Prerana Kumar

Ritual as Drape // Ritual as Desire

November’s Digital Poet-in-Residence Prerana Kumar writes about how the ritual of draping sarees functions as an ambiguous intergenerational inheritance- symbolizing beauty, queer desire, and femininity but also veiling the gendered violence brown women are subjected to.

I dream of my Nani sharpest when she drapes. The choice of saree depends on a cacophony of variables.  The practicality of a long school-day in the humid throat of summer, the little explosions of anger she  cannot always stifle, the tint of heat that veils the kitchen window. She decides on a simple Cannanore  cotton, handloomed for functionality. It is a silver I have only seen before on the soft underside of  karimeen, flat river-fish. Peacock feathers shimmy round the starched skirt. The pleats are crisp-cut and  the quills are unwavering. From a distance, she will seem clothed in fine blades. One pin at the shoulder,  and the saree will not flutter. Not even in the whirlwind of turmoil, the dust-paths that lead to the school  gates, the clouds of chalk-powder that break at the bell that await Nani’s long schoolmistress hours. After that, the domestic clang of the mortar-and-pestle as she prepares meals for the house.  

She gathers the final pleats, tucks them firmly into her waist. Then, there is the theatre of accessory. She  reaches for kumkum, a simple gold necklace, Hyderabad pearls on her ears, firmed with years of  discipline. When she feels festive, she will snap them out for little gold hoops that dangle slyly in the  wind. Once she leaves for school, I climb into her saree cupboard, feel the starched turn of fabric against  my forehead. Already, I want each part of my body to be covered with her uneven second pleat, the drape  that is unique only to her hands. I want each slanted plane of myself to be carefully constructed, unravel  at no world’s hands.  

A Suitable Drape Is

          ☐ The first time I saw Nani drape a saree;
              material shrouding each sorrow

          ☐ Mama for her brother’s wedding
              pregnancy scars silvering the gauze

          ☐ Dark gold with red seam pleats
              a jugular fountain

          ☐ Lining my gums with saffron
              truth liquiding under my tongue 

          ☐ Don’t talk about how ruby shines our gentle necks  
              Mama’s spine bowed with the weight of a country’s men  

Through the years, Nani’s saree collection grows. It is all for you, she tells me before her evening prayers.  One day, all of this will be for you. The cotton, the underskirts, the deep-trimmed blouses with indigo thread.  When you grow, I will fold you into such a wonder. There is already something sinking in her eyes when she says  this, a wistfulness that spreads like ivy over her flowering vision. Her hands are not yet turgid with  arthritis, and I am not yet in England. I am only five years old and smell, always, of mothballs. 

I am six, my twin cousins are nine, and I am at the village home for summer vacation. We giggle the way  young girls often do, with abandon that stops short of an unscalable wall, then slinks back like little black  cats into the crooks between our gap-teeth. Our secret hisses in the crumbling brick outhouse on the  border of the Kannur plantation. We flit through gathered piles of saree scraps, salvaged from ruined  sarees in the laundry. We spin in our mothers’ shreds, wedding blouse, ivory comb, raven cascade,  earthworm tide. The remnants that flick off the plantation’s eyelashes become adornment- rambutan  seeds, snail shells, clusters of fire-ant eggs. The bobby pins we’ve stolen from the laundry basket hold  down the virile mess of remains onto my shoulders, fists of them sticking up from my ribcage, the way  we think our mothers do: pallu spreading its wings, pinned as if in flight.  

Even here, I am the subject of the drape. The city cousin from faraway who cannot fully twirl the egg round syllables of Malayalam, who tumbles prickly streams of English out on request. Their secret hurt,  perhaps, that this could have been their life, their unbelonging, so comfortable in its fancy buckled shoes  with its price tag flashing yellow on the underside. One of the twins fixes a red hibiscus behind my ear.  Mad fool’s flower, she says, now you’ve got to run run run while you can, and they watch me with a petalling ache  as I chase the black rooster down to the stream.  

