Karen Galatz with husband Jon Wellinghoff
Karen Galatz with husband Jon Wellinghoff

Saris and Sitting Shiva — Different Ways to Honor a Loved One

“Political correctness” and “cultural appropriation” are not phrases that spring to mind when organizing a charity event, but those terms quickly surfaced during preparations for Berkeley Rep’s recent production of “Monsoon Wedding.”

The specific point of contention? Attire at the gala benefit for the show. Could and should the mostly white ladies expected to attend wear saris?

I was in the camp that said nay. Actually, I was in the camp that said, “No. Hell no.” I wasn’t opposed for lofty cultural or political reasons, but for selfish ones. I hate special-occasion dressing and costumes. I once attended a party dressed as Little Orphan Annie. Between the droopy red synthetic wig curls, the extravagant false lashes I wore to mimic Annie’s saucer eyes, the gloppy lash glue and my contact lenses, I was lucky I didn’t blind myself or cause a multicar accident.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have much say in the sari matter. Although a board member at the theater, I wasn’t on the gala planning committee. So I sat on the sidelines as the sari PC battle played out.

Months passed. Barack Obama’s presidency ended. Bigger, more important political battles were being waged. War and peace, health care and climate change were at stake. Still, I followed the “sari or not” discussion with an intensity I could not quite explain.

Excitement about the upcoming musical production was high throughout the Bay Area’s thriving South Asian population. Fans were eagerly lining up to buy gala tickets to meet acclaimed producer Mira Nair and catch a preview of the show.

The planning committee raised the delicate question of attire with the local South Asian community. Of course, they responded warmly, both women and men should wear Indian attire.

In fact, they insisted.

Still I resisted.

Then, one lovely woman who owns an import-export business in India and personally owns 500 saris offered to dress a group of us theater gals. Who could refuse such generosity?

We scheduled an evening to go through her closet and select outfits, but I wasn’t feeling well and could not go. In my absence, my friends selected for me a stunning peacock-blue sari accented with a border of midnight-blue flames and gold medallions.

And to help me learn how to wrap the sari, I was advised to check out YouTube videos such as “How to wear Saree Easily, Quickly and Perfectly,” “How to Wear a Saree Super Easy & Perfect Way” and “5 Gorgeous Ways to Wear Saree for Party like a Bollywood Celebrity.”

Huddled in bed on hour 29 of the 24-hour flu, I clicked through the videos, all featuring young women. Watching them wrap saris around their perfect bodies made playing with a Rubik’s cube look easy.

How could a chubby middle-age mom pull off wearing a sari after that? And how could I risk wearing this beautiful borrowed garment? What if I spilled wine on it or tore the hem with the heel of my shoe?

Lying in bed, feeling sorry for myself, I suddenly recalled I once actually had owned a sari. It was a wedding gift from Prakash. And just as suddenly I realized that my entire months-long sari obsession was about Prakash, a man I had loved since I was 5 years old.

Singha Prakash with a very young Karen Galatz
Prakash Sinha with a very young Karen Galatz

Prakash Sinha came to America at age 22 from Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1959 to finish his education. He and my oldest brother quickly became friends while both were studying to pass the bar exam. Just as quickly, Prakash became a member of our family. He called my parents Mammie and Pappy and for the rest of their lives, always remembered them on Mother’s and Father’s Day. And me? I became his devoted, tag-along little sister, always sitting next to him at dinner, always snuggling up next to him to hear stories of India and read books.

One of my favorite memories of Prakash is captured in this faded photo. My ballet dance recital had just ended, my brother and Prakash were headed out the door, and I, of course, wanted to go with them. But my mother said I couldn’t. In the photo, a sweet, smiling Prakash is comforting a crying, sulking me. That is how I always think of him — gentle, smiling and kind.

Prakash’s legal accomplishments were many. The first Indian national to become an American law professor, he was a renowned scholar in the area of international human rights, amnesty and alternatives to armed conflict based on the rule of law.

It was in large part because of Prakash that I majored in international affairs and worked on human rights issues.

Prakash died in 2005 of cancer, at 68. “Prakash” was his middle name. His first name was Surya. Surya is the Hindu god of the sun, a fitting name for my beloved friend, my fourth brother.

His wife, Jessica, called to tell me that Prakash had died. I could not go back East for his funeral, though strangely, I cannot recall why.

In Judaism, when a family member dies, you sit shiva. When your lifelong like-a-brother friend dies, you do not. Life just goes on.

Yet now, out of the blue 12 years later in Berkeley, the moment had come to truly, deeply mourn Prakash. And in that moment, I decided to wear Indian attire to the theater gala as a way of paying my respects to Prakash and his homeland. It admittedly was a small gesture, but it felt right.

I decided to buy a sari. I went to West Berkeley’s thriving South Asian district of sari shops and restaurants and entered one gigantic store packed wall-to-wall with clothes. I was immediately overwhelmed and thrilled by the colors, fabrics, patterns, designs, beads and jewelry.

“Ah, theater gala,” the sales clerk said, nodding knowingly. “Ah, ‘Monsoon Wedding.’ Ah, Mira Nair.” She waved over a couple of her associates, all of whom immediately affirmed I could never master the art of draping a sari and guided me to the section with salwar kameez, flowing dresses paired with trouser bottoms and scarfs.

“Much better for you,” my gentle band of dressers agreed, nodding their heads in unison.

I tried on several outfits, all short-sleeved with square-cut necklines, none of them flattering for middle-age, overweight me. Disheartened, I gave up.

However, determined to fulfill my vow, I tried again the next day at a different shop.

Once again, I was directed toward the salwar kameez. I tried on one, then another. They weren’t bad. Then I tried on a fire engine-red outfit with tiny shimmering metallic mirrors. It had long sleeves — no jiggly upper arms or rough elbows on display — and the neckline was delicate, scalloped and, dare I say, sexy. Sold!

“You need earrings, yes?” the sales associate asked, showing me a pair of red, mirrored earrings that matched my outfit perfectly. Also purchased were a pair of delightful plastic beaded, high-heeled sandals. Inexpensive and astonishingly comfortable.

The big night arrived.

All of the women, Indian or not, were dressed beautifully in saris, salwar kameez, evening gowns and cocktail dresses, glittery henna tattoos, bangles and bindi forehead jewels. The men looked wonderful, too, some in traditional Indian attire and others in tuxedos or suits.

The reception areas and dining room were tented from floor to ceiling with garlands of flowers in shades of mustard, turmeric, tangerine, ruby red and saffron. The songs and dances from “Monsoon Wedding” were joyful and spirited. Bollywood in all its glory had come to the San Francisco Bay that night. Unlike many mandatory galas where people cannot wait to leave, nobody inched toward the door. The crowd stayed late, talking, laughing and dancing. The fundraiser was a success.

As for me, with my first drink, I privately toasted Prakash. I celebrated his life, accomplishments and all the love he had given me and my family.

I had dreaded participating in the evening, but in the end, it was filled with unexpected meaning and joy. It wasn’t like sitting shiva, but it was special. Blessed be Prakash’s memory.

Karen Galatz
Karen Galatz

Karen Galatz is the author of Muddling through Middle Age, a weekly humor blog. An award-winning journalist, her nonfiction and fiction essays and stories have been featured in multiple publications. She lives in Berkeley.