The other day I met up with a school friend with whom I had been out of touch for many years. My friend is a senior executive at a reputed company in Kochi and I met him during the lunch hour, on his way back to his office from a meeting. Dressed in a well-cut suit and tie, his feet clad in Gucci shoes, my friend was sweating profusely by the time he got to the restaurant where we had arranged to meet. The restaurant was air conditioned and quite cool, but my friend nevertheless asked a waiter to turn up the a/c.
‘I wish I hadn't walked,’ he told me as he sat down. 'My driver was on his way to pick me up from Katcheripady and bring me here, but he was held up in the traffic and instead of taking an auto, I stupidly decided to walk here.'
‘I guess your driver will pick you up from here and take you back to the office,’ I said. My friend's office was a ten-minute walk along M.G. Road
‘Well yes,’ he admitted with a laugh as he enviously looked at me in my holiday shirt, slacks and sandals.
‘Tell me,’ I asked him. ‘Are you really required to wear a suit everyday?’
‘There is no hard and fast rule,’ he told me. ‘But everyone wears a suit these days.’
And you don't have the guts to be different. Not, I didn' tell him that or I would have lost a friend.
I remember a time when people hardly wore suits in Kerala. Even in Mumbai where I used to work (from 1998-2002), suits were the exception rather than the rule. You wore a tie if you had to meet with a client, and that was it. Suits were reserved for conferences, though the moment you were about to sit down, you took off your suit and hung it on the back of your chair. The economic boom seems to have triggered a desire among professionals in India to be as western in appearance as possible. There are a lot more people wearing suits (and sweating profusely) than there were a few years ago. Air conditioners are therefore a necessity rather than a luxury. I’m not sure if many people have noticed the absurdity of wearing a suit and turning up the a/c.
My job in London requires me to wear a suit and tie everyday, and I don’t have a problem with it. For one, a suit keeps me comfortably warm. I’ve always believed the neck tie to be the most useless of all appendages, but when it’s really cold, even the tie contributes to the feeling of warmth. The first thing I did when I reached Kerala a couple of weeks ago was to change into a lungi (a colourful local version of the dhoti) and discard my shoes. And it was so comfortable! However, it is no longer socially acceptable in Kerala to go out in a lungi. One usually wears trousers, though once in a while you do see a brave soul wearing the double mundu, a formal version of the lungi. As long as I don’t have to wear a tie or shoes, I don’t really mind wearing trousers even though a simple lungi is actually a lot more comfortable than wearing trousers.
When I was in school, I had to wear shoes, socks and a tie as part of my uniform. When I look back, I'm not sure why I was made to wear all that. It goes without saying that the classrooms were not air conditioned. Even now I don't think there are many schools with air conditioned classrooms, though I think a lot more school students these days wear a tie. Is it meant to instill in students a sense of discipline? Or is it mean to add to a 'western education'?
The other day I was talking to a software engineer who recently finished his MCA from a reputed college in Bangalore. When I asked him what he liked most about his new job, he told me without hesitation, 'the informal dress code.' Then he added, 'I had to wear a tie every day for three years during my MCA course'. I couldn't believe my ears. Why on earth should post-graduate students studying computer engineering have to wear a tie? 'It makes them take their studies seriously,' I was told. Do you really need to half-choke students to make them take their studies seriously? And these are not students who receive a subsidised education that will lead to permanent unemployment, the fate of the bulk of India's college students, but students shelling out a lot of money for an education that despite the recession, guarantees a job at the end.
In a warm climate, the only joy one can get out of wearing shoes and socks is to anticipate the pleasure of taking them off. No, I don't wear chappals when I am in Kerala except when I go to church where we are required to leave our footwear outside for the benefit of thieves who nick them. Instead, I don a pair of leather sandals which allow my feet to remain fresh. Come to think of it, why on earth should feet be enclosed in shoes unless cold weather requires it?
This has set me thinking. Why don't Indian office workers wear Indian clothes at work? I am not saying this because I am anti-West or anti-MNC. I’m saying this simply because Indian clothes – dhotis, kurtas, mundus, lungis etc. – are so much more comfortable in the Indian heat. What’s more, with global warming and the need to save energy, we’d save a shit-load of money if everyone went to work in short sleeved shirts, a dhoti or trousers and sandals and switched off the air conditioners.
Last year Shashi Tharoor set off a controversy when he wondered aloud in his Times of India column why Indian women have stopped wearing the saree. Tharoor cited tradition and elegance as reasons for wearing the saree. ‘Comfort’ was not one of the reasons mentioned in his article, though many of those who attacked him did specifically say that they didn’t wear a saree because it was so inconvenient or uncomfortable. ‘Try catching a bus in a sari,’ someone is supposed to have said. I have never worn a saree in life and so I am not in a position to comment on how comfortable or uncomfortable it is. I have a feeling it is not particulary comfortable and I have no clue as to what would be the most comfortable dress for women to wear in warm weather. For this reason alone, I am going to restrict my piece to men’s wear.
I don't really know what could be done to promote Indian clothes among Indian office goers. Don’t forget, it has to be promoted to a generation which associates attire such as the dhoti, the kurta, the veshti and the mundu with backwardness and ignorance. A suit is always associated with intelligence and more to the point, (western) knowledge. Our politicians have always worn Indian clothes, but then, our politicians are not exactly role models, are they?
Maybe I am asking for too much when I say we should go back to traditional attire like the dhoti or the mundu or the veshti. Maybe we should just start wearing clothes appropriate for the weather - short sleeved shirts and slack trousers and sandals – when it is warm and sweaters for northern India when it does get cold during winter. Hold on a minute. What about the safari suit? Yes, I am talking about that very interesting attire (half-sleeved suit-like shirt with trousers of an identical colour) which used to be de rigeur for bureaucrats all over India. I don't see many safari suits these days, though I am told that some of our bureaucrats still wear it. No, I don't think the safari suit will become popular with the private sector crowd. It is associated with old-style Indian bureaucracy and inefficiency and red tapism, even though it is actually perfect for warm weather.
This brings us to the nub of the problem. It's all about image. I have no doubt that most of us wouldn’t have any problem running to catch a bus in a double mundu or a dhoti or with sandals on. But if you wear a double mundu and want to sell a cutting edge banking software to an MNC bank, you are not going to get far. I'm sure that the woman who asked Shashi Tharoor to try catching a bus whilst wearing a saree will don a saree in no time if a saree is what's needed to project the right image. People are very much willing to wear the most uncomfortable clothes possible in order to show themselves in the right light. Western clothes are reasonably comfortable in a cold climate. They are not suitable for a warm country like India. Israel is a warm country which has a reputation for informal clothes. When I visited Israel, I didn't see anyone wear a suit except the haredim whose religious beliefs require them to wear long black suits.
Arabs wear their traditional clothes even when doing business, but then, Arabs usually hold the purse strings and when you do that, you can wear pajamas and still get away with it. I wish I could say that as India's economy grows, Indian businessmen and executives will start asserting themselves and wear traditional Indian clothes while doing business in India, but I'm not too sure of that. Look at Japan. You almost never see Japanese businessmen or executives wearing traditional clothes when doing business. We all have a tendency to imitate the sucessful and the West has been succesful in doing business and generating wealth to an unbelievable extent. We Indians want to copy their success and we make no bones about it. I just wish we could do so wearing the right clothes for India's climate.