A Pleasing Skin-Tone Is  

          ☐ My first full drape at fifteen

          ☐ My Papa clapping to a tabla as Uncle Ramesh  
               said cut up my wheat body if I look at him wrong 

          ☐ Red, purple, gold
              all those mud-girl colours

          ☐ Each darkness is a kind of bruising  
               the jamuns mashed in the hammer of a palm  

          ☐ The darker goats are led to the woods first
               before their darker bleating colours the air

          ☐ Not pink my skin isn’t talcumed 
               for that shade  

          ☐ Don’t talk about how ruby shines our gentle necks  
              Mama’s spine bowed with the weight of a country’s men  

I have carried only one saree to Durham. A light auburn mesh with an amber zari border weighing it  down. I think of drooping jamun just before the bite, promise of a fleshing. I know it will be too cold  here, that I will fold it in newspaper from the corner shop, then wrap it in cotton cloth. I know it will stay  deep in the recesses of my wardrobe, filled with faux leather and spiked boots. A netted crop top that says  something about toppling a vague patriarchy. Here, I am melting into the pavement in my black jeans,  and so lonely. I make a habit of running to the weekend market with its single stall selling scarves. I reach  towards women’s shoulders as they browse, just shy of touch. Yearning sears through the fabric into my  fingers, but here I am so sectioned. There are scraps of my past everywhere, bloodstain in the tie-dyes,  lotus in the Indian prints, a bird in chiffon, its chest puffed out at the edge of my sightline. 

I think back to our ancestral temple, the sanctum feathered with women, flowing in through a thick brass  door. I am eleven and barely a bud. Oval in promise. Older girls mill around the holy green pond, many  stairs deep, pregnant cobras lazing along the wet stones by their feet. They are dressed in the matrilineal  namboodri drape, a white spread with a flashing gold border, tucked under the arms. Drape of courtship.  They have come to pray for good male suitors, merciful if a miracle. Their hair is coiled high on their  heads to a side, serpents of ixora carving out trenches in the heavy locks. The moonlight lusters the  downward draw of their spines. From where I sit, their nut shoulders are graceful eagles, stroked with  gold. I shiver at the hours they have spent wrapping their fresh-bathed bodies, their fingers lingering at  the knots, dousing their joints in sandalwood. I am only eleven, I am only starting to feel saliva pool in  the back of my mouth, anticipating something that wants to be held in the cheek, not knowing quite  what. I chew mogra from their falling garlands, I am in a partial state of undress, and nobody can bear to  look at me.  

Graduation morning at Durham, and I am sitting in a coiffe of fabric. Kanjivaram silk, three months of  my mother’s salary on an endless fountain of clashing colour. On this fabric, sacred harp strings when the  deep belly of the sun clashes with the palate of bougainvillea. A bobby pin juts out of my bleeding foot  from when I have stepped on it while pleating. Down a third of the saree is a massive rip, jaws separating  every time I move so I try to be very still. Try to stitch a mending with non-movement. I have failed my  grandmother’s draping and my mother is stranded in Newcastle, waiting for a late train to Durham. The  edges of this treasure are smeared rusty antshell, and I can smell the silver of my anklets on the blood.  More than the tremendous amount of money, my mother’s quiet disappointment, the unbridgeable rend  in the fabric, it is this smell that overcomes me. I don’t remember when I emerge from the nest, pull out a  vermilion cocktail dress, slit at the thigh. I still believe I must be loud with my shame, that spectacle is my  atonement. I don’t stop crying until I pull on my suede boots, step out without looking back.  

The Best Camera-Angles For Your Body-Type Are  

          ☐ You’re asking if I’m north or south Indian   
               four languages carve my waist-tuck

          ☐ You’re asking me what breaks a body
              in another country

          ☐ You can never tell, it doesn’t matter yesterday
               I soaked through my bandages and giggled

          ☐ I left five years ago
               count the rings in my back

          ☐ I am always draping in windows I cannot tell
               if it’s for the view or the fall


I am in the crematorium in Norwich, beginning to understand the language of my loneliness. How it is  another tongue below my tongue. How I cannot choose with which to speak. I start ironing in the evenings, choosing silence of the fold instead. I have learned to wield a lighter fabric, the elusive  kumudini. No pleats, just twirled around my body as many times as it can go, thrown over a shoulder,  knotted at the waist. My mother has just told me she cannot afford to come visit me this year, and I am spinning my grief into a new kind of drape, a new shape with the hands. Still a remembrance of love,  stubborn in its loose ends at my hips. It holds Nani’s knowledge where it curves. It only serves what it  can. I have draped it backless, covered all the mirrors. I will roam amongst the headstones with a  flickering joy. 

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