigrants was curious enough that she forgot her personal policy of not looking me in the eye. In fact, it was an effort for her to not look me over. There was an incredulous look in her eye. I know she was making a mental note to never, ever wear a sari.

Inside my office wing, things were easier. Never one to withhold news or wait for the world to come and find me, I decided to go find the others and be done with the introductions between them and my sari. There were the whole gamut of reactions and emotions: staid, polite discomfort (not much of this) to open oohs and aahs (just enough to make a woman happy). One young South American wished I had let her in on the plan, as she too would have worn one after borrowing it from me. ("Next time", we promised each another.) The middle-ground -- measured response, some interest, genuine smiles -- was more common. Bruce, one of my dear, kindly bosses (I have more than one), exhibited the typical response: complete composure as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening in his line of vision, but the minute I acknowledged my out-of-character outfit and the reason for it ("It 's the 100th International Women's Day, you know, and some of us have decided to honour it"), he broke into a genuine smile and said, "Why! That's splendid!"

But there was more drama to be had along the way. I had forgotten my pumps at home, so I had to plod along in my boots all day, violating sari fashion rule # 1: no socks, no shoes, no boots. Unusually, there were cold-water troubles in our little kitchenette. No water, no coffee. While every cell in my body screamed for its daily overdose of caffeine, I could not gather the courage to go downstairs to the large, crowded foyer with the Tim Horton's. Perhaps, it was connected to the cold water problem, perhaps it was another of life's strange curve balls, but the washrooms on our section of the building were closed for the day, requiring us to use the ones on the other floors or other sections. I can't remember the last time I exerted so much control over my bladder, but when I came home that day, it was one mad dash to the bathroom.

By afternoon, I was less shy and awkward, and more comfortable with my sari. I went about my life matter-of-factly and did not allow myself to feel any qualms about having to walk through a crowded walkway to the library for a meeting. By now friendly questions such as "what's going on?" had died down and people hardly batted an eyelid. I was convinced that any reactions to my sari, or lack thereof, were triggered by my own sense of confidence and personal poise. I believed that if I acted like I belong or knew exactly who I was or what I was doing, the world would believe me and let me be. I have to add that Priya S., my new partner in risk-taking, may have slightly different opinions on this analysis. I should also add that this 'act like you belong and things will begin to fall in place' advice is just my old, trusted, generic philosophy wrapped in a new sari.

So the questions:

What did I achieve?

A sense of liberation. A feeling that I have attempted something new that for so long was not an option for me, whether by workplace conventions or by personal choice.

An understanding of what it must feel like for people who feel they are externally different from the majority in their surroundings.

A sense of connection with four other people (Rajee D., Priya S., Aamba, and zombiedrag) who went through the same new experience and shared the same feeling of exhilaration.

And the big one:

Will I do this again?

Yes, but no more than once or twice in a year. The most discouraging reason is that I don't find the sari a comfortable garment. At least not yet. The need of the day is for me to wear it more often at home first. The more I lounge in it at home, the more it will become my second skin, and the more I can actually look, feel and move around comfortably in it at work. How I am currently tackling this issue is fundamentally wrong. I can't bring out the sari from the closet annually or bi-annually, and expect it to mold itself onto me. That's like wanting to master surgery without any anatomy.

My advice to younger professionals on the wall: Don't wear a sari to work if you are uncomfortable or unsure. Trust your instinct about your surroundings and about yourself. The sari is yours to wear, or not to wear, on certain days, to certain occasions.

On the other hand, you have the success story of Indra Nooyi who wore a sari to her job interview in the U.S. Yes, she got that particular job and the rest, as they say, is history. But she is also a lot more than just her sari.

To read about the experiences of others who wore the sari to work for the first time, try these links:
What won't Aamba do?
It's on


aarumuga said...

malu, very genuine rendition. i like ur sincere attempt. as u said, u'll not be comfortable by doing this as an annual event. start wearing gud silk saris 2 temples if u visit..make a beginning somewhere..u'll win over.. gud luck.

Malathi said...

Thank you, aarumuga. Yes, I do go to the temple and I mostly wear saris then (i.e., if I am not going straight from work on Friday evenings). By the time next March 8th rolls around, I will be a pro at this.