By Amitava Sen
Why do we buy things?
Some for immediate consumption, like food, which we need for survival or mere delight of palate.
We buy theatre tickets, for enjoyment and entertainment.
Or, books and arts, to meet our intellectual needs.
We spend money on investment, with expectation for a return in cash or kind.
Also, for long term uses, like houses for shelter. The range of items like homes and cars are not always based on a minimum need; often times they exceed the rational limit. But their uses remain utilitarian nevertheless.
Amongst many others, clothing is an important area we spend our money on, so that we maintain a societal decorum and do not bare us to the world; and for sartorial splendor, of course.
Generally, we acquire thing to meet some kind of needs or perceived needs, material, physical or intellectual.
But there are a few items we get out of sheer obsession of the moments with complete disregard for need or return on investment and we make irrational judgment about the value of the acquisition. Consider for example, saree-buying frenzy of an India born women in our Bengalee community.
A mirror view is satisfying, but principally nice attire helps us look good in others’ eyes. At least that is a reasonable assumption. But observing some Bengalee women here, saree possession seems to have crossed the threshold of reasonableness; it looks like an uncontrollable mania.
As a dress, a saree does have certain uniqueness. It is the only garment in the world which fits one size all! Even Dishdasha for Arab men , Abaya worn by Arab women or Burqua of South Asian Muslim women, all basically shapeless coveralls resembling a drape more than a clothing, have to be tailored to size. A saree on the other hand does not require cutting, formatting, not a stitch of a single thread. A saree is also the greatest and most effective camouflage ever, especially for laterally challenged.
Once when I invited my friend Richie and his wife to a dinner, he declined because his wife Doris had been on a diet and slimming down regime for two weeks so that she can shape up and fit in a nice dress to attend an impending wedding. Tongue in cheek, I suggested that Doris could wear a saree for the wedding that would save her from starvation for two weeks. Throw an unmanageably long wrap around you and then other appurtenances of female beauty, which is your body, are effectively hidden from public eyes.
But you pay a price; your vanity and your pride are undermined. Your beauty, your grace and your elegance that either the nature has endowed you with or you have cultivated so assiduously over the years are taken out of view for anyone to see and appreciate. The piece of fabric around you gets all the attention. You feel good when other women come to you and express their admiration for your saree. Not a word about how nice you look in that saree and or how elegant you are. The admiring woman may even break your heart if and when she adds “I have an exact similar piece which I am yet to wear.” That effectively deflates whatever ego you have had satisfied when the saree was praised.
Of course there are other reasons for why you are ignored and the dress you are wearing gets all the attention instead; appreciating another woman may not come naturally to a woman in our self-conscious Bengali society. Compliments generally come from a woman and almost never from a man. The concept may sound like contrary to evolutionary common sense which conjectures that the purpose women strive to look good is to attract potential mates of the opposite sex. The truth in our Bengali diasporas is that women dress to impress each other. That often is partly a result of environment in which we socialize and the way we are. Whether in a party or a social event or in a Puja the women folks congregate in a close cluster and men are segregated which gives the men scant opportunity to look at the women, get friendly and say a word of appreciation.
Bringing men into the picture can add some sense and sensibility to the mad world of saree acquisition. If men were the target for getting noticed there would not be the need for buying so many of them. Men have shorter sartorial memories. It is unlikely for a man to remember if that piece of apparel has already been worn once before. It is close to a blasphemy to a Bengalee saree wearing woman to be told that a saree has already been worn once before albeit by the same person. Women can and will easily point out the repeat use of your dress, length of the intervening period regardless. Even if they do not tell you in that many words, wearer will instantly know from the knowing look of the observers that she has been caught red-handed. Men may also have a nice word for you, and that is likely to be honest. Truth is men have a discerning eye for compatibility of the dress and the person putting it on. The women surprisingly have a strange skill of only looking at the saree without even noticing the person wearing it and an incredibly long memory span for sarees. Unfortunately you meet the same and repeat bunch of people wherever you go dressed up, in our close-knit Bengali society. And there is always someone to remember your saree, even if it is not so remarkable a piece.
The fallout from the addiction is wider. Expenses on saree account have a profound impact on the cost of our social lives. In our burgeoning society we have a closeness in order to function and flourish socially and we do have vigorous and frequent interactions with our friends and acquaintances, which we cannot do without. Formal occasions like wedding, birthdays and casual ones like a weekend dinners, demand gifts. Cost for two persons attending, works out to $200-$300.00 (unless of course you are close to the host) in a wedding; $100.00 for a birthday (For a Sunday lunch at Akbar or similar not so lustrous places, $60.00 should do for two guests) and there are anniversaries, annaprasans, you name it. In a routine dinner party you can get away with a $16-20.00 bottle of wine. Now comes the collateral cost. Add to each of the above the cost of single-wear saree (between $200-250,) a blouse (guessing the value of a blouse is tricky. A blouse may be pricey, but sometimes, judging from the amount of cloth material that are used in a blouse in modern fashion, it is not unrealistic to appraise that it may cost little or nothing) and occasional matching costume jewelry (between $50 and $100.00.) Attending Puja is not cheap either these days; organizers will shut the door on you unless you pay a high entry fee in advance and do not forget to account for the fresh purchase of one or two sarees from those luring saree stalls at the Puja place.
Now, please do the math!
One has to wonder, even considering the single wear scenario, when and where all the sarees are actually worn. Admittedly, our community here has more get-togethers, more occasions than others on a yearly basis but the sarees most likely outnumber the opportunities to wear them. In practice it is just impossible to wear all of them within a reasonable period of time before it becomes old and out of fashion. The momentary infatuation, bordering insanity that overtook the buyers senses had passed or in hold till another irresistible piece overwhelms. The pieces in storage left unused would probably be not worth wearing and showing off. One has to suspect that quite a few of them stay in closet unused, ultimately finding their way to the storage in the garage.
Of course I am not proposing this as a generalized truth dictum for all the saree wearing women all over the world, I am focusing on the behavior of a certain class of Bengalee women in our midst, who in their obsessive saree fetish have lost somewhere a sense of proportion.
Although, the writer raises some important questions about the state of a terribly consumerist society we live in today, the article makes some very totalizing essentialist notions of gender that are extremely problematic.