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April 25, 2010

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Versatile ... saris drying on the banks of the Ganges. Photo: Ross Duncan

Maria Visconti is rapt in a gorgeous garment capable of concealing a multitude of sins.

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'Madam," Mr Mehta says, looking down his nose, standing tall and proud in his off-white kurta. "You are requesting economy but your taste is first class." Then, softening his tone, he adds, "I'll be making you two lined tops and a petticoat to wear underneath. Included in the price." Saris, those most flattering of Indian garments, were created for real women. They celebrate the female figure, artfully wrapping it, caressing it. However, they should also display a label saying, "Warning: the wearing of saris might lead to progressive obesity" as this innocent-looking eight metres of silk draped around your body will fit you when you are 18 and will still fit when you are 45 no matter what happens in between. Even the goddesses in India are voluptuous. They don't look emaciated, ascetic or remotely virtuous. Modesty doesn't enter the equation. Ancient carvings show curvy Parvati dancing to emulate Lord Shiva, who had challenged her to imitate his steps, banking on the ethereal sari getting in her way. It didn't. He married her. After a month in India, I end my trip in Varanasi, the eternal city by the Ganges, with its bathing ghats and cremation ghats, its holy men and holy cows, its ancient temples and Dantesque funereal fires reaching into the night skies. What I didn't know is that Varanasi produces some of the finest silk saris in India and, one morning, my friend says it is absolutely mandatory that I visit a silk-weaving establishment to which she has been. Mr Mehta's business is more an Aladdin's cave than a shop. I, however, resist the rugs and shawls and declare my interest in a sari - "not too expensive". Mr Mehta proceeds to unfurl silk like a magician. With a masterly flick of the wrist, metres of multicoloured fabrics float in the air, steadily covering the platform on which he stands. I keep saying, "Don't open them all, please!" But, unperturbed, Mr Mehta, who earlier announced he dresses stars from Bollywood to Hollywood, seems in a trance.

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Suddenly, there it is: black and gold. "This one, please!" I am taken aback by the price, prompting Mr Mehta's comments on my expensive taste. I cannot resist. The measuring ceremony requires a male assistant to take notes. I can't avoid feeling self-conscious, standing half-naked with a measuring tape around my bust held by two men. The next day, I stand on a plinth while Mr Mehta lovingly wraps silk to transform me into a goddess. I head straight out for dinner at a lavish haveli. We arrive by boat and marvel at the 1000 tiny oil lamps lighting the path and the cascade of marigolds hanging from the latticed palace windows. Life is good and I don't even have to worry about popping buttons or busting a zipper. "Waiter! Is there more naan coming?"

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