Think about it. Dressed the way you usually do, you go into a police station to file an FIR. The moment the hawaldar or his boss or his boss’s boss sees you dressed the way you do, he’ll listen to you, probably get you a cup of tea and then take down a first information report with which you can proceed with matters according to the law of the land. Now imagine you’re dressed in either a discoloured old sari or a frayed shirt and trousers that seem to have been worn for ten days at a stretch. Chances are that before you open your mouth, the policeman will take a look at you, compute in his head that you either live in a jhopar-patti or something a tad better and tell you to scram. Of course, once you start talking and mention how you know the police commissioner (through that nice man who sat at the same table at that dandiya night dinner and whose sister-in-law is married to the deputy commissioner), the thana cop will realise his ‘mistake’.
Once you start wearing extremely plain clothes, over the years, such confusion in judging people’s backgrounds and social positions should result in police stations, banks, shops, restaurants, media offices, government offices and hotels treating everyone in the same manner just to ensure that ‘respectable people’ don’t get accidentally mistreated. And here, we need role models. What would it hurt Mukesh Ambani to wear a bush shirt bought from a Flora Fountain footpath? Or Rahul Gandhi wearing a Great Khali t-shirt from Palika Bazaar. It’s not that anyone in their right minds will mistake them for anyone else. But in the nation’s subconscious, everyone will look fundamentally from the same class and, therefore, be treated in the same manner. Just look at the good job that APJ Abdul Kalam has done simply by being a president who dressed down. It’s far more impossible — ask the economists — to get everybody to dress as ‘upper class’.
When I moved from Calcutta to Delhi a thousand years ago, I immediately noticed that people in general dressed better in the last capital of India than in the previous one. Every corresponding class, except the absolutely impoverished and the very rich, wore more drab clothes in Calcutta than they did in Delhi or Bombay. So if you saw a girl of indeterminate class wearing a noodle strap in a mall in Noida, you’d find the same attire only on a well-to-do, ‘English-medium’ girl in Calcutta. To put it simply, I found Delhi to have Hindi-only speakers wearing English-speaker clothes. And that, for me, was the inklings of a notionally classless society.
Which doesn’t mean that I’m suggesting you stop wearing your Benettons or your Nalli’s or even your Tarun Tahilianis or Ritu Beris. I’m not an idiot telling you to abandon good clothes. All I’m suggesting is that when you’re not among friends or at home, when you’re in public, wearing the kind of clothes your driver or maid wears (and they won’t be wearing tatters; after all, you pay them good money) would strengthen this nation immeasurably. The true sign of a real democracy is when it becomes virtually impossible to tell how much a person earns by the clothes he or she wears.
P.S. To end on a slightly internationalist note, the whole business of Europe fearing the burqa can be solved in one stroke if white European women decide to wear the burqa in public as a fashion statement. I can’t see Nicolas Sarkozy — or anyone else who sees the burqa as an affront to Europe’s liberal, secular way of life — having a problem with the burqa if underneath the portable tent, blondes, brunettes and red-heads of non-Muslim disposition walk about the streets of Paris, Amsterdam, Zurich and Berlin. Preferably on their way to a night club or a bar or a beach where, of course, they’ll take their kits off.