I stared down at the ikat silk, seven yards long by four feet wide, strewn across the bed. How was I supposed to transform this flat rectangle of material into a graceful sari?
The minivan was leaving for my friends' wedding reception in 15 minutes, and the bride's aunties, who'd promised to help me drape the sari, were nowhere to be found. I called down to the hotel's reception desk with my SOS.
"Madam, we wear suits," the young woman on duty proudly informed me.
"What about a housekeeper?"
"Our housekeepers are men. But Ms. Shireen is here. Perhaps she can help."
Shireen and Ritu were friends of the bride, waiting in the lobby for the minivan.
Shireen grabbed the reception desk phone. "Wear something else."
"No way." I'd pictured myself in a sari for months, a vision of elegance. And I'd spent a week in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), shopping with Sandhya and her wedding entourage in search of the perfect sari. "It cost a raja's ransom and I'm wearing it!"
She relented. "Do you have safety pins? We'll be right up."
While Ritu scoured the desk and nightstand drawers for a sewing kit with safety pins, Shireen announced, "I won't do it for you, but I'll teach you how.
"First pull the drawstring of your petticoat very tight," she instructed. "You are going to pleat and tuck the skirt of your sari into it, so it has to hold."
I sucked in my waist and tied the drawstring so tight I flashed on Scarlett and Mammy in the corset-cinching scene from "Gone with the Wind."
I complained that the hooks and eyes of the blouse were straining across my bust.
"That's nothing," Shireen said. "Indian women wear them tight as second skins.
"Measure out the pallu," she said, referring to the part of the sari that drapes over a woman's shoulder and hangs down her back. I draped five feet of silk over my left shoulder, and twisted my back toward the mirror to check that it fell to a becoming length.
"Throw the material for the pallu across the floor, so you can pleat the section that will hang down the center of the skirt."
Throw it on the floor?
If Rule No. 1 for sari draping is, "Make sure you have safety pins," then Rule No. 2 is, "Make sure your floor is clean."
I flung the silk toward the hotel-room door. Shireen showed me how to create pleats of consistent size, by opening my palm, fingers splayed, and working the silk back and forth across my hand, until I formed six pleats that overlapped at one-inch intervals. This six-inch wide swath of pleats would hang down the front of the skirt in the center.
She wove a safety pin through the back of the pleated section, so it would hold together when tucked into to the waist of the petticoat.
"Isn't this cheating?" I felt better when she told me Indian women pinned their pleats as well.
Shireen helped me wrap the rest of the silk around my hips to finish off the skirt, reserving the pallu, which she draped over my left shoulder, securing it with another safety pin through my blouse and bra strap.
We ran to the elevator, dropped down to the lobby, and caught the minivan. I prayed the sari wouldn't disassemble as I climbed the van's steep steps, carefully raising the skirt, so as not to trample the work of art we had created.
At the reception, I sailed past the receiving line like the Queen Mary entering New York harbor. In this sea of saris, this box of jewels, I was a ruby among emeralds, sapphires, and topaz. Threaded among them, the men wore dark Western suits of charcoal and black, crisp white dress shirts, and colorful ties.
"Look! I'm wearing a sari!" I said, beaming at the bride's mother, a modern Indian woman who now lives in New Jersey.
"Yes," she said as she looked me over. "Isn't it a pain?"