Unfolding by Dheepa R. Maturi

close up detail of saree fabric and embroidery - flecks of gold

Two months ago, she showed me the 52-year-old fabric, folded into a neat rectangle. Despite its age, its gold threads were still lustrous, and its creases, still sharp.

“You won’t need it, Mom,” I’d said, shaking my head.

“Better to be prepared.”

“You won’t need it.”

She’d merely waited, her expression its usual amalgam of composure and understanding, until I nodded to acknowledge the saree she’d chosen for her cremation.

Now, looking at that pale yellow silk, I hear a ringing in my ears, and then a voice as warm and kind as only a hospice nurse’s can be. The words snag before they reach my brain.

Seeing the lack of comprehension on my face, the nurse bends forward and repeats herself: “It’ll be better if you dress her before they take her away.” When the words finally unfurl into meaning, I look up and see the midnight shift from the Indianapolis funeral home waiting at a respectful distance, next to a stretcher I don’t care to think about right now.

Around me, waves of grief swell and crest. I feel the press of their energy, their inevitability, but right now, some invisible barrier is holding them back. I have a problem to handle first — a problem thickening inside me into an oily concoction of confusion and shame.

The problem is the saree.

With difficulty, I can tie a saree on myself. When I do, however, the pleating is sloppy, and the draping, a bit off. As I move and walk, the entire garment shifts and slides, and I worry it will suddenly unspool around me.

As such, tying a saree on someone else — visualizing and executing the entire process in mirror image — would challenge me. And tying one on my own mother, who passed away minutes ago? My brain won’t even try.

Again, I look at the saree, gifted per tradition by my father’s family to be worn during the wedding muhurtham, the ceremonial time identified as the most auspicious moment to tie the marriage knot — three knots, to be exact, on a yellow thread worn by my mother like a necklace.

Fifty-two years ago, during a particular alignment of stars and a specific arrangement of the cosmos, a cascade of Sanskrit mantras bound my parents together for this lifetime. During that ceremony, this saree symbolized the ending of my mother’s childhood, her carefree student days, and her domicile with her parents as she joined a new household, her husband’s household.

Today, the same saree symbolizes another kind of ending.

As I begin to unfold the nine yards of fabric, I see the perfectly aligned edges and creases, reminding me of the meticulousness my mother brought to all aspects of her life, from her daily errands to her accounting spreadsheets. I am thinking of her hands tying her own sarees, her long fingers engaged in rapid precision pleating before draping the palloo — the most lusciously-designed and intricate part of the garment — over her shoulder. When I was a child, that palloo made a cave of wonder and delight, a place of emerald and amber and sapphire in which I could hide, burst free, then hide again.

I am remembering the first saree she tied on me when I was eleven years old, not for an event or ritual of any kind, but as part of a plan to trick my grandfather. Indeed, when I, saree-clad, entered his office near the veranda of the family home in Karur, India, he spied me from the corner of his eye and asked about our travel itinerary. I laughed at the success of my ruse and then laughed harder at his look of surprise when he realized that not his daughter-in-law but his granddaughter stood before him.

I am wondering, too, why I have never learned to tie a saree properly, an act hundreds of millions of women undertake daily, an act of barely a few minutes. I could easily practice, using the myriad YouTube videos of cheerful and charming twenty-somethings demonstrating draping and pleating with ease.

Practically speaking, though, my American life simply doesn’t require sarees. For the occasional event, a loose kurti tunic is both fashionable and quick to don. And now that their accompanying pants have evolved from bulky drawstring silks into cotton-spandex leggings, such outfits are blissfully comfortable as well.

By contrast, comfort is inevitably missing when I wear a saree. The tightly tailored blouses restrict my movements and the petticoat strings dig into my waist in order to anchor the yards of heavy cloth. As I wriggle and chafe, adjust and readjust, the saree brings a tangible physicality to the awkwardness of my Indian-American betweenness, highlighting my inability to fit or be categorized neatly.

Still, I suspect that the larger reason I’ve not bothered to practice is that my mother was present at any event genuinely requiring me to wear a saree. She would take the fabric from my bumbling hands and then tie it beautifully, precisely, elegantly. There was a sweetness, an intimacy, to her assistance, the feeling of a child being dressed by her mother, something that occurs so briefly in life and certainly not after having children of one’s one.

***

At last, the saree’s palloo comes into view, and my eyes widen at the vibrant magenta, a brilliant shade matching the bougainvillea outside her former family bungalow in Coimbatore. Perhaps, after her wedding, this saree evoked that home she’d left forever, with its flowers and coconut trees and plantain bushes.

