Thursday, August 06, 2015

How come you’re in a sari?

If you’re someone who wears saris on and off, you’ve almost certainly heard that question. And chances are, you’ve answered it quickly with a ‘good reason’, e.g., I’ve to attend a wedding. / There’s a puja in my cousin’s house. / It’s sari-day in office. / I have a lecture to deliver. / There’s a meeting with some (stuffy?) bigwigs. Or the latest legit one – for the #100sareepact. Some people, sometimes, say, “No particular reason. I just felt like wearing one. Just like that.” And get puzzled reactions.

You’ve also surely come across women (perhaps you are one of them yourself!) who make urgent pre-event enquiries among friends about who all will wear saris, in fact, if anyone is going to wear a sari or not, to ensure that they aren’t alone or in a minority as sari-wearers.

It would seem that the women of today are sweeping saris off to the sides of their wardrobes and their lives, lest people get the impression that they may actually wear them for pleasure, and be at ease in them. Things seem to have reached a point where a woman who chooses to wear a sari, and doesn’t declare it a chore to some degree, opens the door to suspicion as not very independent/not very modern.

Saris have become something of a symbol of the oppression of women, and true enough, they may impose certain limits on movement, and may be heavier to bear than some other garments. A few questions leap to mind: How many of us are engaging in the full range of motion even in non-sari attire? Don’t pencil skirts, stilettos, or tight tops restrict range of movement? Don’t many carry off (literally) heavy jackets, boots and leather garments without breaking a sweat?

The widely accepted explanation for the hesitation to wear saris is that they are not comfortable. At least not as much as tight jeans and synthetic tops on a hot day, or narrow high-heeled footwear, apparently. And draping them needs skill, and/or practice, hence the legitimacy of the excuse ‘I’m not used to them’. We undertake several learning activities, such as driving, which take a lot of ‘getting used to’ with attendant (ideally reducing) risks during the process. Sari-draping is unlikely to pose as many risks, or even need as much attention for as long.

We are fast becoming (if we haven’t already become) a society that curbs recourse to traditional ways for people with professions to progressive thinking. You are exercising choice if you wear skinny jeans, or hot pants, or palazzos, or kurtis, or spaghetti-strapped tops, or Pakistani-style parallel pants trimmed with lace, but not if you pick a sari and an un‘worked’ blouse to go with it.

The lives that women lead today call for multiple roles, skills, and naturally, a variety of outfits for a variety of activities. No single type of outfit could do for everything, even putting aside the certainty that the wearer and viewers alike would get bored out of their skulls with one type of outfit forever. So, a wide range of outfits it is, or should be. And that range could easily include saris, without any hesitation or apology.

Isn’t one of the greatest advantages of being an (unoppressed) Indian the easy access to the wealth of fabric and sartorial styles that the place has nurtured over the centuries? And isn’t the sari a star player in that wealth? Why not embrace that huge variety, try a few saris, ‘get used to it’, and evaluate them then rather than a priori based on received notions of comfort and choice?

To do:

Observers: Ditch the question ‘How come you’re in a sari?’, and replace it with remarks (if compliments) on the outfit or the wearer.

Sari-wearers: If you’re asked this question, either don’t bother to answer it, or inform the asker that you prefer it to going nude in public.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

My word... bahut lamba hai!

Many seem to follow this policy: If a word meets your needs, overdo it. To illustrate,

(i)           “Weddings in Kerala are known to be simplistic.”

(ii)          “I did badly in the half-yearly exams, and decided to improvise myself by the time the finals rolled around.”

(iii)        “I’ve collected the ingredients. Now, please guide me on the methodology of making mirchi ka saalan.”

By and large, longer words go with greater scholarship. But merely lengthening a word doesn’t enhance your erudition. Some words may stay unchanged, very slightly modified or intensify with the addition of a few more letters, e.g., apt-appropriate. Others transform into different entities altogether, e.g., beside-besides.

