Finding maximum pleasure amid minimalist trappings

MOM OFTEN tried to pin jewelry onto me as I wriggled, wormlike. Every weekend, we went to some Indian thing and I had to dress up. I could get the tunic, drawstring pants and sash on without incident — once my mother picked them out. But any bangles, necklaces, rings, earrings and anklets required Mom's adjustment.

I sort of understood that jewelry means a lot to traditional Indian women — not that I knew any nontrads at 15. An Indian woman leaves her family's house at marriage to join her husband's family home, where two to five generations live under one roof. Her jewelry might be the only property she controls.

My parents fully expected that my sister and I would work before and after marriage, so I only thought of my jewelry as last-resort pawn shop goods in secret worst-case scenario fantasies. Is that how it's supposed to go? Do Indian parents give heavy gold necklaces to their daughters, hoping they'll never be used, hoping they'll just decorate family necks for generations more?

The emphasis on emergency resale value in Indian jewelry provides my favorite explanation for its supreme gaudiness. I'm probably quite wrong; if you can set me straight, please shoot me an e-mail.

But my experience with Indian jewelry tells me you'll never see one gem where nine would do. Indianness is about pageantry, ritual, over-the-top showmanship that dazzles the gods, much less you. Some of your more popular spiritual traditions caution against spending too much time on pretty things. I never got that message from my parents' brand of Overachiever Hinduism. I think I came up with it on my own.

So of course I was a ready and willing target for IKEA's brand of minimalism. It's not just IKEA, of course, but IKEA and Google are the most obvious ones bringing it into our lives. No frills, no fret, just straight lines and monochrome, practically over-the-top screaming that it's tasteful and understated.

Minimalism is the easiest default choice for me these days, in clothes, furniture and Web design. IKEA minimalism is like vodka, or black — it goes with everything. But more and more it feels like a reflexive refusal to deal with the requirements of style; not elegance, but brutishness. All those Indian embroideries and dangling earrings were gaudy, but at least they were trying for something more than function.

It turns out fiction isn't immune to stripping-down, and I'm not just talking about Hemingway. I watch "House, M.D." regularly, but lately I wondered why I was tiring of it.

The main character strips away all the bourgois nonsense and gets right to the core of whatever issue is affecting his patient, his relationships, what have you. Don't I like that? Don't I like honest and straightforward talk in my life?

Well, yes. But minutes and minutes of on-the-nose dialogue about the existence of God, or our responsibilities towards each other, make stories seem simpler than they really are. The layers are important, sometimes more important than what we conceive of as the core. How do minimalists know what they're stripping away isn't bourgois?

I still have some Indian tunic/pants/sash outfits, although I gave most of them away just before I moved across the country. They don't have pockets, they're itchy and the fabric weight is all wrong for the East Coast anyway. And I only wear my wedding ring. But I do have the saris my mom gave me — just one long skein of fabric, utterly simple, to be wrapped around the body quite simply and elegantly. My mom can do it in her sleep.

Tuck one end into your slip, wrap it around your waist once, pleat it a bit and tuck it in again, wrap it around the torso, and then pleat the end and toss over the shoulder.

Mother Teresa wore a plain white cotton sari; wedding guests wear heavy gold brocade saris, with actual gold woven in. My dad wears a plain gold wedding band. Most days my mom wears a simple red dot between her eyebrows, not a rhinestone-laden peacock-shaped sticker. There is, after all, variation in the gaudiness of Indian costume, as I should have discerned years back.

At a college internship, I wore an Indian tunic one day, a shiny red thing that doubled as a dress. Most coworkers gave me compliments, but a colleague from India knew this wasn't everyday cotton wear. He cocked his eyebrow and asked whether it wasn't a bit gaudy.

At the time, I thought: "Of course it is, it's Indian!" But I was wrong.

Sumana Harihareswara writes for Bay Area Living each week. You can write to her at

With Indian jewelry, you'll never see one gem where nine would do. Indianness is about pageantry, ritual, over-the-top showmanship that dazzles the gods, much less you.

Need to fill: The usual 35-40'' for SM only