BY MARION RUYBALID
A woman who I’ve always known as mother taught me how to wear a sari when I was ten. The purpose of my lesson was only partly for a connection with Bangladesh, my birthplace. Who knows when the excuse to learn such an involved task might have occurred if it wasn’t for a school project. My assignment was to research a famous person and dress the part. I’d picked Mother Teresa because she was from India and that was close to Bangladesh.
My white British mother took yards of white fabric and died a blue stripe on one side. When the cloth was ready, I stood in the middle of our living room wearing a tight fitting white tee shirt and underwear with a piece of white rope tied around my waist.
“Here’s where you tuck the corner of the cloth in,” my mother said. She pointed to the rope above my right hip.
I began to tuck clothing into the rope from right hip, to left, behind my body, and back around to the front of my right hip.
“You have to do that again.”
The process was already feeling tiresome and the cloth, though fairly thin woven cotton, had a lot of weight to it due to the amount fabric it was going to take to make me look modest.
“Okay, now make three pleats and tuck that into the front in the middle of your waist.”
I had no idea how uncomfortable a sari would be. Once I had what felt like a massive sailor’s knot against my stomach, I wrapped the rest of the cloth around the left side of my body and brought it around over my left shoulder. It seemed impossible to imagine having to go through this process on a daily basis.
At ten years old, wearing a sari felt like a fun game. I was adopted into a British family who moved to a small town in New Jersey. I didn’t have much of a reason to think about what it might symbolically mean to wear so much fabric. It seemed elegant, and I felt like a slightly different version of myself.
When I entered graduate school at age thirty-three to complete my MFA in creative writing, I wanted to learn about memoirs and more importantly, my goal was to find a memoir written by a Bangladeshi author. I honestly didn’t even know if I’d find something in English, but I tracked down the title of a book called Meybela, My Bengali Girlhood, by Taslima Nasrin.
In Nasrin’s memoir, two different stories unfold, one is the story of Bangladesh’s fight for independence and the other is a little girl longing for women’s freedom.
Bangladesh gained its independence from India for the first time in 1971. Through a poetic voice, distant from the narrator’s emotions, the reader is educated about the historical climate of the country at the time. The atmosphere of daily life is blanketed with the constant feelings of unrest. However, despite many fears about the state of Bangladesh, there is hope for a future that will be better.
The narrator is a little girl during a formative time in Bangladesh’s history. Freedom for the country was supposed to mean promises of new practices in life, but as Bangladesh became free, change barely took place in a nation where women suffer from constant abuse. Her mother continues to eat scraps for dinner and isn’t respected. The narrator is raped by at least three different men, two of whom are uncles. Fathers want smart daughters and mothers want good religious wives for future mates. The desire to dream about a new life for the narrator is stifled in a culture that has no intention of changing.
The song “Joy Bangla! Bangla joy!” is chanted in the streets when the nation is finally free, but for the nation’s women, these words should have meant more. Women do not become free to fall in love and take jobs. Instead, their suffering becomes awkwardly intertwined with the nation’s freedom to show how even hopeful change may not result in transformation for everyone.
My own childhood didn’t include watching my nation be birthed. However, the circumstances of my actual adoption were at one time threatened. I was born in 1982 and there was talk about closing the doors to adoption. My dad, being a climber, planned routes over the Himalayan Mountains to get me out of the country if my British passport didn’t arrive. Nothing as extreme ever did take place because the paperwork to finalize my adoption did go through, but a few years later this would not have been the case. With my adoption, I was also freed from a culture that I still wanted to understand.
Years after my parents had moved away from Dhaka when I was nineteen years old, I went back for a visit. I was faced with the task of putting on a sari again. Yards of delicately patterned pink cloth surrounded a woman, who on the outside blended in with the women around me. People whispered about my perfect American accent and the way I walked so freely. They knew something was different about me even if I tried my best to fit in. Despite the sari, I knew what it was like to unravel the cloth and simply put on a pair of jeans and a tee shirt. True Bangladeshi culture for me would only be experienced through other people’s words.
Marion Ruybalid lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and seven children. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from UCR Palm Desert. Her work has also appeared in The Manifest-Station.