The Whole Six Yards
“Throughout (Ancient India), women are depicted in painting and culture as naked to the waist while on the other hand the great physical modesty of the modern Indian womanhood is common knowledge…”A. L. Basham, historian
I dimly recall that not so long ago, in a flurry of celebrity gush, Shobhaa De launched her Cocktail Saree collection. Which should do for the saree what Christy Turlington’s butt did for yoga and what Gordon Ramsey would do for the idli if he were to launch his Cocktail Idli collection. In other words, the saree may have been brought out of the ugh-how-behenji-amma mothballs to take its rightful place, which according to De, is right next to the Lil’ Black Dress.
And not a moment too soon.
Because according to me, the saree is one of the most underestimated whatsits since that Trojan horse was wheeled out of wherever it was wheeled out.
Lemme explain and here’s a true story.
The two young ladies were high-powered executives in an multinational, brand managers in charge of some of the largest selling soaps and shampoos in the country. Naturally, their dress code was befittingly Bharatiya power lady - salwar kameez on ordinary work days and sarees for conferences and presentations. Their boss, the marketing manager, was a British expat. Good boss. Nice man, chummy even, with none of the white-man-amongst-natives patronising attitude. Everything, you could say, was hunky-dory. Till one day when he summoned the two ladies into his cabin and told them rather sheepishly that he had a request to make that was of a personal and slightly strange nature.
Could they, he pleaded, keep the saree-wearing down to the minimum? In fact, if it was all the same to them, could they skip the saree completely?
Yes they could, said the ladies with prettily puzzled brows, but prithee why?
Because, he said, he found himself to be terribly distracted whenever they wore them. Now I can’t recall all the details of what it was that caused the gent such anguish but there was mention of frequent sightings of bare, feminine midriff. And though I can’t say for sure, perhaps, the odd flash or two of equally feminine bosom encased in tight-fitting cholis…
Needless to say, the ladies hastily stashed away their power saree collections, to be brought out whenever they next had a boss made of sterner stuff.
Wait a minute, you’re thinking.
Saree and distract?
Isn’t that the job of those nasty jeans and bikinis and other such shameless imports from the West? Aren’t sarees supposed to be the Mantle of Modesty meant to help our lads keep eyes down and minds off rape and on vulgar fractions?
I mean, what mischief can you dratted women get up to if we truss you up in six yards of fabric, right?
But perhaps what you didn’t account for is that we women are masters (should that be mistresses, I wonder) of turning just about anything in our favour. Even being swaddled in six yards of fabric. Let me start at the very beginning. (Which, as Maria Von Trapp pointed out, is always a very good place to start.) The saree actually started life of as a female dhoti. And so, like all you fellas, we’d also get up in the morning, wrap the stuff around our waists and go about our business.
Till one day, some fellow - probably a marketing manager, trying to concentrate on his Power Point presentation while surrounded by bare-chested, dhoti-clad female brand managers - must have hollered, “Too distracting! Cover up those breasts!”
Righty-ho, everyone muttered and scurried off to find a solution. Which they did, right next to the farsan shop in front of Jhulelal Cut Piece Centre. It was Mansukhbhai, the Ladies Tailor. And before long, the female dhoti had an accessory - something called a choli.
(Do you know that choli tailors are almost always men? Curious thing, that.)
We won’t say that at first the choli wasn’t a bind, a terrible bore. That the new quarters didn’t cramp our…er,style, constricting what were till now free agents, blithe spirits. But, like I pointed earlier, we are mistresses of whipping up biryani from raw deals and so, in time, the choli and the saree became inseparable; bosom buddies, you could even say. If the choli was Gilbert to the saree’s Sullivan, then the saree was Salim to the choli’s Javed; if the saree was vada to the choli’s pav, then the choli was Mona to the saree’s Darling...you get my drift. What the saree started, the choli finished off. And vice versa. Together, they connived and colluded, plotted and schemed to simultaneously cover up and lay bare, to hint and insinuate and float the proposition that the devi and the vamp had now taken up residence in the same saree. (What more can a man ask for?)
The female dhoti – by now known as the saree – had also got longer. The extra length called the pallu, its official job being assist the choli in covering up all that naked, nubile female flesh that was getting everyone so hot and bothered under the collar. Unofficially of course, it spent a lot of its time – as it still does - slithering down bosoms (mostly choli-clad, I must underline) that every now and then seemed to turn more slippery than a politician answering questions about his income tax returns.
Just one such artless drop of the pallu has been known to move mountains and topple governments and I have it from the best authority that Salome would have swapped her Seven Veils for a pallu in a shot. (And got herself much more than poor John’s head.)
So, what I mean to say is that the saree is like a file of classified government information and we women use it as cunningly as the wiliest bureaucrat. Which means that most of time, the contents are strictly classified, kept away from the public gaze. But at crucial and critical junctures, we “leak out” carefully selected and might we add suitably inflammatory titbits…..er, tidbits.
The results are almost always very gratifying.
The best part? The Right To Information Act does not apply.
(Incidentally did you know that Tit-Bits was a British magazine that published the first funny piece by P. G. Wodehouse? Nothing to with sarees but just thought you’d like to know.)
I cannot end this piece without a wistful tribute to the hipster saree. For which you need hips. Khatte-peete hips. Swells of undulating curves, undulating dunes inviting a chap to linger and loiter and nestle and nuzzle and finally take voluntary retirement to spend the rest of his life at the belly button. (Remember Mumtaz and Helen and Zeenat and Sridevi and Dimple and Madhuri….)
They don’t make hips like that anymore. All we have now are whittled-down, bony, size zero shanks, on which they hang that ghastliest of ghastly – low rise jeans.
But who knows.
If the saree is making a comeback, then maybe hips will too.
Wallis Simpson, one of the most ardent fans of the Lil Black Dress, apparently said of it, “When a little black dress is right, there is nothing else to wear in its place.”
All I can say is that if Shylock was a woman and wore a saree, he would have had his pound of flesh.