The south Indian town of Coimbatore—bursting with cotton spinning and weaving mills—as well as the old locality called Ram Nagar reminded me of early, postcolonial India.
The roads did not choke with the flashing metal of wheels. I heard fewer honks. I wasn’t asphyxiated by the growing flesh of pedestrians. This old textile town yawned into leafy lanes. It stretched out into elegant bungalows. We were less than an hour from forest reserves, dams, tea estates, hill stations and wildlife sanctuaries. Coconut orchards sprang up in short stretches of roads around town. Tender green coconuts hung in clumps to the backs of vendor’s bicycles as we drove through town.
I was being escorted in a car by a fast-talking obstetrician, Radhika Prithvi, who had found the sari trade so compelling three decades ago that she severed her ties to the world of wombs.
I loved the sari long before I met this ambassador of the sari but she certainly fired up my imagination in the way she talked about the garment. The word sari is derived from the Sanskrit language and it means, in fact, a “strip of cloth,” although the definition, in my opinion, is as uninventive as referring to a Persian silk rug as a doormat.
The owner of Tharakaram Silk House promised me expensive bottles of hard liquor at the Coimbatore Cosmopolitan Club as we drove up Ramar Koyil Road. I found out later that the club was founded in 1891—“For Indian Members Only”—in a not-so-veiled insult to the British Coimbatore Club which did not admit Indians until the 1950s. I noticed that the town’s fiery temperament and competitive spirit still bubbled up in residents like Radhika.
As we burrowed a path between cars and bikes in the direction of Satyamurthy Road where her shop was located, Radhika lamented the retention rate of employees in her business. Workers were now drawn to jobs in information technology; the retail business was not as attractive anymore. “They know they can make the rules. They know we are at their bloody mercy. Still, if they are dishonest in my shop, I take them out by their balls,” she said, making a snipping action as if she were wielding an imaginary pair of umbilical cord scissors. I figured that Radhika, who had once welcomed naked arrivals onto this earth, could also hasten exits, au naturel, from this world. Behind us, at the Rama temple in the heart of the neighborhood, the bells pealed. Clanging in agreement, good lord, was Rama himself, one of the ten supreme avatars of Vishnu, who herded believers into heaven.
Heaven assumes many forms in different parts of India. Some may claim that heaven is when you slip into the air-conditioned luxury of a sari store in the fervid heat of summer. At Tharakaram Silk Store, visitors were showered with personal attention and advice, both on the philosophical and the sartorial, from its hostess.
The evening I was there, Jayanthi, the chairman of a headhunting firm in Singapore, was shopping, for the very first time, at the store. A woman with sharp, graceful features and a quiet self-assurance, Jayanthi seemed to know what she wanted. I doubted that she would let any madam of any shop tell her what flattered her. She stood before the wall of mirrors in the shop emblazoned in sari after sari, appraising what was looking back at her with a stern eye while Radhika, the Amazon of sari retail, flattered her client’s good taste, tut-tutted along with her during Jayanthi’s doubtful stances, and pushed her, at critical moments, into taking risks with color choices and, hopefully, money.
Now and then, at cathartic points during the emotional transaction, Radhika hurled a a pineapple grenade. “It’s got nothing to do with the sari, believe me, my dear,” she cut in when Jayanthi swore that pink was neither her color nor her style, especially because of the ungainly stripes in the border of the sari. “What’s working is, in fact, between your ears. You wouldn’t buy that sari if it were plain, trust me!”
Jayanthi posed in over two-dozen silk saris. Two sari-clad store clerks shook the folds of the six-yard masterpieces in silk, letting the dramatic palloo cascade over Jayanthi’s left shoulder in soft silence. Stone-faced and swift, they swathed her hips once, and then once again, quickly, with the fabric, making a fan of five or six pleats in front, tucking them into the waistband of Jayanthi’s pants, conjuring up the impression of a fully draped sari in less than a minute. With a cast of the blouse portion of the fabric, they whipped up a short-sleeved blouse over Jayanthi’s right arm so that she could see how the sari contrasted with the blouse.Watching Jayanthi, I was reminded of the tale of Draupadi and the sempiternal sari.
Growing up, every child raised in an Indian household has associated the sari with the mythological figure from the legend of the Mahabharatha. The sari story is sewn into every Hindu’s consciousness. As Dushasana unreeled layers and layers of Draupadi’s sari in an attempt to shame her, he discovered that the fabric had transmuted into an endless train before he crumbled in exhaustion. Draupadi’s quest for an endless sari symbolized her infinite faith in the divine.
That evening, I sensed Dushashana’s helplessness in Jayanthi at the curlicue of silk bombarding her in six yards increments: among them, the peacock blue with a sandalwood colored border, the beige tassar silk with a palloo in the jamdhani weave traditional to West Bengal, the peach and pink bailou silk-cotton, the off-beat two-in-one sari in a reversible black and aubergine with contrasting borders, the sari in shocking pink with coffee brown striations on the edges, the tassar silk in burgundy and black, called matka (terracotta pot) because the fabric had been rubbed on terracotta to the desired finish.
While Jayanthi stood transfixed by her own reflection, discombobulated by the waves of fabric rising from the floor and tugging at her heart, Radhika, the Scylla of sales, told her to simply quit worrying.
“Just buy them all,” she said, pursing her lips. “Because buying saris is like eating piping hot dosas. You don’t count!”