It’s a strange country to do business in, and it didn’t take me long to realise that. But who would explain that to the bosses in Beijing? The cities had been captured by the West, the small-town invasion had begun, what remained to be conquered were the hill stations – and ‘Northeast India’. These latter words meant a lot to Mrs Yang – like most Chinese, she believed that the phrase was a lie. That part after the Chicken’s Neck was China’s – the chicken’s head comprising what India calls its Seven Sisters – and she wanted to claim it for her country.
I am a salesman and I sell elastic. I work for *****, Inc and I’d been sent to India on an assignment. Yes, I know that I’m a curiosity, for though almost everyone in the world (and even astronauts in outer space) has used a Made-in-China product at some point of time or the other, not too many can claim to have seen or met a Chinese salesman. And yes, we also deal in fake originals. We do Prada better than Prada and Gucci better than Gucci. And we do more business in one year than they have in the last fifty.
Before I came here, I looked up some market surveys, and I found that the Hello Kitty syndrome that drives the fashion industry in Japan fuels the ‘I want his T-shirt’ fashion temperament of Northeast India too. Mrs Yang thought it would be easy. And so I arrived in New Delhi on a September morning and, from there, took a plane to the tiny Bagdogra airport, and a taxi to Darjeeling. And though I’d been taught in school never to value nature for its beauty, I couldn’t help admiring the lovely scenery this side of the Himalaya. I came to know that many tourists come to Darjeeling to see the beauty of the tea gardens, and I’d like to take this opportunity to remind them that even these tea gardens were actually Made-in-China; it was from China that a foolish monk had, many centuries ago, brought a tea bush to India.
The drive to Darjeeling wasn’t easy. The roads were bad but I couldn’t complain – some of ours back home are worse. What made the journey longer was what the taxi driver called “roadblocks”. I hadn’t ever encountered these things in the small town I came from, and it made me nervous, this audacity of the people to protest against the government in so open and challenging a manner. At first I thought they were policemen and -women, for they dressed alike; but since I’d only seen the Indian police force dressed in khaki, it struck me as odd.
The driver’s broken English (no better than mine, learnt through an online course) made things worse. The people of Darjeeling were protesting against something. What it was I could not make out. And how a protest movement demanded a uniform even I, who deal with clothes for a living, could not make out. I only checked to see whether their apparel had any use for elastic, and I was disappointed to find that it didn’t. But I did not lose heart. Never underestimate the importance of elastic – no place is too tiny or too big to need it. Hopeful, I rented a room in Darjeeling. The locality was called Tung Sung, and though it was filled with Tibetans I didn’t mind it. I spent the first few days just being happy with what I was doing – which was nothing.
Eventually, I had to force myself out of the house. But once I was on the street, I felt happy without reason. In Chinese, there is a phrase for it – ‘hill happiness’. But this soon gave way to bewilderment when I reached the Mall, the equivalent of the town square. There, I found men and women bathing in a sea of sameness. The town was in uniform: all the girls – and they are pretty – had worn full-sleeved tops with wrapped gowns. Even the prints were the same – tiny geometric digital patterns of black and red on a white background. The men wore caps of a similar patterned fabric, and skinny pants. With that they wore something like a tunic, with pleats and knots that made them look like they were part of a dancing troupe. At first I thought that it was a dress code for some ‘Festival of India’!
But on the tenth day, when the townsfolk continued to dress in the same clothes and I began to imagine the smell of sweat in the air (I assumed that every person could have only one set of the same clothes), I felt nervous. I’d arrived in a town of closed shops and they had remained closed ever since. The vegetables and meat that my landlord served me tasted stale, and there was a pervading stench that reminded me of my visit to a village back home where the entire population had died of a fatal disease.
I began to make enquiries. But the landlord spoke little and, since he was Tibetan, maybe he wanted me to suffer. Just across the street was a grocery shop, and from the tiny balcony that jutted out of my room, I saw a young man playing with a puppy. He was the only man, besides me, who did not wear the uniform of the town. I decided to befriend him. One evening, when the street had emptied of people earlier than usual, I whistled out to him. He had been waiting for me to call him, he told me later in his friendly English. His name was Jigme and he was an orphan, he said. He had studied at the Central School for Tibetans and was now looking for a job. Were there any? I asked. He shook his head.
