Cutting Our Grandmothers’ Saris

Priya Chandrasekaran - Brooklyn, New York
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, December 31, 2010
Priya Chandrasekaran

Following her grandmother’s death, Priya Chandrasekaran wondered what to do with the colorful silk saris she inherited. In deciding to make a quilt from them, Chandrasekaran believes she found a way to both honor her grandmother and create something new.

Age Group: 30 - 50

I’m no seamstress, but when my aunt showed me my grandmother’s saris, I knew I was going to make something. The saris, new and old, were stacked high in two columns of brilliant colors. When I told my aunt of my intention to make a quilt, she was incredulous. These saris were valuable, meant to be worn, not cut.

Until then, I’d never seen my grandmother in anything but a sari. As a child visiting India, I couldn’t understand how she could sleep comfortably on sweltering nights wrapped in six yards of material, or how she could still look impeccable when she woke. Now, bedridden and on oxygen, blind in one eye, and having recently had a stroke, she wore nothing but a loose nightshirt that flapped open, exposing a degree of nakedness I’d never imagined she had.

When I began the project well after her death, I didn’t wash the saris. The stains and scents were evidence of the life she had lived, so different from my own. Hers was a life of cooking curries, wearing turmeric, walking barefoot on dusty floors, participating in Hindu rituals, drinking milky coffee after afternoon naps, and clutching loved ones fiercely to her chest.

But when it came time to cut the cloth, I found myself resistant. It wasn’t my mother’s allegations of blasphemy, so much as the fact that this fabric–so soft, so luxurious–had caressed my grandmother’s skin, reflected her modesty, embodied her womanhood, shielded her from the sun, and made her feel beautiful. That her hand had pleated the folds of seamless silk countless times, and that my cut, once made, would forever alter that sari’s potential to live a similar life.

“Do it,” I finally commanded myself. So I did.

After that, the work became straightforward. When the quilt was finished, one could see that the edges of each panel didn’t quite match, that the soft lavender and deep crimson from one sari clashed slightly with the brilliant yellow and green from another, that the stitches were crude and uneven. Yet beheld in unison, these imperfections fashioned something only I could have created, beautiful in its own way.

I believe we are entitled to cut our grandmothers’ saris, that they were not meant to hang in dark closets collecting dust. I believe that what we create from them should make us proud, and also humble us. I believe that not every stain needs to be rubbed out, and that cutting the cloth can help maintain its integrity.

I believe that to love, and to bare the boundless depth of our love, we must have the courage to reshape what we inherit.

Priya Chandrasekaran is a doctoral student in Cultural Anthropology at The Graduate Center, CUNY and an instructor at Hunter College and Pratt Institute. She has just finished work on a collection of essays based on a year spent in rural Peru. Her short story, "The Stops," has recently been published in J Journal: New Writings on Justice.