Sarees and marigolds

This saree clings to my brown skin and I’m starting to get frustrated as I march through the front door of my grandparent’s 57-year-old house in Merebank. In these clothes, I am reminded that I am not from this land, even though it is all I identify with. It confuses me. Today my upbringing reminded me that I am a brown skinned, South Indian descendant with a story that started long before I was born. And this saree is constricting these facts around my body like a python every second longer that it sticks to me.

As I peel away the metres of fabric, wrapped and pleated and pinned, I reflect on the day we’ve had. The Durban humidity has been thick and suffocating, draining the frame and tiring the mind, almost as much as the farewell we have just bid. My mind is a mess. I need to focus on something to help me rearrange my clarity.

I focus on untying my underskirt. It’s been digging into my skin all day. As I pick at the knot, expertly double tied by my mother and tucked in to the left of the black cotton underskirt, I watch as the patterned doily indentation on my skin reveals itself. I hear my mother’s words: “Tie your saree tight. Your pavada must be tight.”

I’ve let go of my length of silk now and I regain focus as much as I regain room to breathe.

“We’ve lost another father,” I start to admit to myself as I begin to gather and fold the 6 metres of material. I stop and ground myself, and force myself to acknowledge what is hurting me. It was watching one of my grandmothers lose her person, and not know what her next step would be. It was seeing my aunt as a child who didn’t want to say goodbye to her father. It was witnessing my younger cousins as composed adults.

It was being slapped in the face with the reality that the roles we are so used to playing forever change in death. And that culturally, I have a duty that I want to action, but that I don’t know nearly enough. How do I identify with my culture four generations later?

I flash back to staring at a kuthuvilakku at the front of the hall during the funeral, adorned with the sunshine of a string of marigolds and lit at the edges with cotton wicks soaked in oil. These vilakkus are a standard in my culture, always draped in the yellow and orange flowers every Indian household is accustomed to. In that moment, I remember thinking about how our lives as Indian people are decorated.

We’re a culture of elaborate ceremonies. Awe reverent rite, in life and death. We speak and walk in numbers while we announce anecdotes and cry in happiness and sadness.

In death, Western culture could be forgiven for perceiving us rude when we lean into the deceased in earnest; how could they know that us whispering our sweet goodbyes are the most mannered farewell we could ever offer our lost loved ones? We hope they take it away with them.

I know in losing my paternal grandfather, all I hope for most days is that he heard me then, and still hears me now.

“There is beauty in all of this, and we as a culture are so lucky we get the privilege to mourn so beautifully,” I think as I unpin the last hook and eye off my silk, embroidered saree blouse. This acknowledgement still doesn’t stop the lone tear that rolls down my cheek. My saree is now a neatly folded rectangle able to be packed away and forgotten about, but my mind has unpacked more than I can now contain.

My suffocation is suddenly replaced with fullness as I realise that the ceremonies we occasion are like tying this saree.

Long and decorated; meticulous and planned with particularity; uncomfortable but feminine; traditional with room for modernity; culturally ours. And when we untie it, we pull it off with ferocity while retaining its dignity. Still decorated, but distressed. Still meticulous, but worn. Still uncomfortable, but settled. Still feminine. Still traditional. Still ours.

I’m bare now; free from the fabric that clung to my curves. Calm. Just me and my brownness. “I will have to do this again,” I sigh in realisation.

For now, I indulge in silence. I take the privilege of reflection and focus it on this moment as I stare in a mirror. I am brown and full of my culture. My thick brown hair grazes my shoulders, framing my brown face. My brown skin glistens, dewy from the humidity and the tears shed today. My brown eyes glassy, sunken from thoughts of tomorrow’s goodbyes, ceremonies, sarees and marigolds.

Image copyright belongs to Daniel Wamba