We were 18 Dubai ex-pats on a bus tour of India in February 2005. The bus offered cool, dry, and luxurious travel, even without an onboard toilet. I sat near the back, unable to tolerate watching the crowded streets, the near-misses of kids, camels, and carts. Our driver’s calm approach to so many distractions was alarming as well, and I grimly waited for the first thunk of hitting somebody. I sketched the Indian women as they worked in basmati rice and wheat fields, wearing wraps of magenta, lime, lemon, cream, and turquoise, stunning my eyes accustomed to Dubai deserts and beaches.
Pulling up to the sari store was our tour guide Punam’s sudden decision. Unlike fabric stores across the US, this merchant offered at least one tailor and salesman per customer. But then, this store catered to tourists who weren’t taking cloth back to homes and apartments to sew. We wanted fast saris.
Eighteen women pulling out bolts of fabric all at the same time would stress any large shop in the United States, but here we were in a modest store a day away from Agra and the Taj Mahal. We all knew exactly which colors looked best on us; for my roommate, it was rusts and browns. For me it was the bolt of powder blue. My choli (the cropped top that exposes the midriff) was plain blue, while the sari part, the nine-yard-long wrap was blue with silver stripes.
With measuring tapes in their teeth, several small, quiet, patient men took our stats, calling out the numbers to their assistants, who wrote down the numbers in small spiral notebooks. We paid for the saris, cholis, and the promised tailoring with our credit cards, then got back on the bus for our hotel. The shopkeeper gave us a group rate on the dresses and told us all 18 saris would be delivered to our bus by the next morning at 7 AM in time for our departure. I felt sick to my stomach, but not because of anything I ate or drank. Those tailors would probably stay up all night sewing. Or maybe it was their wives and daughters who did the overnight work. Meanwhile my group dined on central Indian delicacies and listened to a young woman play the sitar at yet another restaurant.
The next morning, we rolled our luggage to the bus, and the sari store man arrived with plastic-wrapped bundles of fabric: all finished, all hand-tailored, all ready to wear. The one British woman on our trip said, “Only American women would have had the guts to descend on a shop and get saris made. A group of Brits,” she assured us, “would never have done that.” Because they’re shy? Not as impulsive? Or a tiny bit guilty about the whole we’re-better-than-you, under-our-thumb, we’re-white-and-you’re-not raj thing? I’ve seen Ghandi.
Hours later, several hotel staff people helped us pleat the long sari fabric around our waists and adjust the cholis. I had my choli back to front, and there was much laughter and confusion between sips of complimentary watermelon juice.
The Taj Mahal experience itself was a curry of poor toothless cart drivers, puppet and postcard buskers, and drop-dead beauty. And you had to take the whole mix; you couldn’t just opt for the beauty. Our cart driver made a point to tell us in great detail about his wife and children. Then, as we strolled the grounds, T-shirt-and-jeans-wearing Indian teens laughingly demanded we stand with them for pictures. The slim towers were closed to the public now because of the many suicides by jumping. The Taj is romantic and tragic.
My romantic, impulsive, fast powder-blue sari lies folded in my closet now, waiting for its next trip to India. Or perhaps dinner at The Bombay House, Star of India, or A Taste of Punjab.