‘Why use a long word when a short one would do as well, or better?’: That’s a question often asked, but not by me! I am not against the use of long, polysyllabic words: Quite the opposite, actually. I love exploring the intricacies of complex words. The horde against sesquipedalianism does not include me. Getting one’s meaning across quickly is not the only purpose of language. Neither is language always a means to transmit one’s message to a huge number of people. Sometimes, words are strung together for the sheer beauty in the configurations, and some messages are meant for smaller, specialised audiences. The shortest, quickest, easiest-to-pronounce word is not always the best word.

Interesting and entertaining convolutions find me a willing audience. Not words getting mauled and becoming ridiculous and unfit for their purpose, though. How do we guard against this? A simple (not simplistic) method (not methodology) to follow: Improve (not improvise) your understanding of the meaning of the words you are considering for use. Then use them carefully and lovingly. An ill-used long word leads to a more ill-used reader than does an ill-used short word!

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Clean? My foot!

A very pragmatic protectiveness of footwear may be at the root of people’s clambering all over train seats and berths without shedding their footwear, regardless of the dirt they are gifting their neighbours and persons who use the seats or berths after them. Many travellers go to the other extreme – walking around barefoot in a train, getting their soles black with dirt before the trip is through. A highly frustrating and uncivic traveller is the parent who lets shod children loose on the train. Are adults under the impression that kids’ shoes are untouched by dirt? Or that dirt transforms into something harmless, even pleasant, by contact with kids’ shoes? That others don’t mind their seats or clothes being stepped on by kids (not their own)? That’s one kind of parent on a train. The other is someone who just suspends all notions of kids’ cleanliness once on a train, letting kids move around barefoot, climb over whatever appears in their arena, and even escorting the barefoot child to the bathroom, a place where extra foot protection would not be out of place! The sight of a 3-year old walking out of a train bathroom barefoot, led by his/her parent in stone-studded sandals ranks very high on my list of disgusting sights.

What of pets’ feet? Many pet owners welcome the frolicking of dogs and cats on their floors, furniture and persons. Many of these pet owners are particular about the cleanliness of their homes, insisting on a distinction between indoor and outdoor footwear, washing their hands at intervals, and wouldn’t dream of strolling around barefoot in their neighbourhoods. Not every one of these pet owners, however, attempts to clean a pet’s feet when it re-enters the house after an outdoor sojourn. And pets’ feet, just like kids’ feet, do not necessarily attract only acceptable kinds of dirt.

Feet are important for Indians, playing vital symbolic roles – we touch feet, or at least dive in the general direction to signify reverence; display photographs of the feet of godmen to stimulate reverence; recount legends of a prince lugging his forest-dwelling sibling’s footwear to the throne in the capital; preserve the footprints of a bride exiting her parental home; embellish toes with rings in elaborate ceremonies; watch with bated breath as a bride tips over a vessel of raw rice to mark her entry to her husband’s home; and so on. We also, particularly if female, make a biggish fuss of the appearance of our feet, colouring the skin and/or nails, ‘curing’ them of calloused skin and cracks, and adorning them with jewellery.

But feet are by no means an exalted part of the body. In fact, that is exactly why we pay attention to the feet of respected persons – as the lowest (fig. and lit.) aspects of their body, and the only ones we would presume to access. Hence, too, our discomfiture when we step on something sacred, or touch someone inadvertently with a portion of our feet, and our speedy amends* thereafter (* touch person/sacred thing and touch own head/heart immediately).

Feet play a starring role in cleaning procedures. From the mundane washing at the courtyard before stepping into the house, and the cursory dousing before sleep, to the ritual scented rinse of the bridegroom’s / guest’s (standing in for God) feet in ceremonies.

Footwear is key in the maintenance of the cleanliness of the feet, and therefore person, and that of the house as well. Thus the traditional insistence on not using footwear indoors. Thus the particularly low status of footwear among garb/accessories amongst Indians. The shedding of footwear, ostensibly the shedding of dirt from the outside world, before embarking on any activity with even a touch of sanctity about it is customary – visiting a temple or even a puja room in a house; taking/bestowing blessings; practising yoga or a traditional dance or martial art form. But, trust people to follow the letter and skirt the spirit of the injunction: Since footwear is not allowed in a temple, people routinely make the entire trip to the temple barefoot, tracking generous amounts of dirt and contributions of spittle, dung etc. into the very place which is meant to be maintained clean and hallowed.

