Archive | May, 2012

An Explosion of Color: Mama’s Saris

25 May

Mama’s Saris
by Pooja Makhijani/Illustrated by Elena Gomez

Pub Date: 2007

Publisher: Little, Brown

Level: Picture book/ages 7-up

Copy checked out from my library

A couple of years ago, I purchased this beautiful book for some family friends who just had a baby girl. I’ll be honest here – it’s the book I would’ve enjoying sharing with my mother. Or maybe a daughter. But this book wasn’t published when I was little, and I don’t have any daughters. Still, I’m not going to be deterred from reading Makhijani’s lovely tale with my two little guys. So much of this book resonated with my own experiences, making it that much easier to give my children a vivid snapshot into my childhood.

In Mama’s Saris, an Indian-American girl celebrates her seventh birthday raptly watching her mother gently unpack a leather suitcase filled with brightly-colored saris, each one with its own personal history. “Inside are her saris–the yellow satin one she wore for Uma Didi’s baby shower, the peach-colored one that is as fine as a spider’s web, and my favorite, her red wedding sari…” (pg. 3) The imagery of saris in a suitcase reminds the reader that this is a story set in the diaspora – the little girl is most likely a first-generation Indian-American. In fact, my own mother stored her saris in a suitcase that traveled with her from India to London, and finally to the United States. During the rare occasions she opened it, my sister and I would huddle around her, grabbing at the pieces of silk, trying on the petticoats and the cholis (blouses). The saris varied in style – some were very informal (georgette crêpe) and some very ornate (South Indian Kanchipuram).

In the book, while her mom occasionally takes out her saris, the girl’s Nanima (maternal grandmother) wears a sari every day. This small detail struck me, because of its allusion to generational gaps; I can attest to the fact that I have never seen my own grandmother (who has lived in the United States for over 35 years) wearing anything but a sari. On the other hand, my mother stopped wearing saris soon after arriving in the States in 1980. And I wear a sari once in a blue moon.

With my husband, Bryan, on our wedding day. Red is the traditional color for wedding saris.

In Mama’s Saris, it’s clear that the sari is much more than just a garment to adorn oneself; the little girl realizes that it’s her cultural legacy. Wearing a sari signifies the transition from girlhood to womanhood. “Mama is silent for a long time. Then she says, ‘I remember the first time I wore one of Nanima’s saris. It made me feel like a big girl.'”(pg. 17)  The story beautifully comes full circle when the girl, dressed up in one of her mother’s sari’s, looks into her mother’s eyes and proclaims, “I think I look just like you.”(pg 28)

In her introductory note, Makhijani writes that she “wrote Mama’s Saris after realizing that [her own] fascination with her mother’s fancy clothes was not unique. It seemed as if each of [her] female friends, regardless of ethnicity or age, remembers being captivated by her mother’s grown-up clothes.” (pg. 1) It’s interesting that Makhijani describes her mother’s clothing as “fancy” – for those of us who were raised outside of India, wearing a sari seems like a novel thing. But for our mothers and grandmothers who grew up in India, the sari is the means by which to keep tradition alive. The sari isn’t just “fancy,” it’s “home.”

Elena Gomez’s illustrations are intricate and vibrant, and combined with Makhijani’s wonderful writing, make Mama’s Saris an outstanding read. I would pair this book with Kashmira Sheth’s My Dadima Wears A Sari, along with Sandhya Rao’s My Mother’s Sari.