Status symbols

The majority whose worries are food and shelter is not concerned

February 27, 2022 12:01 am | Updated 12:01 am IST

There are greater varieties of clothes available and they are no longer status symbols. 

There are greater varieties of clothes available and they are no longer status symbols. 

“That’s a very nice shirt you are wearing,” I told Krishna Kumar, a postgraduate student of mine. “And it must have cost a pretty penny too. What is the occasion?” It looked like Krishna was a bit offended. “I have an interview for a job in the afternoon. I tell you, even you wouldn’t take me seriously at an interview if I were not well dressed.”

This is a conversation I had when I was teaching in Madras Christian College. Fairly soon after the new session started, Krishna came to see me at my residence on campus, nothing unusual in MCC in those days. I tried to make him comfortable by exchanging pleasantries with him, but it was clear that Krishna was not used to it. “Let me tell you why I have come to see you. I badly need money to continue my studies,” he said. “Can you help me? My father earns just enough to feed the family. He managed to pay my fees for the BA course, but can’t go beyond that.”

Small job

I reflected for a moment. I wanted to help Krishna, as I knew he was intelligent and studious. So, I asked him, “Can you type?” “Yes, sir,” he replied. “Then, come and help me with some typing, three times a week. I will pay ₹25 a month.”

It was a decent amount as supplementary earning in those days when a professor’s salary was something like ₹600 a month. Krishna gladly accepted it.

After the course and the academic session were over, Krishna kept in touch with me. A few months later, I got an excited letter from him saying that he got a decent job with a good salary. He added: “It is not the economics that helped me, but the testimonial that you gave me, in which you had mentioned my typing capability.”

Faculty in MCC were not particularly noted for their dress code. Even the Principal wore just a “bush coat” and pants. I kept reflecting on what I had learned from Krishna and wanted to experiment. I thought I’d try khadi. Those were days when Khadi had only white shirts and they were easily available. Pants were a problem, but with some effort even those could be managed. There were enquiries whether my move to khadi had any hidden motives! After a couple of years, I gave up khadi. After all, wearing khadi was only a personal experiment.

Society too seems to have gone beyond the dress code stage. There are greater varieties of clothes available and they are no longer status symbols. Motor cars occupied that position for a while, whether you have one or not in the early stages, followed by “what make” in the next. Perhaps today, status is decided by whether an official car picks you up or not. That too will go soon.

It also raises the question whose value system is reflected in these questions. Surely not that of the majority whose concerns are food for the day, shelter for the night and work for tomorrow. Think about it.

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