Tie and noose

What does the Homo Southasiaticus do to ward off the winter chill? He procures a length of cloth, ideally 6 inches by 166; places at neck so as to leave 106 inches on one side, rings said longer side twice around neck, then wraps around skull, tightens the remaining length around the mouth and face, and taking the two ends, ties them into a knot that looks like a gigantic growth attached to the right cheek.

This is how the Western muffler ('comforter' to the Bangali), demurely placed under the dinner jacket or tucked delicately into the cardigan in the Occident, is adapted to South Asian weather and life situations.

Like the muffler, an import and not a desi invention is the vest, or ganji or banyaan. King Parakrama Bahu of Lanka was never found in one, neither, at the other end of SAARC, was Prithvi Narayan Shah of Gorkha. Neither Akbar nor Birbal wore the banyaan. And nowhere in Rajasthani miniatures, the rock-cuts of Ajanta, or in the archaeological digs around Hastinapur do we find any indication that our ancestors BBTM* used refined cottons close to the skin.

But now the banyaan has become de rigucur because flabby male stars of Bollywood, who also doubtless wear Y-fronts (I think that is the term) in the lower elevations, go around in them and remind us that "yeh under ka mamla hai" (trans: this is an inside job).

Adaptation is a Subcontinental trait, and so we in the hot tropics, saddled with the banyaan, find ways around the constriction. The science of evaporation confirms that when it is hot and/or humid, it is best to let the skin interact with the atmosphere without intervening layers of garment. To overcome the banyaan, therefore, friends extending in a line from landlocked Champaran to the Jaffna peninsula have developed the only response possible: they walk around doing their chores and sit eating lunch off banana leaves with the undershirt pulled up all the way above the stomach, flashing the belly around like a sea-lion attached to their frame. They are cool, and they look like cool dudes.

What are we to do with the imported bits of inner and outerwear other than to try and turn them to our convenience? But sometimes, the rout is complete, such as in the case of the trouser. It is a piece of clothing to have been sent packing with the British in 1947-48, but the new elites that took over would not be caught dead in the pyjama, lungi, salwar, dhoti or sarong.

Have you thought of how we may have evolved as a people if we had been allowed to dress otherwise and not be constricted by the pant and shirt? Gandhi wore the dhoti, and he was a pacifist of not just this century or millennium, but of geological time. The cadre of Hedgewar's RSS chose khaki shorts; see the kind of havoc they have wreaked and they have not even graduated to full pants vet.

There would have been less psychological stress in South Asia if the belt and tie had never entered (or having entered, had departed) these shores. The belt keeps us uneasy, feeling tight, flatulent and uppity, and wanting to go right back to Kargil and finish off what we started in 1999. The tie depresses the flow of blood to the cranium and makes us want to neglect command and control structures even after we have gone nuclear. The tie, depending on how you look at it, and indeed if you will look at it at all, is more of a noose.

As you may have noticed, most heads of state and/or government of the Non-Aligned Movement (what movement, when did it last move, or even creep?) who gathered in Mahathir's Melayu recently wore – aha – ties. And they may even have had on trousers, but the television cameras never panned vertically so I could not tell.

To comment on the sartorial colonisation of the South, our frame of reference must of course be both the colonial and postcolonial periods. Perhaps we should also analyse why this sartorial takeover has been predominantly gender-specific? Should we be thankful that at least the women amongst us have shunned the tie and the belt? Wait, but what about high heels, platform shoes, the nightie-worn-during-the-day, and skin-whitening cream?

Editor's note to reader: Our investigations reveal that the columnist was wearing a pair of trousers with belt, as well as a banyaan and shirt while writing this 'Lastpage'. The next instalment, we are assured, will take a penetrating look at male attire in the form of the Nepali labeda surwal and the 'Pathan suit'.

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Himal Southasian