The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Journey to India Chapter Five

Chapter I
Chapter II
Chapter III
Chapter IV
Chapter V
Chapter VI
Chapter VII

NPR Postings by
Meredith Jagger
India Journal - June 4
India Journal - June 18
India Journal - June 29


Rachel Williams on a street in Rajmahal

Clothing wraps student’s experience in India

UTC professors Dr. William Harman, philosophy and religion, and Dr. Elizabeth Gailey, communication, led a five-week summer study tour in India. The trip was made possible through a generous grant from the University of Chattanooga Foundation, which covers approximately 75 percent of student costs including travel, lodging, and food.

What follows is a firsthand account and personal photos by Rachel Williams.

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Two weeks before I left for India my Mom insisted on giving me money for the trip. I tried to refuse but she was persistent. At one point, she grabbed my hand, giving it an ever so slight hard squeeze, and looked me dead in the eyes. The contact I dared not break, for she was serious. “Rachel, I want to do this. Your journey will be an amazing experience and I don’t want you to feel deprived.”

With my mother’s words ringing in my head, I don’t want you to feel deprived, I set out for the experience of a lifetime, a journey to sacred India.

While in India I wasn’t deprived. If I saw something I liked, I had no qualms with throwing the needed rupees down. My purchases scaled a wide variety of precious goods. Hand carved antique wooden stamps used to print designs of paisleys and flowers on sarees of the yesteryears, still stained with magenta dyes. A variety of books, ranging from Nature’s Cure by Gandhi to a field guide on indigenous Indian wildflowers. Fifty glass bangles, in shades of blues, reds and greens, that have the sweetest clink to them when gracing my wrist and arm. Filling a total of three bags, the list continues.

My most prized purchases were clothes that I had custom made. I cannot deny my deep desire to own some of India’s authentic attire. The styles are classic and the fabrics are beyond beautiful. A sweet-hearted, eager-eyed local girl named Devi gave me an insider’s view, taking me to the stores where she purchases fabric and to the tailor she entrusts. My fabric store jackpot was located at a place called Rajmahal. Before entering through the place’s grand glass doors, I could tell that luck would be had here. We ascended the outside stairs, passed through the heavy doors and set our feet on the hard marble floor. The walls were striped with an array of colors; so many colors; any color imaginable. It began with the deepest cranberry red working itself to the softest shade of pink, only to begin the next row with midnight blue, and on and on the colors flowed. We walked on into another room of the store where items were categorized by styles as opposed to colors. The left wall housed the sarees, an area I avoided because of my technical ignorance in properly adorning such an elegant garment. But on the right were the fabrics need to create my outfit of choice – a salwar kameez, three pieces consisting of tunic, pants, and scarf.

To approach the counter that stood between myself and the fabrics, I had to wedge my body into the line of Indian women who dotted the counter space. All were frantically sorting through the packages of material that had been pulled from the shelves behind. I quickly began sorting too, wanting to take my time but felt as if I was in a race – a race to see who could find the best first. The fabrics were, of course, all beautiful, and I found the decision to be far from easy. Not only were the colors and patterns astounding, but Ah, the materials! I was in a candy store for cotton, chiffon, silk and linen consumers. Wanting them all, I forced myself to don a frugal air and settle on only one. I selected an earthy emerald green silk/cotton mix. The fabric’s edges were lined with an intricate pattern of blacks and pinks and the bodice was dotted with embroidered silver medallions. I paid at the front counter and then we were off to stage two of the clothes making process.

A short rickshaw ride brought us near the East gate of the Meenakshi temple. Following Devi closely, I stepped inside a building that was home to many shops. There were booths selling metal ware and other household goods. There were booths specializing in women’s accessories, selling bendis, bangles and barrettes. We made our way through the other shoppers until we reached our destination- the tailor, a cute man, barely standing five feet tall. His oily hair curled in tiny ringlets towards the base of his neck. His smile was crooked but endearing. He quickly went to work, measuring my arm circumference, shoulder width, waist and all the other needed numbers. The details were written in Tamil on an edge-worn notebook.

Instructions were left for me to return the next day to collect my goods. I did so, eager to see if the actual lived up to my expectations. It did. In fact, it surpassed to such an extent that I went back to Rajmahal and bought fabric to have the tailor make me four more outfits. I wanted to wrap myself in India and bring it back to the United States with me. But after leaving India I quickly realized you can’t bring it back. Because it doesn’t quite fit; when you try to make it fit it somehow taints it and makes it less beautiful and less special. However, what I did bring back was something that only India could give me. This is a renewed sense of self. India did this for me because the place has a way of stripping you down, exposing who you really are. I couldn’t hide behind the Indian clothes I donned. And so, as my mother wished, I wasn’t deprived. I was liberated.