I have just spent an amazing week in Chennai, India, where I attended the wedding of some close friends from Cambridge. It was a great chance to catch up with old friends and make news ones, while at the same time experiencing a new country.
This was my first time in India, but I have heard about the country and its customs since I was very small. My mother lived in India for many years as a devotee of Swami Muktananda, and my elder brother was born in Bombay. The spiritual practice my mother learned in Ganeshpuri has been central to my whole life, but I had never had occasion to visit India until now.
In addition to an amazing wedding, bollywood dancing, and seeing some of the fantastic historic sites in and around Chennai, I had the privilege of staying with some old friends of my mother's who had known her when she was Muktananda's personal security guard and assistant. My host not only showered me with generous hospitality, but also took up the task of taking me sari shopping in town.
I have seen historic sites before, and done roadtrips with friends; sari shopping, however, was something completely new to me. I was aiming to find a good sari for my mother, who had worn saris practically daily for much of her many years under Muktananda.
Chennai is famed for its silk markets, and I now understand why. There are dozens, if not hundreds of sari shops in Chennai, each stocked with thousands of silk and cotton saris of all colors and styles. I saw saris that were brilliantly blue or deeply red; richly patterned saris, and ones adorned with gold thread; saris that changed color depending on the angle at which you viewed them, and even a bridal sari made almost entirely of pure gold thread. You cannot help but marvel at the array of color in the shops, nor at the dozens of shop employees who flock instantly to assist you.
There is a different person for every aspect of the sari buying process. First, someone will greet you and take you to someone else. Another man will take you around, pulling out stacks of saris and unfolding them on the counters. Keep this, toss that, more like this, this pattern but that color... You can specify whatever you want, and they will probably have it somewhere. There are no "pleases" or "thank yous" â€” it's very fast-paced but cordial, without the niceties you might expect.
Once you have picked a sari you have to pick out the right match for the blouse cloth (if it is not included), as well as the slip. There is a different person manning each station. A team of three or four stands ready to cut and tie off the tassels of the sari. They give you a slip of paper while you wait for the tassels to be tied. The knots are tied with lightning speed. You cannot see the man's fingers manipulate the thread, it's so fast â€” a quick twist, and suddenly there's a perfect knot and he's moved onto the next group of threads.
After some time, you bring your slip of paper to the "delivery" station. You collect your sari there and then you go to the payment counter. There, they tally up your purchase and give you another slip of paper and send you over to the "cash" counter, where you pay for the sari and the slip of paper is stamped "paid." A process that would be completed by a single salesperson in America or the UK is here performed by about a dozen people, each with a set role. There is a different person for writing the receipt, a different person for taking payment, and sometimes a different person for stamping the receipt, etc.
We arrived early, at around 11am, shortly after the shops opened. By 1pm, the shops were packed, three deep at the counter, pressing to see and buy more saris. The shopkeepers fold and unfold saris with seemingly superhuman speed and precision, while hundreds of slips of paper change hands in what is both a ridiculously obfuscated and yet surprisingly efficient process. After getting home to Cambridge last night, I showed my mother one of the saris over Skype â€” it took me about 10 minutes to fold it up again. In the shops it was done in about 3 seconds, more perfectly than I was able to manage.
I have never before seen so muck silk of such high quality or such bright colors, nor have I ever experienced shopping like this. Each sari can take months to create, and here within just one of the many stores in Chennai, thousands of saris were changing hands in one day. It is hard to see how anyone makes a living out of the process, as the prices are very reasonable and somehow the revenue must be split between the dozens of shop workers, as well as the weavers themselves. A full cotton sari can cost under 1000 rupees, which is about Â£10 or $15. Silk is obviously considerably more expensive, and those with gold thread rise from there, but compared to typical North American or European prices, the saris go for amazing rates.
What was also refreshing about the process was how open all the Indians were with me. In a world full of "exclusive" clubs, I found everyone very welcoming and encouraging. It was not at all awkward for me and the European guests at the wedding to wear traditional Indian clothes, nor was it strange for me to be sari shopping for my mother (who, by the way, looks entirely north Indian in a sari). Perhaps most heartwarming was that my spiritual lineage superseded all skin color, nationality, and appearance. It was accepted and respected without question. That was certainly a first.