The seat of power

If the president of the United States can go to an extended war in the doab of the Tigris and Euphrates without international sanction, then I too can rake up irrelevant matters and elaborate at great length. Such as on the male attire that is the Nepali national dress.

The top is called the labeda, daura or mayelpose. It is a double-breasted kurta whose flaps are battened down in four places with ties, in a diagonal across the chest. The bottom is the suruwal; the same as what the British named jodhpurs, it is skin-tight around the calves, growing to incongruous pleated proportions around the groin.

Both labeda and suruwal came to the middle Himalaya from Rajasthan, more proof for Kathmandu's warrior-caste elite to trace its bloodline back to the desert out west. Rajasthan, home now to Pokhran I and Pokhran II, for a while did a brisk export of Rajput chieftains to the far corners.

The topi was already there, and at some point during the time that Nepal was never colonised by the Company Bahadur, the Western jacket arrived to be called 'coat'. The national dress of Nepal now comes in four pieces: the topi which can be dented and fashioned to create individual signatures; a most distinctive labeda top; the coat which completely covers whatever is distinctive about the labeda; and the suruwal, an uncomfortable bottom that sometimes comes with a full legged inner (bhitri). Way back in 1980, a Kathmandu dignitary visiting London was spoofed in a television programme as having arrived at Heathrow in his long johns.

In the sweltering heat of the tarai, home to some of the hottest temperatures of South Asia, civil servants have to suffer this double-breasted and jacketed nationalism. Dull and uncomfortable, the labeda-suruwal has come to represent the state and its functionaries, through years of authoritarian figures strutting about in it, large bellies accentuated by the unflattering fall of the labeda. There more that is comical about the dress: when the male official goes up to a sofa on the podium, he has first to reach to his rear with two hands and flip the fall of the labeda up so that it rides up the back before he can make to sit. This is to save the ironing. Once the official is properly seated, members of the audience are afforded a grandstand view of the dejected sac of pleated cloth gathered between the legs.

The greatest challenge faced by he who wears the labeda-suruwal is the visit to the water closet. For who would want to share this embarrassment with the world? Let me lead you through the ritual step-by-delicate step.

First, park your topi in your coat pocket. Then unbutton your coat and shunt the two fronts aside. Turn the two front flaps of the labeda all the way up, and hold them there firmly with your chin against your chest. Loosen the injaar or drawstring and push the suruwal down. But remember to have both legs slightly akimbo so that you do not have the suruwal gathered at the ankles on the (wet…) floor. If a true traditionalist, you will have a bhitri-suruwal, and will need to repeat the procedure before you are ready to water the closet.

Life was never meant to be this complicated, and we wait for the great founder nation of SAARC to modernise its national dress. There is a lot at stake. Imagine a regional summit meeting at the Birendra International Convention Centre in downtown Kathmandu. As fellow (formerly colonised) South Asians zip in, zip down, zip up and zip out, the Nepali under-secretary in the ministry of foreign affairs is still only getting started with the first stage of the disrobing operation. Think of all the time spent away from the plenary and sub-committees.

Compute all the minutes spent putting on and getting out of the labeda-suruwal, and calculate an average two to three visits to the water closet on an average workday. Multiply the minutes with the number of male civil servants in government employ, from the line ministries to the village development committees, and you will see how in the Himalayan kingdom development is retarded.

Let me assure you that there are problems aplenty with the other national wear of South Asia. One friendly neighbour's male attire gives you a vision right up the inner thigh when a gentleman is seated. And as far as another friendly neighbour is concerned, here is what a correspondent from Lahore reports:

oh man
well it's called shalwar kamiz or shalwar kurta. if it's not a shalwar, it's pajama kurta. in delhi it's called 'pathan dress'. the water closet aspect resembles the Nepali challenge. The kamiz goes under the chin and then you untie the naala or naara. cousins who are born and bred abroad find the naala too much to handle and generally use elastic bands in their shalwar. which makes it easier to tug it down for a laugh. same for our foreigner friends.

Perhaps we should all migrate towards trousers with zippers.

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Himal Southasian