In the Shadow of Saris: Exploring Identity Through Memory and Dislocation
Only after I left a home where there were many women who might have helped me did I realize the sari represented more than a cultural announcement.
Mummy and I were on a trip to Mumbai, away from home in Ahmednagar, when I got violently sick with polio at the age of seven. We were visiting relatives but alone one evening when, sick with fever, I complained to her that I could not walk to the bathroom. In my mind’s eye, she carries me to the bathroom where there is a squat toilet. She sets me down on the floor and helps with my underwear. She then carries me back to the bed and waits for her brother, a surgeon who we are visiting, to return to the apartment. She carries me to the taxi that takes us to the hospital, where the drama of our new relationship, our new life, begins with a force that will define everything that comes after.
Even though I had received the polio vaccine at an appropriate age, my body was unable to fight the infection. After I got out of the hospital, Mummy stayed with me, abandoning everything else, learning how to move my feet, my legs, my hips to prevent rigidity, helping me to sit without collapsing, feeding me, her eyes constantly searching mine for something neither of us could comprehend.
My paraplegic body always needed more care from my parents, and its needs often eclipsed the demands of my younger siblings. Although I was surrounded by an extended family with several cousins, we did not dwell on how my body was growing differently than their bodies. Talking about the disabled body quickly leaves the realm of biology and enters the geography of medicine, where it lingers in all corners and encapsulates most experiences. My stories were about being medically prodded, poked, shaved, and braced, and being told that my periods wouldn’t last beyond my adolescence (proven wrong).
Moreover, there was the idea that my body already drew a lot of attention to itself by being different, so what could be gained by tallying those differences? How could I talk about hormonal changes when the increasing curve of my spine caused the need for endless adjustments to my sitting brace—a topic of regular deliberation? How could I talk about how I looked, about how fashion eluded me, about how people tried not to stare at me as I walked with crutches, fell, was helped back up, my armpits always moist, my face ready to smile to put someone at ease? I’m OK, I wanted to say, I’m doing fine. There was silence, and now there is shame about the silence.
Talking about the disabled body quickly leaves the realm of biology and enters the geography of medicine.
For most of my life, I have not seen Mummy wear anything else besides a sari. As children, we watched her change from a workday sari into a simpler nighttime sari after a long day of house chores. The bathrooms in our family home were placed away from the bedrooms to accommodate sharing. Getting dressed in a sari in a tiny wet bathroom was a feat most women did not talk about. As a sign of respect for elders and for men outside the family, women were required to use the sari-pallu to cover the tops of their heads while they worked, cleaned, and entertained. The wrap slipped away only when a woman entered her bedroom and closed the door, for a nap or for an evening homework session with her children. Many times, while cooking chapattis, hands dusted with flour and smoke, women hurriedly pulled at their pallus and stopped talking when anyone not a child entered the kitchen. There is flour in your hair, kids would chuckle, turmeric on your cheek. The idea that women must always show deference to family and society at large was so deep-rooted that children often reminded their mothers of minor transgressions with dress and appearance. Sometimes I saw on Mummy’s face a question: What about respect for me, my body, my beauty, my work, my mind, my opinions?
I understand that gender is more than a physical landscape, more than a sum of organs, more than a capacity and desire to bear children or not. Still, in an attempt to qualify myself, I am pulled into my own formative lessons. I want to ask: What does it mean to be female?
Is it hair, is it clothing and jewelry, skirts and saris and shawls and shoes, leggings and lingerie? Is it looking your finest, the taller the better, the fairest the best, pleasing to the eye, quick with sparkle and shimmer? Is it resisting or complying with the demands of “now open your body,” “now close your body,” “now hide your body,” “now show your body”? Is it being vigilant about how much you eat, how much you drink, how loud you talk, how often you sulk, how thin you are? Is it housework, is it caretaking, is it being responsible for everyone’s happiness before your own, is it the ability to shape-shift—from servant to cook to sister to mother to wife to lover to aunt to grandmother to matriarch?
As I watched the women in my family get up early to clean and to prepare everything needed for the day (all while wearing a sari), and then labor until their bodies rang out with exhaustion, I sensed that the same shape-shifting would never be expected of me. Many would say that was a blessing (you have so much time to do other things, they would say, and they were right), but there is a weird desolation in sitting and watching the flurry of activity and productivity, the fertility, the vigor.
What about respect for me, my body, my beauty, my work, my mind, my opinions?
