I am led to believe Shashi Tharoor has lost his bearings and we need to help him…. fast.
The few lucky people who think he is Shashi Kapoor’s long lost brother will be disheartened to know I am talking of the Indian who nearly became UN Secretary General.
The origins of my email lie here:
This article appeared in the print edition of the Indian daily ‘The Times of India’ a few days back. I started reading it and soon realised it was something Shashi wrote on a frustrated morning. So, I never went beyond the first few lines (and instead paid due attention to the picture of Maria Sharapova on another page).
Until a dear friend called up and asked “Do you know why Sikhs have the same names for men and women?”
Now, I know that is a fact. But never bothered to find out why. Because, it never occurred to me why cannot men and women have the same name??
I mean look at this Sikh name – Gurpreet. It means “The teacher’s beloved”. Does it say the teacher’s beloved man, woman, boy, girl, dog, bird or whatnot?
NO, it doesn’t. So, why cannot this be the name for both men and women? Or for that matter the name of my neighbour’s dog?
Anyway, my only answer to this seemingly simple question was – maybe because in our religion the equality of men and women is fully enshrined. But you know what? That is too grand an answer. I am not qualified to make that statement. Moreover, my above reasoning is more logical and my first choice. Which, to repeat, is, when a name by itself is free from gender (Gurpreet, Harmeet etc) I see no reason why it should be suitable to only one gender. One might argue that a name such as Nanak is (maybe) another issue because its fame is due to a MAN. Personally, I would be pleasantly surprised if came across a woman named Nanak.
But, Shashi Tharoor has a BIG problem with the Sikh tradition of having names common to men and women.
And guess what, he mentions this in an article where he is discussing the future of Sari – a beautiful Indian dress style.
And, if you find it very odd that a note on Sikh names should occur in an article on the Sari, my reaction is Welcome Aboard!
But a quick note lest you think I haven’t read the article closely. Shashi uses the word Punjabi and not Sikh. But the description of Punjabi is very broad and beyond my area of knowledge.
I do not know if all Punjabis have names common to men and women.
And since (1) Sikh population is definitely part of Punjabi population and (2) I can comment on my own religion (Sikhism) with fair confidence, I have used the smaller example of Sikhs to address the illness which has afflicted Shashi Tharoor.
So, heres a line by line help manual for Shashi Tharoor.
The title “Save the sari from a sorry fate”
I do not think the Sari is facing a sorry fate. Yes, its use is on the decline but that does not make it a sorry fate. Because it has had a long and dominant position as a dress code. Its just that its time has come and there are other options available. Its like saying that when a batsman gets out after scoring 100 runs, should we start crying and forget to clap? Lets celebrate the 100 runs and not rue that the person got out – which is INEVITABLE (in a pseudo match with unlimited overs). The logic holds true for anything in this universe. Infact, it holds true for the universe itself. There is a certain amount of life to everything.
I have always wondered how I would react when one of my parents die. Surely my sorrow will know no bounds. But guess what, I would also like to celebrate their many decades of glorious living. A strong statement, but necessary to drive the point home.
“For centuries, if not millennia, the alluring garment, all five or six or nine yards of it, has been the defining drape of Indian womanhood. Cotton or silk, Banarasi or Pochampalli, shimmering Kanjeevaram or multi-coloured bandhani, with the pallav draped front-to-back over the left shoulder or in the Gujarati style back-to-front over the right, the sari has stood the test of time, climate and body shape.”
Talking of centuries, mankind spent many millennia draped in some animal skin. And that was the case for mankind all over the world. The sari has remained restricted to India and was definitely nonexistent prior to 3000BC. And if age were a qualifier, how about the men’s dhoti, which is the oldest Indian draped garment? Should people in India go to office and wear dhoti all the time? The dhoti’s time is over. The sari’s time is near. The time of every and any other dress code (say skirt, salwar suit) will also be over one day.
