For people who’ve seen me with my clothes on, you’ll know that I’m not much of a dapper dresser. I cover the bits that need to be covered and I subliminally flaunt my ‘carefully careless’ look.
But over the last few years, I have come to acknowledge the truth in the adage, ‘Clothes make the man’, also agreeing with Mark Twain’s less famous rider that ‘Naked people have little or no influence on society’, our collective fondness for naga sadhus and PETA activists notwithstanding.
In case you’re wondering when the plug for the PCJ Delhi Couture Week is coming, don’t worry. I’m not about to slip one in about ‘Victorian ruffle cuffs’ and ‘the genius of Sabyasachi Mukherjee’. My thoughts on clothes have been triggered by the utterly delightful news of a bunch of village girls from Jharkhand coming third in the under-14 football Gasteiz Cup last month in Spain.
Much is being made of how these amazing girls have found honour ‘abroad’ and had been earlier humiliated at ‘home’ by gram panchayat officials who reportedly slapped some of them and made them sweep floors when the kids had requested to hurry up with their birth certificates they needed to get their visas. The YUWA team, the Supergoats, have given a collective slap back to feudal India by proving what perseverance, training and a sense of social security can do.
But while looking at the photos of the girls in their green jerseys and black shorts on and off the field, all I could see were girls playing glorious football, whooping with joy after scoring goals, getting into group hugs before matches... Not tribal girls from downtrodden families whose parents had taken a huge step to allow their children to step out of the house to play football — and to go to school, which was one of the prime reasons why Franz Gastler, the young American founder-mentor of YUWA, had started the NGO in the first place.
I realised that it was the clothes, the team uniform, that made these girls look like any other city-slicker teenagers. The girls may have dressed in their finest white-and-red saris at the opening ceremony and when they lifted their trophy, but in the universal ‘jersey-shorts’ gear they could have come from any social background.
Which is what’s happening in all of India’s towns and cities. Young people are stepping out of their homes wearing the same kind of clothes, bearing similar styles. No longer is it dead easy to immediately spot who’s the driver and who’s the driven. This may sound like terrible homogenisation brought on by the evil gas of globalisation. But if there’s one thing 21st century India needs to get rid of fast, it’s the instant social hierarchy ranking that’s undertaken on the basis of appearances. Ask anyone from a Delhi shanty how she was treated when she walked into a police station to file a complaint and you’ll get the picture. If she could only have looked middle-class, her travails would have been halved.
I usually play a game in my head when some big guy I’m meeting starts making me nervous. I simply visualise him in grubbier clothes. So when Amartya Sen kept speaking to me about Rawls’ theory of justice, I pictured him sitting there wearing a ‘Being Human’ t-shirt and cargo pants and felt much more at ease. I’ve brushed past Mukesh Ambani. Visualising him in a baniyan and pajamas (and fanning himself with a copy of HT), he became a perfectly affable chap. Amitabh Bachchan was in a tracksuit when I met him. I held my composure by seeing him in shabby white-turned-grey kapda. The trick works each time and these daunting figures become ordinary, approachable folks. So the opposite should hold true.
And it does. Even at the apocryphal level, the staff of a hotel eyes me suspiciously when I’m clothed in my usual couture. (I may have knicked a few knick-knacks from hotels, but that’s not the point.) The same guards become fawning pigeons when, out of some compulsion, I come wearing a tucked-in shirt and a formal jacket.
It’s hard to oversee a nation-wide project by which the proverbial unwashed masses can have access, at least when the need arises, to the kind of clothes that well-off people wear — along with a more ‘gladly acceptable’ style of personal grooming. But the fact that clothes can trick the class bigot (who can be from the ‘shabbier classes’ himself) who judges by appearances needs to be put to the test.
Gandhi exchanged his lawyer’s suit-and-tie in for his white dhoti’n’cotton cloth combo. I doubt he would have been such a hit if he was in his old ‘Jinnah’ gear. Mamata Banerjee may have the occasional stirrings for silk Benarasis and nothing-too-fancy shoes. But that won’t work, will it? And if Maywati’s salwar suits and coiffured hair are trying to tell you something about how you should view Dalits, it’s only wise you see it. So clothes can be made to tell a person’s story the way he wants to tell it.’
So the next time you see a beggar hanging outside a mall he won’t be allowed in, and you’re unable to hand him a new set of clothes you would have worn and tell him the gist of what I’ve just written, then at least try pretending that he’s all glistened up and wearing the sort of clothes your boss wears to office. It would be such fun to try and spot who’s rich and who’s poor when everyone appears to be from more or less the same planet.