Three weeks ago, my life changed. I wrote, in this column, a piece called, by the editors, “Indian, Anyone?”
Messages poured in from people across India, and indeed, around the world. People called in to say they have wondered why we don't wear more Indian clothes, whether we have a subconscious racial bias, when the colonial hangover will go and, in one of the most touching messages I have ever received, this came floating in my mail box:
“Dear sir, I read your article on 'The Hindu' of 27/12/09 today. I'd like to thank you for opening my eyes. I am a girl of 18 living in a village of Kerala. Even though I wears churidar and I haven't used any foreign dress till today, in my dreams I am a profession list wearing suits. But the title of your article 'Indian, Anyone?' opened my eyes. Thanks again. Even we proudly says we are Indians we don't have so much proud to wear the Indian cloth, because we Indians ourselves considers those who wear Indian traditional dress as second class. And have a misconception that we can work freely or we become smart only in the suits or other foreign dress. I'd like to appreciate you for your decision to wear Indian clothes on TV shows.”
What is globalisation but this 18-year-old girl living in a Kerala village picking up clothing, as she once picked up the English language, as her instruments to understand and respond to the world? This shirt, this jacket, this smart pair of pants, they are her telescope, her translator. Like Wren and Martin, the Oxford dictionary and Roget's Thesaurus, they are her guide to the world, her walking stick and hearing aid. They are her battle gear of what she assumed is part of societal best behaviour.
Inspired by the multitude of response, we created a Facebook group “Indian, Anyone?” which now has more than 150 members, and even though I often have nothing to say, they say many things, often disagreeing furiously.
The group was created, at least in my mind, to understand who we are and what we do and how we think and what, indeed, will become of us. And in this all, how what we wear fits in?
People keep telling me that the Indian century has begun and I, often, I don't know. (You will realise that I don't know much). What happens when a new century begins?
When, as historian Niall Ferguson recently told me, the shift has begun once again, after several millennia, from the West back to the East, what really takes place? Do we all feel more confident? Illusion-ed rather than disillusioned? Do we rediscover all that is, was, good in us? Do we beat back the West and declare harrumphing, Tarzan-like, that we are the kings of the jungle? Do we find new things? Do we find new things to say? Do we say them differently?
Do we grow horns?
Recently, N.K. Singh, that uniquely erudite insight to Indian politics, recalled to me what he had heard Amartya Sen saying, that when the Nalanda University was destroyed in the 12th century around that time Oxford was being established.
Thus, the irretrievable shift of intellect from the East to the West, and now, we are being told that the East is rising again.
Yet, every rise must have its raison de etre. What is ours?
Allow me then to suggest, and borrow, that old Raymond line: There are many things that make a complete man (and civilisation), what you wear is just one of them.
You are never complete, are you, without your clothes? And what you wear is a marker to your dreams and dilemmas, collectively to our civilisational dreams and dilemmas and this is why even those who lend to their affectation the act of choosing to wear “anything I can find”, yes, even they choose to do so and in that choice lies our sartorial destiny, our national showcase.
It was Oscar Wilde, that outrageous dandy, I think, who said: A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life.
But me, I usually turn to Virginia Woolf: There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them, take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.
Our clothes, what we choose, what we refuse, are not the most important elements in our re-rise, as it were, but they are markers, our signposts, our private legacies to public histories. What we wish to say with them naturally depends on us. Yes, yes, you will say we have so many issues, so many problems, so much that we do not have, why focus on clothes?
To that I say because clothes are part of our primal pretence. They are our unsaid statement, our subliminal projection to the world.
Every nation and people are made up of not merely facts but also, so, so vitally, fiction. Our pretences keep us alive when facts let us down. Our pretences are our living history. It is our soft power. Like Hollywood and America, like dry humour and the British, like reticence and the Swiss, like elegance, and luxury, and the Japanese.
So every rise, and re-rise, must have its pretences. Things are not but can, could, why not, be. The pretences swirl in that wonderful thing called public imagination (have you ever wondered that nothing imagines quite like the public?) and sometimes, if we are lucky, the pretences create new histories, chart a new path for us.
Our clothes are part of the story we tell about ourselves to others and also to ourselves.
There is an artist that I love. Egon Schiele, protégé of Klimt, died, I think, at 28. Every time I see his work I think of our pretences and indeed how, above all else, to our own hypocrisies we must be true.
Clothes, ladies and gentlemen, are part of our pretences and are also what we pretend to be.
Hindol Sengupta is Associate Editor, Bloomberg UTV