The status of khaki is highly flexible. Depending on the context in which it is used, and the attitudes of the wearer and the beholder, it could be a source of either scorn or pride

It was a double-edged sword with which some local police constables were knighted recently by a social organisation whose own name echoes the legendary King Arthur. The Knights in Khaki award was conferred upon them for their commendable deeds, and what strikes one, besides the alliterative ‘k’ in the title, is the fusing of the Anglo-Saxon and the British colonial heritages in one stroke. By the way, knights are male and policewomen aren’t. It would sound hilarious if we called them Dames in Khaki, especially since ‘dame’ is urban (though dated) slang for the female of the species. Irrespective of gender they were given a shield each and “a set of home appliances”. Maybe mixie, toaster, oven, grill... more kitchen table than Round Table, eh?

Just below the news item about the gallant men and women in uniform was a report about an inspector who had stolen stolen money — and that’s not a typo; he had pocketed a huge chunk of the amount recovered from a thief. A knight errant who had become an errant knight, shall we say? But let’s set that aside for the moment. We should ask why khaki, which is as potent a symbol of Empire as the pith helmet, has remained the colour of choice for the Indian police force. Other countries in the former Commonwealth have switched to other colours. There was a short-lived attempt to rebel against khaki in Bangalore in the early 1980s. A senior police officer, inspired by the regulation gear of cops in the UK (will our ties to Old Blighty ever be sundered?) got our local chaps togged out in navy blue trousers, white shirt and — the piece de resistance — the blue helmet of the London bobby! Though doomed to failure, the venture did at least provide a few days’ worth of public entertainment. The Indian army switched from khaki to olive green in 1947, apparently to distinguish itself from the Pakistan army which retained the century-old hue. Khaki, which became the preserve of our police force and reminded us of our erstwhile rulers, instilled fear in the hearts of the powerless. But in the decades following Independence, khaki began to lose its ‘kick’ as it filtered down to other, mainly government, institutions. The much-loved postman has worn khaki forever, and although the uniform underwent a sea change, to blue, in 2004 to mark 150 years of the Indian Postal Service, it reverted to khaki six years later when employees complained that their navy-blue-light-blue combo had been adopted by every John, Jani and Janardhan.

The status of khaki is highly flexible. Depending on the context in which it is used, and the attitudes of the wearer and the beholder, it could be a source of either scorn or pride. For example, khaki uniforms are worn by the pupils of an elite local school with colonial origins, as well as by some of the most disempowered members of our society. One of my childhood memories is of the drum-and-whistle band from a missionary school for the orphaned and the blind, marching down our street in khaki shorts and shirts, going door to door for donations. Another memory that I wish I could erase is of the carriers of human faeces, wearing khaki shorts and shirts, going door to door for ‘donations’ of another kind. The accursed practice of manual scavenging, banned by law, survives through government support, and not just in the villages. In cities, men are employed to dive into manholes and clear blocked sewers; machines are only just beginning to replace them. Khaki is the official colour for all who perform menial jobs: those who sweep streets and gather refuse and drive trucks loaded with rubbish.

The uniform, which distinguishes those who belong to a class, group, sect or institution, comes in all colours of the rainbow. Security agencies favour sober blues and greys, while private schools have gone wild with the palette. Multinational restaurant chains seem to lean heavily towards red — trying to acquire the jolly Santa look, perhaps. A friend took me to a doughnut joint recently and the female waiter desperately tried, and failed, to make us wear silly paper caps with the company logo. At the table next to ours, another waiter was clicking pictures of a be-capped group, pictures that would perhaps be uploaded on the company website as proof of satisfied customers, and earn the waiter some bonus points for successfully pushing the brand.

Brand Khaki is not so hot. But it shows no signs of fading away. Bus drivers and conductors nationwide will forever be clothed in khaki. Watch the auto driver start the day, slipping into his regulation shirt with a few gymnastic tricks of hand and handlebar as he putters towards the main road. If the clearly visible half of his body shows no khaki he will be trapped by another man in khaki. Well, the auto driver’s uniform has one distinct advantage. When you come across a parked, empty gaadi you can peep into the nearest tea shop and easily spot the driver. Responding instantly to your mute gesture he will drain his glass in a single gulp and leap astride his steed, legs planted in the stirrups — this knight in shapeless, crumpled khaki.

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