There is a long list of things that qualify me to count India as home: I no longer find the process of haggling for an auto rickshaw infuriating, I’ve gotten used to the smells of raw sewage and urine (although this is not something I’m proud of), and I wear kurtas at least four days a week. But although my family is originally from India and although I’ve been living in India for over a year now, I still consider myself an American. My flatmate Swathi and I had a Christmas party last weekend, because – as the Facebook event read – “we miss peppermint lattes, inflatable snowmen, crazy people with crazy lights, presents, cold weather, and Christmas sales.” (In case you’re wondering, I had 600+ Christmas songs at the ready.) I’m on a quest to find the best burger in Bangalore – the current favorite is Monkey Bar. I spent a ridiculous amount of money on a block of Parmesan.
Christmas in Bangalore
But then, two weeks ago, something happened that made me reconsider my foreigner status in this country: Swathi and I bought our Australian friend Marli her first sari. We bullied shopkeepers into showing us simple – no, simpler, bhaiya – clothes. We airily discussed the differences in price and quality between crepe and georgette and chiffon, and we bargained like pros. Walking down the alleys bordering Commercial Street, we matched bangles to earrings to cloth. Some weren’t sparkly enough, some were chipped, some were a shade of gold we deemed too brassy. We even visited a tailor to have a petticoat and blouse made for Marli, discussing things like the neckline and back height and sleeve length. We knew to ask the tailor to put in a “fall” – a strip of cloth that makes the sari drape well.
I hadn’t realized until then just how much I had assimilated while growing up. Each trip to the market with my cousins brought with it knowledge – the name and price of each item of clothing and how to haggle, obviously, but also a more intangible sense of what is needed to survive – and thrive – in this foreign place. I learned just the right amount of aggression, tempered with studied disinterest.
Marli later told me she was grateful that we had taken charge and played dress-up with her. The prospect of buying a sari without help was too overwhelming for her to consider. As for me, I’m ready to learn how to wear a sari without an army of helpers – there’s still a little American left in there.