In Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, the tiny, bird-like Nasreen Chamchawala seems only to wear saris that come in headache-inducing, hallucinogenic hues: lemon silks decked in diamonds, black-and-white stretches of Op Art swirls, oversized “lipstick kisses” liberally printed across bright ground.
My mother wears a similar sari in a photograph taken in Bangladesh in the 1970s, just before she emigrated to Britain with a troupe of my knock-kneed siblings. Next to their pointy-collared polyester shirts, satchels and bell-bottoms, my mother is a sylph, small and serene, swathed in yards of silk that shriek colour, even from a black-and-white photograph. Her sari has a rowdy botanical print straight out of a Henri Rousseau canvas, or, perhaps more precisely, redolent of the rainforest of her childhood – a world away from the neatly suburban English life into which I would be born.
I was trying to bridge that difference between us when I set out to research my Radio 4 documentary, My Mother’s Sari. Rifling through stacks of silks, chiffons and organzas in Asian boutiques in east London and gawping at antique gold threads at the VA, the saris I discovered were, by turns, infinitely various, achingly lovely and glittering and garish. The sari is a paradoxical garment. It can be astonishingly simple, a long unstitched stretch of fabric between five and nine metres in length, yet it can also be styled in more than 80 different ways, often reflective of the religious and regional differences of the women who have worn it, from Pakistan to Tibet, since the first millennium. It is a garment that seems domesticated and yet freighted with political and social history, exemplified by the khadi or handwoven sari prized by Indian nationalists during partition. This is history as told by women, carried quietly in the clothes they wear.
That empowering narrative, though, sits in contrast to the darker ways in which we have come to think about the relationship of South Asian women to clothes, most recently in the harrowing context of exploited garment workers such as those caught up in the Rana Plaza disaster. The way we make and wear all clothes warrants our attention. And for all its beauty and exoticism, there is a seriousness to the sari too. For me, there is something about the way the way the sari envelops and encases the body, as though it were a metaphor for the mystery of all our mothers – the bodies from which we come and the lives we cannot entirely know. We talk about the “ties that bind” but in clothes we are woven together, whichever background we’ve come from.
My Mother’s Sari is on Radio 4 at 11.30am on 30 April.