Embarrassment can be truly liberating at times. I learnt this lesson in Sector 19 last week.
After a fierce raid on the smelly treasure piled up on a makeshift table in the rehri market, I had finally dug out the most sought-after prize for anyone who shops for second-hand clothes. Vindication of a long and arduous search, here it was — a mint-condition tweed coat.
But ecstasy quickly made way for embarrassment as I spotted an old colleague looking at me. Then came, what I like to call, a life lesson. He was holding a second-hand sweater too, dug out from the other side of the pile of ‘rags’. No more pretence. Smiles. Liberation.
From Paris to Guwahati, Tokyo to Ludhiana, second-hand clothes travel in droves, sold by the kilo across continents. In Chandigarh, if you know the places, you can find a Tommy t-shirt for 20 bucks, a sheer gown or Levi’s jeans for Rs 50, a lamb-wool sweater for a hundred-rupee note, and a coat for up to Rs 800.
Memories can be bought cheap. Go through their pockets and you might find a piece of paper with a faded Prague address and a phone number on it, maybe a grocery bill from Chicago, or you might even spot a Toronto dry-cleaner’s tag stapled to the sleeve-end of a satin shirt.
Much of the pile is worthless indeed, and only those in dire need of warmth in winter or cover in the summer buy that part. Also, apart from hygiene — which can be taken care of by the dry-cleaner — and self-respect issues — for which you might want to see a psychiatrist, learn to lie better, or delete your Facebook account — there are some serious problems indeed with buying these clothes. Even an expert thrift shopper get tired of haphazardly arranged items that smell like dust and cheap perfume. For every gem, there are 50 totally useless items to wade through. The prints, styles, material bleed into each other. Worse, there’s hardly anything for thin guys like yours truly, as most of these clothes are for kids, women or The Great Khali.
But there are priceless pieces that tell imagined stories of careless abandon, jobless desperation, teen rebellion, or perhaps sheer boredom with some old-fashioned stuff that may still be the newest trend somewhere else. I often wonder why someone in Europe gave up a perfectly good Gucci suede-leather jacket that was made in Bangladesh and has travelled to my wardrobe in India through the ‘seconds’ route. Leave aside those clichéd globalisation theories, was this guy in debt? Or, did his wife say the jacket just did not suit his age? How old is he? Did he forget it at a bar after a drunken brawl, and an underpaid waiter sold it to the pawn shop for an extra buck? Is he still looking for it, or is he too rich to care? Does he even believe in life after death? For Rs 250, the wonder is mine to keep. The jacket, effectively, comes free.
Globally, the second-hand garment business is estimated to be worth around $1-2 billion, barely 1% of the annual $200-billion textile and clothes trade. It has been termed exploitative for dumping used clothes from the West into Africa and Asia. Some even go into a typical rant of how it kills local business; others see how it is entrepreneurial and creates many jobs. For me, even at its vulgar worst in economic terms, the ‘rags’ trade is about need first, then aspiration, and for some it’s about the romance too.
To the rickshaw-puller, it is affordable uniform for late-night duty at the bus stand; for young students in Sector 15, it helps them gain acceptance in the elite, rich-brat circles that they should ideally grow to despise; and when you grow up or have enough money, it’s about the thrill of digging out a second-hand, just-like-new tweed coat out of the pile.