I was bombarded with saree fabric choices and decisively picked out the muted rose colored material, silk fabric with gold-colored trim. I have no trouble saying, “vendu” (I don’t want it) to clothing (food is a different matter). Ammamma and Ambily voted for bright royal blue and teal. “Vendu!” They took me to the tailor to have my rose-colored blouse stitched. I waited a week and when it was ready, the show began! Ammamma was folding the pleats into the draped shawl while Ambily tucking the skirt. “Oh, you are veeeery short. I must tuck sooo much,” she direly announced. It took twenty minutes to tuck, pleat drape and pin. I didn’t know what to do, so I put my hands in the air and clapped whenever they did something that somehow made it look more like a saree than one huge piece of fabric. “Chirikuduka!” (Laughing girl) they called me and smiled when they saw my excitement. Previously I told Ammamma how I do not like when people call me “Madama,” the general title for any white foreigner (images of the missionary I fear or an authoritative, powdery old British woman come to mind). “Ishtamala,” I said and she laughed saying, “Chirikuduka, your nickname, is better.” I agree. They were finished and I looked in the mirror. The difference between a churidar and a saree is incredible. I felt like I should be doing something powerful with graceful confidence (like leading the Congress Party?).

After a day of walking I changed my mind. Graceful confidence turns to mush when you are stuck between a truck and a puddle in 9 feet of silk held together by pins. Churidars allow for freedom, and that wins over grace all the way. For my second shopping outing, I decided to get one less formal saree and another churidar. Sounds easy, does it not?

I visited Ambily’s home in Pala for the weekend. On Saturday we were taking a special road trip to Ernakulam for shopping. Ambily had just received her first paycheck in a year and had promised all the members of her family a special treat care of her. At the time, I did not know this was the goal of the day. We entered Saree Heaven. It was six stories of saree splendor; the world’s largest saree showroom, apparently. We quickly separated, Ambily, I could tell, had a mission to fulfill. I found the cheap saree rack and began digging, soon to find a salesperson at my elbow pulling from piles and showing me sarees. “Vendu,” I think I said it fifteen times until I looked at her and had to be honest, “I am very picky. I am a difficult customer. I am sorry.” She understood, smiled, but continued to throw sarees at me to my frustration. I knew what I wanted: Cheap price, good quality, unique pattern. She and I were not on the same wavelength. I finally found one I liked. “Venom” (I want this) and she seemed relieved. I then went to the churidar floor and things got worse. Another salesperson dragging out fabrics when I just wanted to browse in peace. I think I searched for an hour. Things were much more expensive than I had expected and I didn’t like the colors. After an hour with a salesperson, I felt awful saying, “Eh, no thanks” so I opted for a churidar that was out of my price range but very unique. Her relief could not be contained. She whisked me off to the cashier.

Two weeks later I have yet to get my new saree and churidar stitched. Maybe I am afraid of what unexpected debacle might occur. Maybe I do not want to open the bag and remember the day of shopping 9AM-5PM that got the better of me.

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