Why this fuss? Is it such a big deal if something from the outdoors enters a living space via feet or footwear? Isn’t the whole of the Western world sailing through life blithely hopping onto sofas, beds and chairs in shod/booted feet to reach a nail on the wall, relax with feet up, or for no particular reason at all? Don’t people routinely pack footwear with their clothes, often without any barrier between the footwear and the garments, when they travel? Aren’t modern Indians who traipse around the house in outdoor shoes and prevent guests from shedding their shoes to be appreciated as free thinkers? Are Indians too stuck up on this matter, like on many other matters? Do we need to get with the times?

I believe that if Indians are stuck up on this matter, it is a very valid sticking up. We may westernise ourselves, our clothes, food, homes, and language, till we go blue, but the world around us isn’t playing the same game. The spittle, sputum, sewage, sand, dung, urine, grease, guano, garbage, construction dust, and mud that we encounter on a daily basis is not the lot of most people in Western nations. A walk outside followed by a rapid, naked-eye examination of the footwear used should verify this. Exposure to a typical Indian road will yield a lot more to shudder about than a stroll on a Western city or suburban road. That said, even the cleaner appearing shoe doesn’t guarantee the Westerner a clean, non-toxic environment. We do need to get with the times – and understand that there is a lot more chemical dust out in the air, and on the ground, than we are aware of, and certainly much more than we are capable of dealing with physiologically. Here is a situation in which the Westerner would do well to easternise – segregate footwear from clothes and furniture, and avoid using outdoor footwear indoors. As for us, we need to review our attitude towards feet, footwear, and our token adherence to cleanliness.

Monday, February 09, 2015

W(h)ither the lungi?

The good old 2x1.2 sq m daily staple rectangle/cylinder is fast disappearing from the Indian landscape, its place taken by short shorts, bermudas, capris, drawstring pyjamas, track pants, and most ironic of all, lounge pants made of checked (very reminiscent of lungi) fabric. Why?

It is odd that as people’s daily lives have got increasingly sedentary, they have shed lungis/mundus and taken refuge in more secure cloth cases, fastened at the hip/waist, for their lower limbs. Compulsory transit and large crowds of strangers being the rule, no one is surprised at this sartorial segue for professional/daytime wear. But what of sleep? What of lounging at home of a summer evening? Why the switch to grey trackpants with a white or red stripe down the leg from the blue-checked or paisley-printed lungi or the off-white mundu?

Not everyone has the skill to wear a lungi/mundu securely. It needs to be taught/learnt and practised. And not many are bothering these days. This is much like the situation with saris and young Indian women (YIW). Where it differs from the situation with saris and YIW is at important ceremonial occasions – YIW get some expert or the other to get them into saris. Increasing numbers of YIM don’t even attempt this avenue. Too often at a South Indian wedding these days, you will find the bride in a dazzling sari, and the male protagonist in a chudidaar kurta/sherwani, liberally supplied with hooks, zippers and drawstrings, and a gorgeous stole to boot to swathe his body (or lack thereof) in safe layers. Or perhaps he will be in another kind of suit – the dark, pinstriped one which will next appear at a professional conference. No space for a dhoti/mundu, with or without upper garments.

Why are Indian men chickening out of wearing the 2x1.2? Afraid that they will look wimpy? Afraid that they can’t carry off the style? Afraid that they will be seen to be sticking to a sensible tradition? All valid fears. Not everyone looks impressive in a lungi/mundu. Poor posture and lax gait do show clearly in this outfit. Poor physique too, in some styles, e.g., the folded-up-from-the-knee style, particularly when topless. All this makes the good wearer of a lungi/mundu a sought-after exhibit, and now, sadly, increasingly rare.