Holding the edges, I throw my arms forward, allowing the saree to billow into its full glory, examining all of it at once. Even with my limited experience, I recognize it is a Kanchipuram saree, named for the city renowned for the quality of its weaves and the skill of its weavers. Even today, such sarees are prized, procured for weddings and special occasions due to the richness of their colors and fabrics, the grandeur of their patterns.

I learned only recently during a lecture that weaving, dyeing, and printing techniques, not to mention saree designs, varied by region in India and even from weaver to weaver. Depending on the particular weaving legacy, temple images and even scriptural elements might be woven into a saree. Unfortunately, many of those techniques and traditions have been lost, blotted out when Britain diverted the bulk of the global textile industry away from India, a sickening campaign during which soldiers rampaged through communities, breaking craftsmen’s looms and thumbs.

It occurs to me that, when my mother handed me this saree, I didn’t ask her what was woven into that fabric, whether it held any symbols or stories. And I never requested her own stories about that strange and dislocating wedding day, when she first wore it. In my mind, I see doors closing against the questions I never asked and now can never be answered.

The first of those suspended waves of grief hits me then, washing over my head, making me gasp for air, bringing home the breathtaking magnitude of my loss and all that has been extinguished.

In my mind, I see the minutiae that wove through our relationship like delicate threads. Mom, how do I balance too much cumin in my spinach dal? Mom, how do I keep an oil lamp wick from burning out too quickly? Mom, is it better to say pakana or dhegara for “nearby”? And I see the larger swaths of my life, the topics we discussed endlessly — the dilemmas of my career choices and the confusion of my parenting decisions and the myriad hurts and joys of my relationships. Bordering it all, I see a legacy of ritual, food, story, history told from her viewpoint.

As I move to wrap the fabric around her slender figure, I freeze, staggered by the opportunities I have squandered, at the conduits closed forever. This expanse of silk seems to reflect back impossibilities, shortcomings, and closures of all kinds.

I am flattened.

And I am talking to myself, uttering incomprehensible syllables that tangle in the air around me, and again, my ears begin to ring.

This time, the ringing is broken by whispers from the adjacent room.

“Is everything okay?”

With characteristic prescience, my children have sensed that something isn’t right with me. But how can I answer their question? How can I tell them I’m breaking down about a saree? How can I explain all that this saree represents?

Though my face burns with embarrassment, though I know this is a strange problem for an adult Indian woman with adult children, I explain that I’m unable to tie this garment on my mother.

But their eyes hold no judgment. They leap into action and pull me along with them. Locating an old saree from my limited and mostly unused collection, we figure out how to wrap nine yards of fabric around someone who is unmoving, who cannot lift arms or shift from side to side to assist us. From that practice saree, we then move to the gleaming muhurtham saree, pre-pleating the palloo, smoothing the pale gold fabric, pinning the folds.

As I place the prepped saree on top of my mother and tuck it around her, I look at her face, noticing her lips curled into a little smile despite the cruelty of the illness that pursued and consumed her like a demon. She looks serene, peaceful, accepting as we dress her. It is the look I know so well, the one she wore as she imparted comfort and wisdom throughout our life together. Perhaps that door has not yet closed, as she still seems to be advising me:

You think culture is just sarees and cumin and oil wicks? No, kanna,* culture is how you see, what you value, what you remember. And I realize it’s true. Despite my limitations, despite the deficiencies in my knowledge and understanding, there is nevertheless a legacy built right into my own foundation, infused in my blood and bones. It shapes how I think, what I honor, what I choose to write, and how I write it.

You think I’m lost forever? No, kutti,** I am still here — look at your boys, these beautiful boys. And I do. I look at them, as long-limbed as my mother, as tall and slender. I see how they perceive the pain of others, how they witness it with compassion and steadiness, how they act even when others are unwilling or unable. They are my mother, walking into the future.

When at last we release her into the warm June night, watching the crew load the hearse, we all embrace. I breathe deeply, feeling wrapped by arms, swathed by our collective experience as a family, interwoven with all we have inherited and lost. I resolve to treasure it all, to pull and tie it around me with gratitude, as long as I can. I know my own day will come, and I’ll have to let it go.


* Dear

** Little One

Meet the Contributor

Dheepa r maturi authorDheepa R. Maturi, a poet and essayist, explores the surprising ways in which cultures and traditions interact over time. Her work can be found in Literary Hub, PANK, Tiferet, The Fourth River, Tweetspeak, New York Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her prize-winning essay “We Are Trees” recently appeared in Regenerative Learning. Dheepa lives with her family in Indianapolis. www.DheepaRMaturi.com

Share a Comment