“Of all the garments yet invented by man (or, not to be too sexist about it, mankind) the sari did most to flatter the wearer.”
What a grand statement!
Is Shashi a noted authority on dress styles since mankind has existed? He unashamedly uses grandiose statements like these to trap the reader. This is where I left my reading of the article and moved onto Maria Sharapova. Until my friend said she is fuming over what is written and I was compelled to go read the article again.
“Unlike every other female dress on the planet, the sari could be worn with elegance by women of any age, size or shape: you could never be too fat, too short or too ungainly to look good in a sari.”
Shashi continuing with grand statements. I could name so many dress styles which do the job as well as the sari and sometimes better. How you wear a dress matters more. I have seen both – big fat and wafer thin – women looking beautiful in kimonos, trousers, salwar suits etc. At the same time, I have seen some very presentable women looking outright unpresentable in a sari. And in these cases the problem was not with the sari, it was with how it was worn. And to not shy from calling a spade a spade – the sari actually loses to some other dress codes when it comes to covering an otherwise unshapely body.
“Indeed, if you were stout, or bowlegged, or thick-waisted, nothing concealed those handicaps of nature better than the sari. Women looked good in a sari who could never have got away with appearing in public in a skirt.”
When it comes to covering and making everyone looking equally beautiful, the burkha takes the cake and the icing. You could have a skeleton inside that dress and it will still look as beautiful as Aishwarya Rai inside the burkha. Women with big hips rarely look good in a sari. Again, if they wear it with craft, they could look good enough for George Clooney to want them. But then that holds true for even the skirt or the salwar suit. And, if you have unshapely breasts (long, loose etc), the sari with its very unavoidable exposure to your bosom will drive the last nail in the coffin.
And I just want to puke when I hear Shashi saying that stout or thick-wasted are “handicaps of nature”. Didn’t I tell you he is really sick!
And what are these “handicapped” women in US, Europe, Japan, Africa wearing so that they can appear in public? I doubt they resort to a sari. Many might be actually wearing a skirt, which Shashi is quick to dispense with.
“So why has this masterpiece of feminine attire begun fading from our streets? On recent visits home to India I have begun to notice fewer and fewer saris in our public places, and practically none in the workplace. The salwar kameez, the trouser and even the Western dress-suit have begun to supplant it everywhere.”
No other comment except that I agree with Shashi when he says the sari is a masterpiece, but would like to add that it is not the only masterpiece.
“And this is not just a northern phenomenon, the result of the increasing dominance of our culture by Punjabi-ised folk who think nothing of giving masculine names to their daughters.”
Where did that come from? And what sick kind of person will write something like that? I actually laughed after the first few moments of anger. Maybe Shashi got his ass kicked by some Punjabi. Or maybe he found out that Ban Ki-moon has a Punjabi lineage 🙂
But what continues to shock me is the knowledge that the person writing this line is Shashi Tharoor – who not long ago was running for the highest non-political post on our planet – the UN Secretary General.
The least expected from anyone who holds or aspires to hold that post is true neutrality towards race, religion, sex, ethnicity etc.
Now imagine yourself writing an article on the sari. You will probably mention the salwar suit and that its origins lie in Punjabi culture. BUT why on Earth would you write about Punjabi culture of similar names for both sexes? That line was OK (maybe) in an article on name giving practices.
I, for the life of me, cannot imagine where that line came from or where that line is going. And heres my take on Shashi based on just this one line – if he said it with a conscious effort, he needs to get a reality check and ask himself if he is not racial.
And he is not making jest here. The choice of words such as “who think nothing” reeks with animosity towards Punjabis.
And, he is foolish enough to write that “masculine names” are given to daughters. What makes a name masculine?
“At a recent press conference I addressed in Thiruvan-athapuram, there were perhaps a dozen women journalists present. Only one was wearing a sari: the rest, all Keralites without exception, were in salwar-kameezes. And when I was crass enough to ask why none of the “young ladies” present wore saris, the one who did modestly suggested that she was no longer very young.