Is being a woman about being attractive and available to a partner, about anticipating their needs, about having the body, the curves, the smoothness, the coyness, the vivacity, the juice, the power? To tell you the truth, I spent my mostly lonely youth confident (maybe overly so) in my sensuality. Once, in my late twenties, alone in my apartment, I was eating a mango the way my siblings and cousins used to in our childhood, gently squeezing that ripe fruit round and round and then cutting a small hole on the top with our teeth, sucking and swallowing, the juice running from our lips down our throats and from our fingers to our elbows, and I knew that my hunger was a magic flame that existed, was not thwarted. However, I never forgot (well, maybe once or twice I did) that when someone looked at me, their gaze was far from sexual. And no amount of fruit-eating was going to change that.
How does the feminine part of us meet the world? Is it our voice? Our laughter? Our scent? Our pain? Is it constantly pitching and retrieving, assimilating, apologizing, accommodating, arguing, trying? Is it being ridiculed for our choices, our careers, our contemplations? Is it the constant harboring of rage, the uninterrupted ringing of disappointment, the inexpressible burden of anxiety? How do we live so as to not be defined by our traumas? How do we engage so that the best part of ourselves is as much for the world as it is for ourselves?
Once, as a passenger in a car on a crowded multilane road in Mumbai, I saw a slender young woman wearing a sari carrying a paralyzed man piggyback. He held on to her, his arms around her shoulders, while she held his feet with her hands. Constantly looking this way and then the other, she crossed the road among the hundreds of vehicles blaring horns and speeding for a red light. Was she his sister? A neighbor? While I felt a certain kinship with the man, it is the woman’s determined face that held me long after they disappeared from my view. What has stayed with me is the close unity of their bodies.
In her essay “Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life,” Yiyun Li writes, “I don’t wonder what my life would have been had I stayed in China: not leaving had never felt like an option.” Once the wheels of immigration were set in motion, I wanted the independent (promised) life in America with such an intensity that leaving felt natural, absolute. I willingly let go of tradition, language, familiarity, family, country. Moving across continents grown and alone, I did not brood over loss and separation. I was tired of walking with braces and the effort it took to be included, to be visible. I was ready to take up residence in the land of inalienable rights and roll my wheelchair to a freedom absent in my dreams.
The allure of independence is real. Arriving in California for a master’s in computer science, I rapidly adapted to daily life in a light new wheelchair, pushing my way to class and to several jobs on campus. I remember seeing more accessibility in a single day than I had ever seen—ramps, elevators, curb cuts, flat entryways, an on-campus apartment equipped with an accessible kitchen and shower. To say I thoroughly enjoyed them all cannot fully express the quiet thrill of being able to pass the day without the constant negotiation for inclusion in activities and opportunities. When I acquired a car and drove myself to my first job interview in a stylish blouse and pants, I prayed silently for a usable bathroom at the job, for enough money to finally manage on my own.
Li’s words thrum with the dislocation of body and self, with the articulation of leaving and living. Early in the essay she writes, “Altered sceneries are at best distractions, or else new settings for old habits. What one carries from one point to another, geographically or temporally, is one’s self. Even the most inconsistent person is consistently himself.” I spent many years internalizing the message that the only way to survive as a disabled person was to strive for self-reliance, to ask for help only after every other option was considered and tried. This deeply American value was mine before I arrived on the country’s shore, and it has kept me shy and stubborn.
Having been raised in a large family, the work of interdependence and its rewards should be second nature for me. But when one is at the receiving end of many kinds of help, being able to dress oneself is a gift, a privacy. Getting dressed in a sari means watching someone else watch me as I do something slow and awkward. It was only after I left a home where there were many women who might have helped me—not only with the process of dressing in a sari but also with figuring out how to do it on my own—did I realize that the sari represented more than a cultural announcement in my adopted country. A sari holds memory, holds heritage. It holds a collective history of my peoples’ ingenuity.
The allure of independence is real.
During one of my short visits to see family, I interviewed a disabled woman in Ahmednagar for a magazine article. She used crutches to walk and a motorized three-wheeler to travel in the city and to get back and forth from a job in a government office. She loved saris, she told me. She loved to shop for them and to exchange them with her colleagues and other women in her family. She told me this as she slowly lifted her sari to show a hooked leg, the result of mercury poisoning due to treatment for a minor ailment when she was a child. When she first applied for her job and was not selected, she confronted the bureaucrat in charge. If we can get able-bodied people to do the work, he said, we cannot possibly consider people like you. Do you intend to have wrestling matches with these strong people as part of the job? she asked. Armed with two college degrees, she endured thirty job interviews before she was hired.
My parents first met G when they traveled from Ahmednagar to San Diego for our wedding, for which, no, I did not wear a sari. Since my late teens, Mummy had tried to advise me to forgo an arranged marriage and to marry someone who was also disabled. You will understand each other better, she would say. But when she first heard about G—white, not Hindu, paraplegic, living on his own, a professor, twenty-five years my senior, homeowner, big-hearted, a parent, once divorced—she balked. She worried about how she had no way to verify his family background and his finances except through me. She worried my decision to not have children would diminish the possibility of family and community.
