Sisters of the Sari


Like Eat, Pray, Love, only with a little less sex and a little more dysentery, Sisters of the Sari is an absorbing read. Baker writes with unabashed realism, reveling in the descriptions of opulent saris, filthy alleys, sweetened tea, and nervewracking traffic... an often funny, genuinely touching account of life in Chennai and the uncommon bond formed by two exceptional women.
— Stephanie Turza, Booklist

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cover design by Mimi Bark
cover images © Susan Fox/Arcangel Images

Published by NAL Accent

Represented by April Eberhardt

Chapter One

Pondy Bizarre

YOU KNOW THAT LITTLE VOICE —the one that whispers, “Don’t go down there!” when you hear a spooky noise in the basement? Does yours work? Mine seems to be broken. Oh, I get warnings—they’re just so damn cryptic. Take India, for example.

It was four a.m. I’d been standing by the baggage carousel in Chennai airport for two hours and had just learned that my suitcase was circling a carousel in Beijing. I heard my little voice. Now, if it had said something like, “Flee—before you lose half your life savings and two-thirds of a major muscle group!” I’d have been on the next plane to anywhere in a heartbeat. But it said, and I quote, “Well, this sucks.” What kind of a dire warning is that?

Three hours later I stood in the bathroom of my hotel suite sponging cheese sauce, courtesy of turbulence over the Atlantic, off my sweat suit. I had a decision to make: crash or go shopping? On the crash side there was exhaustion, jet lag and the general grumpiness that follows loss of luggage. On the shopping side there was the ninety-degree temperature, the ninety-five percent humidity and the fact that my wardrobe for the foreseeable future consisted of one rancid sweat suit. I decided to go shopping.

When I chose India for my vacation, I had no desire to shuffle around the well-worn tourist trails of the Taj Mahal and Red Fort with thousands of other camera-clicking tourists. To ensure a less commercialized holiday experience, I chose to visit the southern tip of the subcontinent, where tourism had yet to become a major industry and I had a better chance at an authentic Indian experience. So, for my first foray into what I hoped would be the “real” India, I asked the clerk at the front desk where she bought her clothes. She recommended Pondy Bazaar.

As my car and driver weren’t due to arrive until later in the afternoon, she walked me to the entrance of the hotel and pointed out a cluster of bright yellow vehicles parked just outside the hotel gates. They looked like a failed mating between the front end of a motorcycle and the back end of a minivan, with one wheel at the front, two wheels at the back and no doors or windows. She told me they were called autos and advised me not to pay more than seventy rupees each way. This was just pure sadism. The price may have been seventy rupees for a cute young Indian desk clerk in a tight pink sari, but the going rate for an old tourist in a gamy sweat suit was two hundred rupees.

Pondy BazaarI climbed into the first auto in front of the gate, feeling cheated but too disoriented to haggle. There were no seat belts or handholds. I was forced to clutch the metal bars forming the back of the driver’s seat as he careened off into oncoming traffic, dodging livestock, buses and pedestrians with millimeters to spare, while I bounced around on the hard bench in the back of the vehicle, wondering, in the intervals between trying to prevent my breakfast from joining the cheese sauce, how a country could claim to drive on the left if direction of travel in all lanes appeared to be optional.

Five minutes and ten cc of adrenaline after leaving the hotel, we stopped in front of a large granite building. I paid the driver and staggered up the steps. A uniformed doorman ushered me into the blissfully air-conditioned store, where a charming young man added new dimensions to the term “excess baggage” by attempting to sell me a five-hundred-pound bronze statue of the god Shiva, half an acre of silk rug and a nearly life-sized teak elephant before admitting that this was not actually Pondy Bazaar. I was in the Government Craft Store. I may have said some uncomplimentary things about his mother before stomping out to say something much stronger to the auto driver, who, of course, was long gone.

One hour, two autos, three hundred rupees and a quart of adrenaline later, I finally made it to Pondy Bazaar, a kilometer-long stretch of clothing stores and street vendors. At noon on Saturday it was a heaving mass of bargain-hunting Indian families. I struggled through the crowds looking for something even remotely wearable. Indian fashion seemed to rely heavily on sequins, beads and ornate embroidery, none of which enhance the mature female form. Eventually I found a black T-shirt sedately declaring “WHOSE YO MOMA” across the chest in hot pink. Not exactly my style, but by then I’d figured out there wasn’t going to be anything more appealing at Pondy Bazaar and decided to buy it. I reached into my front pocket for money. My hand poked back out through the neat little slit razored by the thief who had removed my wallet. About thirty seconds after that, I slipped in a cowpat and fell heavily on my right hip.

I’d like to think that under normal circumstances the good citizens of Chennai would have flocked to my aid. But let’s be realistic here; there are no circumstances involving theft and cow dung that fall remotely within the bounds of normal. By now the combination of adrenaline and jet lag had raised my mood meter to the spontaneous-combustion mark. I yelled out a few tension-relieving scatological opinions on Indian bovine hygiene. The good citizens of Chennai backed cautiously away from me. I had personal space again for the first time since getting out of the auto.

I closed my mouth and limped off, intending to put considerable distance between myself and anyone who may have witnessed my little temper tantrum before I asked for help. My hip hurt. Cow dung squelched its way deeper into my shoe at every step. I’d been walking for about twenty minutes when I heard a high-pitched voice call out, “Madam! Madam! You problem?”

I looked up. My first sight of Santoshi was through tears. I hadn’t realized I was crying.