Youth clearly has something to do with it; very few of today’s under-30 women seem to have the patience for draping a sari, and few of them seem to think it suitable for the speed with which they scurry through their lives. (“Try rushing to catch a bus in a sari,” one young lady pointedly remarked, “and you’ll switch to jeans the next day.”) But there’s also something less utilitarian about their rejection of the sari for daily wear.”
You bet Youth has something to do with it. Whoever heard of people aged 60+ setting trends?
The sari is dying because it simply does not fit into our lifestyles today. Why get emotional about it? And yes, there is everything utilitarian about the rejection of sari. There might be other causes. But they are ALL secondary to the fact that the sari restricts to let the wearer do many a thing as freely as another dress might allow. And I am talking of the sari worn Shashi Tharoor style – elegant, fully draped and very beautiful. If you change to the sari as worn by the fisherwomen, then it is a separate issue altogether. You can do most things freely. But you cannot wear that to office. Not specially if you are “handicapped” by thick waist or huge breasts. And you definitely cannot rush to catch a bus. Or swim very well in – I have always wondered if the air hostesses on an Indian Airlines flight will be wearing swim suits underneath their saris! Because, God forbid, if an Indian Airline flight crashed into the sea, they will need, rather than provide, all help possible.
“Today’s younger generation of Indian women seem to associate the garment with an earlier era, a more traditional time when women did not compete on equal terms in a man’s world. Putting on pants, or a Western woman’s suit, or even desi leggings in the former of a salwar, strikes them as more modern. Freeing their legs to move more briskly than the sari permits is, it seems, a form of liberation; it removes a self-imposed handicap, releasing the wearer from all the cultural assumptions associated with the traditional attire.”
Partly true. But there is also the fact that many of the women who do NOT wear sari otherwise WILL wear it on special occasions. Moments when they wish to look at their best. That means they truly believe the sari is an elegant dress – a fact I agree with. Its just that the sari does not fit into our daily lifestyles. And why should the women continue to wear something that restricts them from doing everyday things without a second thought. I somehow get the feeling Shashi is unhappy with women wanting this liberation. If that is the case, my advise to women is to free their legs some more and give Shashi a wakeup jolt.
“I think this is actually a great pity. One of the remarkable aspects of Indian modernity has always been its unwillingness to disown the past; from our nationalists and reformers onwards, we have always asserted that Indians can be modern in ancient garb. Political ideas derived from nineteenth and twentieth-century thinkers have been articulated by men in mundus and dhotis that have not essentially changed since they were first worn 2,000 or 3,000 years ago. (Statuary from the days of the Indus Valley Civilisation more than 4,000 years ago show men draped in waistcloths that Mr Karunanidhi would still be happy to don.)”
How can “unwillingness to disown the past” be remarkable? From what I know of life, the ability to disown anything and everything is the hallmark of true liberty. I find it very shallow when someone glorifies behaviour which they themselves would shirk away from. How many times has Shashi Tharoor worn a dhoti, lungi, mundu to the United Nations? If Karunanidhi wears a certain cloth because he likes wearing it, I would say he is doing nothing remarkable because he is simply doing what he likes to do. It is no different from a person wearing a jeans because he likes to wear it. If Karunanidhi wear a lungi because he wants to prove a point but does not like wearing it, then he has a problem in the space between his ears. The same holds true for the person wearing a jeans even though he does not like wearing it.
My point is this – at the end of the day, a dress is a dress. It is meant to serve some primary functions and some secondary functions.
“Gandhiji demonstrated that one did not have to put on a Western suit to challenge the British empire; when criticised by the British press for calling upon the King in his simple loincloth, the Mahatma mildly observed, “His Majesty was wearing enough clothes for the two of us”. Where a Kemal Ataturk in Turkey banned his menfolk’s traditional fez as a symbol of backwardness and insisted that his compatriots don Western hats, India’s nationalist leaders not only retained their customary headgear, they added the defiantly desi ‘GandhIcap’ (oddly named, since Gandhiji himself never wore one). Our clothing has always been part of our sense of authenticity.”