Eventually he won her over, with his steadfastness and his intelligence, as he had me. They are so close in age we decided he would call her sister. She overcame her shyness of speaking in English and talked and wrote to him without any translation from me. My English is not so good, she would say, to which he would respond, my Gujarati is nonexistent!
Once, she had hand-washed her sari and put it out to dry on the umbrella clothesline in our backyard, wrapping it around a line in a somewhat hasty fashion. Later, I watched as G separated the ends of the long sari over several lines, delicately pulling it apart so that the entire length of the fabric was open to the sun, thereby becoming the first male to help with Mummy’s laundry.
In the home where G and I live, a plain white sari cut in half and embellished with loops hangs as curtains for a sliding door in our bedroom. During the summer months, the glass door is open to the backyard garden, and a cool breeze comes through with the fragrance of sage and verbena. The thin curtains billow full of air and then recede, clinging to the screen door, not unlike the ebb and rise of a long married life.
Our bed is the only place where G and I can be physically close. Our paraplegic bodies in our wheelchairs dance around each other during the day, sometimes giving wide berth, at other times knocking into each other, saying hey, oops, sorry, ugh. In the bed, our bodies marked with scars can be together in the most ordinary of ways. We claim this comfort, our wounds forgotten for a few hours, lit by the words G calls me: girl, good-lookin, woman, sweetie, baby, wife.
Our bed is the only place where G and I can be physically close.
Throughout my childhood and coming-of-age in Ahmednagar, I saw women in saris ride bicycles and scooters, drive a bullock-cart or a car, teach in schools and colleges, clean homes and yards and temples, work in banks and fields and in construction, sell fruit and vegetables by the sides of roads, nurse in hospitals, cook in restaurants, dance during festivals, perform in films, deliver news on TV, and from a distance for several years, I saw my prime minister in a sari govern and then domineer a young democracy.
Not even three decades had passed after the Constitution of India was written when disability entered my body and disordered my future. Unwavering support from family, assisted by a bubble of class and caste, helped me dodge some of the vagaries of a disabled childhood. Pappa encouraged my interest in geometry, taught me the principles of origami, and built a motorized, hand-controlled rickshaw for me to travel the short distance from home to college. It was accepted that many of the women around me were in college to obtain a degree before being thrust into the whirlwind of marriage and in-laws and children. I was advised to get an appropriate education so that I could have the potential to be financially independent.
My trousers and loose men’s shirts hid my braces and were easiest to put on, while women in my family needed to be traditionally (and many times, impeccably) dressed before they stepped out of their bedrooms. The sari may represent femininity, but the patriarchy comes roaring when women are bullied and harassed for not appearing in a sari, for wanting to dress the way they please, for style, for comfort, for pleasure. As a teenager, I watched my friends fight for the right to own a pair of jeans. I joined the fight with my mind, but not with my body. I’ve long accepted feminism’s tenets of equality, justice, and choice, but I am still grasping how to center my body within it.
Soon after Mummy turned sixty-five, she started giving away her saris. With a visitor (sometimes me), she would sit cross-legged on the floor, open her tall metal cabinet, and begin pulling out neatly folded saris. Saris that she had chosen for herself and saris that she received as gifts. One would be full of pattern or an opulent border while another one sober, subtle, fit for a funeral. Matching blouses tumbled out of some of the folds, their styles revealing the mark of a tailor, almost always a man. Some saris made her reminisce about the time all the women in the family had gone to the biggest store in town together, each one careful about her choice while knowing that a sari is versatile, is easily shared. One time she handed me an old silk sari claiming that it was so sheer it could pass through her gold wedding ring. You should have this one, she said, they don’t make them like this anymore. The pink and brown repeating pattern was beautiful, and when I hesitated she said, This has been on my body and I want you to have it. In that moment, I could have asked her if she had ever thought of an adult me in a sari, but it did not occur to me. You can cut it up, she said, make a tunic with a lining, wear it to your next art opening. I’ll be gone soon, she added, and what was mine will be scattered—so here is my love, here is my armor, here is my story.
Bhavna Mehta works with paper and fabric – cutting and embroidering it to tell stories that combine figurative imagery with botanical and topographical motifs, text, and shadows. She makes work about relating and remembering. She is the recipient of the Individual Artist Fellowship grant (2021), Artists In Communities grant (2017, 2019) from the California Arts Council and the Creative Catalyst grant from The San Diego Foundation (2015). She has engineering degrees from both India and US and worked as a software engineer for many years before turning to art.