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Singapore Without a Sari

There are two vastly different ways to buy a sari, probably more, but as foreigners in Singapore, there are two: In a posh store where the silk is diaphanous and the dollars several hundred; or at the covered market where the selection is vast and the prices less voracious.

My daughter and I know exactly where we have to go. We take a short cab ride from our hotel in downtown and jump out at a recently rained on street corner dotted with steamed up bus shelters and general market stalls. The hot, heavy Singapore air is shamelessly leeching liquid from us so we stop briefly to apply chilled coconut juice. From the outside the market looks nondescript, just two long escalators disappearing into a place that spits out people with plastic bags at regular intervals.

We step onto the up one and step off at the top into a riot of rich color, nothing wishy washy here. Except for a very occasional pale blue, pastels are nowhere to be seen. If I wasn’t tumbling towards a kind of ecstasy I would have breathed a sigh of relief, I’ve never liked washed out colors, always relished the strong, deep, arresting ones. This place looks like, well, it looks like exactly what it is, a Singapore sari market. Hard to imagine something more exotic.

Bryony and I do what women so often do when faced with inordinate temptation, we dither, get confused. We have to rally and consolidate. From our position on the threshold we can see several competing paths into the cave. Silk shimmers, sequins drip light. We are drunk on reds so rich it is like falling into cabernet, swirling purples, greens, blues, colors we never dared dream of. We mumble about ‘a plan’ then think better of it. We fall upon the line of least resistance and promise faithfully never to leave the other to languish forever in this maze of possibly fatal shopping options.

Buying a sari in a Singapore market is not a private affair. We tell one enquiring attendant that Bryony’s looking for a sari to wear to a friend’s wedding and within moments women in other stalls are looking at us, talking, gesturing, offering helpful advice.

We seem to have fallen into some ancient trading ritual, a shopping womb filled with gracious matriarchs eager to nurture us into the perfect purchase. It feels like something safe enough to float on. Favorite aunts, sisters, distant relatives seem to emerge from behind endless racks of flowing feminine garments, steering us gently to the stall that holds Bryony’s sari.

We take our shoes off at the entrance and Bryony strips down to her underwear right there on the raised store floor. Back home this would feel unbearably vulnerable, here its what you have to do to be initiated into the art of wearing a sari. A fan blows desperately at the stubborn air, music blasts ambitiously beyond it’s tweet level, and everyone who walks by has an opinion they express without an ounce of self consciousness, just the way an entitled maiden aunt would.

When we leave with all our parcels, we have to pass more flowing skirts, tapered tunics, more saturated color, delicate prints, textures so fine you can barely feel them with your fingertips. I look down at my western woman’s clothing, so restrained, so un-undulating, so lacking in celebration and magic. So careful.

“Why don’t WE dress like this, mom?”

And I, for the life of me, cannot think of a single reason.


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