Then, as we sat eating Wai-Wai, tasty instant noodles from Nepal, he proceeded to answer my nervous queries. Darjeeling hadn’t always been like this, he explained, bringing me up to speed from the happenings after Indian Independence through the demand for a separate state for the Gorkhas, meaning Nepalis. For years, the Gorkhas had been led by an enigmatic and reclusive leader. And of late, apparently, a group of local patriots, under a new Pied Piper, had begun a civil-disobedience movement. Government offices were shut down, hotels and shops were closed, roadblocks had been created to prevent the entry of traffic into the hills, and relay fasts were being held.
When all came to naught, the Pied Piper’s men decided that their agitation must create an assault on the eye. And for this, they decided to invoke the oldest card of ethnic jingoism – the Original Dress. Laughing as he related all this, Jigme told me about stories he had read in school; it seemed so odd to me that I knew none of those, where power and strength lay in a man’s hair, a woman’s heart, a golden stick or a flute. But who had ever heard of ‘dress power’? The idea of the Original Dress giving birth to a state was so unique that it caught on easily. They didn’t have to try too hard, because it was all in the song:
Dhaka topi daura sural purkha ko riti lai
Chowbandi choli kainchimar sari pahari thiti lai.
Apparently this dress code – a dhaka cap and tunic-like daura and narrow sural pants for the Gorkha man, and a chowbandi blouse and sari wrapped four times around the body for the mountain girl – had been put in a song by Dambur Bahadur Gainey half a century ago. And so the stricture was issued. Man, woman and child would henceforth follow this dress code. But how true was this concept of the Original Dress? How would the poor find the means to get this expensive attire stitched? And from where would all the cloth suddenly come? Such questions did not seem to have occurred to the Pied Piper and his men. And the hills, full of followers, changed colour overnight. The purist notion of the Original Dress made of the once-fashionable hill-folk an army, but without the character and confidence of Garibaldi’s Red Shirts; a zebra-town.
When I told Jigme about the purpose of my visit – and his hatred for my country seemed so mild that it took me by surprise; Tibet was like the moon, he said, its light only had beauty, while India was like the emergency light that had helped him pass his examinations – he seemed concerned. Even the business of living had become impossible, he said, with a teenage-philosophical twang. But he promised to take me to some textile traders. To my surprise, I found that most of them were not Nepali. Both the Marwaris, who were a migrant trading community from Rajasthan, and the Bengalis, who had migrated from the plains of Bengal to the hills, had different stories to tell about the Original Dress.
The Marwaris said that it owed its origin to the Rajasthani survala and angarakhha. The Bengalis said that it was all in the word dhaka, the fabric used to make the woman’s dress. It was a metonymy for the city that is now the capital of Bangladesh, the country from where the cloth once came. A grandson of Habib Malik, a Kashmiri antique dealer, told me that the daura sural topi had come from the Khas migrations of Central Asia to Nepal. I could believe none of this; for as I heard them speak, my mind kept on playing the word chowbandi, the Nepali word for the woman’s top. Given its similarity with what local tailors call the ‘Chinese dress’, the three tied knots on the left and the angular cut, and the prefix chow-, I began to suspect that there was some Chinese influence at work too.
I made preparations to carry out an analysis of the proposed aim of establishing an elastic-distribution outlet, but my mission remained unfulfilled. Most traders were leaving the hills. They’d come to realise that the time for readymade imitations had passed. But as I packed my bags to return to China, I wanted to tell Jigme that a ban against one form of imitation had been replaced by another: the monopoly of globalisation by the monopoly of a late ethnic nationalism, what we, in China, call the backstrokes of a fake authenticity. No one seemed to care for my elastic tapes anymore. But it was my motto to be elastic, to expand. China was elastic. And everyone wanted to be elastic. Every separatist movement, in India and elsewhere, wanted an elastic world, one that could expand out of itself, out of its seams and stitches.
I bought a second-hand daura sural from Jigme’s friend. I wouldn’t have been allowed to board a taxi otherwise. I left rolls of my sample elastic tapes in my rented room, sure that it would find some use. It would be the measuring tape of the new state and the new nation and a new world. Mapmakers would need them. My mind also went out to the millions of Original Dresses that would become garbage once Gorkhaland became a state. Would the Original Dress become retro fashion ten years hence? There was a business idea there. Till then, however, I’d have to devise a new blueprint for Elastic Gorkhaland.
~ Sumana Roy lives in the Chicken’s Neck. She is working in a collection of short stories about clothes, tentatively titled SML.