Classic Indian stunt. Invoke Gandhi to prove any point and you can get away with it. Gandhi was a soul like none other. The clothes he wore were a true reflectance of his believes. Gandhi did not wear a loincloth because it was something from our history or such trivial reasons. Gandhi wore the loincloth because it fit into the extreme discipline of a life he practised – that of chastity, abstinence from wealth hoarding & carnal pleasures, and surviving on minimal resources. When I see Gandhi in a loincloth I can believe what I see. Cannot say the same if I were to see Shashi Tharoor in a loincloth. His reasons would be too trivial to make that a worthy act.
“I remember being struck, on my first visit to Japan some 15 years ago, by the iniquitousness of Western clothing in that Asian country. Every Japanese man and woman in the street, on the subway or in the offices I visited wore suits and skirts and dresses; the kimono and its male equivalent were preserved at home, and brought out only for ceremonial occasions. An Asian ambassador told me that envoys were expected to present their credentials to the Emperor in a top hat and tails.”
I do not know about traditional Japanese clothing for men. But I do know a little about the kimono. The kimono is another dress which does not allow many things to be done with ease. And so it got relegated to ceremonial occasions. Japanese women were also forced to wear small shoes. So small that the natural growth of their feet would be hindered. Just so that their feet remain small, a major male fetish connected to the idea of sexy vulnerable women. The kimono though not as bad, does force women to take small steps. I do not know if there was a reason as silly to that as the small shoes. But the fact is, the kimono was a impractical dress if you were going to spend your day doing active work at the office and so it lost to other dress styles. It is not impossible to do all those things in a kimono. Its just more difficult and since women today have the freedom to choose, they chose.
“This thoroughgoing Westernisation was the result of a conscious choice by the modernising Meiji Emperor in 1868. One sees something similar in China today: though the transformation is not nearly as complete as in Japan, the streets of Beijing and Shanghai are more and more thronged with Chinese people in Western clothes. In both Japan and China, I allowed myself to feel a perverse pride that we in India were different: we had entered the 21st century in clothes that our ancestors had sported for much of the preceding 20.”
Right Mr. Tharoor. That is perverse pride.
“Today, I wonder if I’ve been too complacent. What will happen once the generation of women who grew up routinely wearing a sari every day dies out? The warning signs are all around us now. It would be sad indeed if, like the Japanese kimono, the sari becomes a rare and exotic garment in its own land, worn only to temples and weddings. Perhaps it’s time to appeal to the women of India to save the sari from a sorry fate.”
Hello? What do you mean by too complacent? Shall we have a law that forbids women to wear anything but a sari?
Perhaps it is time we let people decide what they want to do. As long as what they do does not infringe upon the fundamental rights of another human being. And if Shashi is so concerned about the demise of the sari, heres some advice – start wearing a sari Mr. Tharoor and show how much you care.
Which brings me to the end of my help manual for Shashi Tharoor. What the heck, my reply is lengthier than the original article my Shashi. Which shows how much silly free time I have in my life.
But, I talk nineteen to the dozen. And would like to putin a few last words before I sign off.
The word culture gets drummed about so often that we forget what culture should mean? Is our culture the traditions and mannerisms which existed between certain periods – say 5AD to 1500AD? Or is it the period 1200AD to 2100AD. Or some such nonsense and arbitrary period? What IS our culture.
My answer is – what is TODAY, IS our culture. What was yesterday, WAS our culture.
Culture changes (howsoever subtle) every single day. There is no such thing as a constant culture.
I hope to have been able to bring some balance to the lopsided article by Shashi Tharoor.
Thank you so much for your time and patience with my thoughts.