Friday, July 25, 2014

Without our traditions ... are we fiddlers on the roof?

I always knew it was only a matter of time.  Time to graduate from wearing shorts at home to wearing dhoti.  I do not recall when exactly that happened, but it did.

I loved wearing a dhoti.  It worked well.  There was something special about it as long as it was clean and white.  When it got dirty, however, there was no way to camouflage that.  Eventually the white became off-white and then an inevitable yellowish-brown.  The attempts to whiten that and make it look new all over included dyeing it with Robin Blue and that always made it worse.

As the charm of the newness of wearing a dhoti wore off, and into the teens, I suppose wearing a lungi was how we teenagers and young men rebelled within this dhoti-world.  A lungi, also called a kylee, was a horror to the traditional elders.  Disgusted they were with what they considered to be trashy.

Which is why it came as quite some shock to me when I came across a photo of my grandfather wearing shorts in his adult life.

Grandfather during his undergraduate years at Varanasi (Benares) in the early-1930s
notice his socks/stockings?
Imagine that!  No dhoti but in a pair of shorts.

I did bring a dhoti with me to the US.  Not because I had planned on wearing that to campus, though that would have been par in graduate school in Southern California.  It was one of the few artifacts, so to speak, that connected me with the old country.

Once, when a couple of fellow Indian grad students asked me to go with them to the Indian store to pick up groceries, and was in no mood for that, I told them I would go only if they were ok with me wearing a dhoti.  It became a dare, and I did.  Turned out it was the best thing I could have done that evening--the store owner was so impressed by me wearing a dhoti that we each got for free a sweet of our choice!

In the town where I grew up, there were a couple of professionals who wore dhotis even to clubs.  A favorite memory is of one gent, with a dhoti and the traditional kudumi rushing around town on his Lambretta.  And, even more surreal the imagery when he was at the bridge table in the smoke-filled cards room at the club--apparently he was sharp at bridge.

Dhoti and kylee and kudumi stand out in a world that has become globalized.  In the old country, wearing a dhoti--yes, the traditional male attire of the land--is even cause for exclusion, thanks to the British legacy:
Politicians in Chennai got their dhotis in a twist over private club dress codes, after D. Hariparanthaman, a local judge, was denied entry to a book launch at the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association because he was wearing a dhoti—a starched, white piece of cloth worn wrapped around the waist.
“The club rules say you must come decently dressed: no lungi, banyan (tank top) and colored chappals (sandals). How can you say a dhoti is not decent dress?” said attorney R. Gandhi, who was with Mr. Hariparanthaman at the time.
The clash between the tradition and the "modern" continues.

The older I get, the more I tire of the modern,  especially when the world begins to look the same.  I suppose the old rebel in me wants to rebel against this "modernity."  Oh, rest easy, I have no plans to wear a dhoti to work, or anywhere for that matter ;)

Thus, when I travel, men and women wearing clothes that reflect their respective cultures and traditions fascinate me.  When in India, I am impressed with the sight of half-sari wearing girls. Or, the women in their traditional outfits in Ecuador. It will be a sad, sad day when the old traditions die out.  Yes, I realize the contradictions in plenty in writing about the dhoti and the half-sari when I ditched the traditions of the old country a long time ago.  But, hey, aren't we all bundles of contradictions?

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