An Open Letter to Shashi Tharoor
In response to his discourse about the Sari
Update: Note this response to his response
Dear Shashi (may I call you that, for I barely know you),
I can't really say I am great fan of yours, for I haven't really read a lot that you have written. Yes, of course, I have read The Great Indian Novel and was suitably impressed by it. And then I read Bookless in Baghdad and was unswayed by it. Don't get me wrong; I think it was an incisive book, but somehow it failed to touch me.
And then I read your "discourse" on the Sari in the Sunday Times this weekend. Much more than the two books I have read, this small article has moved me so immensely that I feel compelled to pen (shouldn't I say 'type') this open letter to you. Please bear with me, I am not as articulate a speaker (or writer) as you are, but I shall truly try to put into proper words all that has affected me in your article.
Firstly Shashi, I think your observations about the Sari are bang on - it indeed is an "alluring" garment (though you haven't really stated in words who it is really "alluring" to) all of five or six yards (I can't help but wonder if you have ever tried it out - six yards of cloth draped around you, that must be something). And your reflections about the different styles of wearing the Sari - I must admit you really have a keen eye!
"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", you say. So, I guess I should withdraw my earlier statement about the "alluring" garment, right? And you, of course, have been just about politically correct - about man/mankind thing - though I do think you should have included the womankind as well, but we shall overlook that for the moment. You have lots more interesting things to say, and I would like to focus on that. Such as, how irrespective of the size of the person, the Sari could be used to cover up all defaults and shortcomings of the wearer. You are absolutely right about that, women look good in a Sari, irrespective of their size. Correct me if I am wrong, but without voicing it explicitly, you seem to be suggesting that today by not wearing this "masterpiece of feminine attire" any more, women are actually exposing the inadequacies of their not-so-perfect hour-glass figures, aren't they?
I don't really blame you - you have been out of the country for so long that you probably don't see the changing trends of attire and attitudes that I do. So, maybe, it hasn't struck you that probably these very women who always hid themselves behind the six-yard cloth don't really care about hiding those inadequacies any more? Or don't worry so much about getting an approval from the men folk (and I really mean men here and am not being politically correct)?
I can't help but wonder if that is what worries you. If that is the reason why you were crass (as you so honestly admitted) enough to question a group of professional journalists why they don't wear a Sari any more; how without any compunction you made some woman, who was an absolute stranger to you, feel conscious about not only her attire but also her age. Again, you are not to blame; in the land of the Mahatma such honesty should actually be appreciated. I am just making an attempt to understand your position here.
But then you yourself have elaborated on your position so clearly in this discourse. You so easily shrug away the possibility that women indeed feel uncomfortable wearing a six-yard Sari in this day and age of rat race. Then you throw light on the real reason why women do not wear the Sari any more in this country: young women, you say, view the Sari as a rather traditional attire, one that seems to restrict them; whereas the Salwar Kameez or western dresses are viewed as liberating. In your own words, "... a form of liberation: it removes a self-imposed handicap, releasing the wearer from all the cultural assumptions associated with the traditional attire". Hats off to you, Shashi, for your acute and perceptive observations. How well you understand today's Indian women!
But wait, there is more to come: on Indian women and Indians themselves. You say it is remarkable how Indians have been able to portray their modernity without having to disown their past. By the way, until this point I never realized that being modern was also equivalent to disowning one's past. You say Indians "can be modern in ancient garb"; I must be truly ignorant for I just don't get it: what has modernity to do with one's attire? Or more importantly, with the attire of only the women of the country? I am sure in some future article you will throw more light on it, so I will let it be for now.
Your knowledge about history is commendable too - you talk about how over the years men (again, only men?) have enunciated great ideas - political and philosophical - in mundus and dhotis. I know you have lived out of this country for a long time now, but I can't help but wonder why you haven't said a word about how fewer and fewer people today are actually seen in dhotis. I am sure there were male journalists in that press conference of yours. Did you ask any of them why they were not wearing the traditional Indian attire for men? Could it be that they find it constricting as well; or find the western suit or trousers more liberating? But who am I to say? You are the know-all person on Indian women and their dresses, right?
I feel for you, Shashi - when you were in Japan some years back you say you were shocked to see the western attire take over the entire country replacing the kimono and its male equivalent (by the way, just in case you have forgotten, the male equivalent is called hakama and haori, the former is the bottom half and the latter is the top half). You are also saddened by the fact that China too is going the Japan way, with the streets of Beijing and Shanghai more and more thronged with Chinese people in Western clothes. At that time you were proud of us Indians that we were different.
Now you make a trip to this country and are saddened by the fact that more and more women (not Indian people, mind you, just women) here are being seen in garments other than a Sari. Obviously, it doesn't meet your approval. For you feel that if the Sari were to die out, like the Japanese Kimono (again not the male equivalent), that would mean moving away from tradition, everything that our ancestors have lived through and handed over to us. Again, even though you don't say it, you believe it is the women in this country on whose shoulders the responsibility of saving all the traditions befalls, which can be done, simply, by adorning the Sari. My small mind fails to understand why the men in their trousers have met with your approval so instantly, even though that would also mean the death of the the dhoti.
By the way, I did a quick Google search for your images and see what I have found here: can you do a quick count and let me know of the 20 pictures you see on the first page in how many can one see you in a traditional Indian attire? A wrong question to ask you, isn't it? After all, you are the Indian man and you don't necessarily have to shoulder the burden of upholding "Indianness", right?
You say, "our clothing has always been part of our sense of authenticity" - by "our", obviously you mean the Indian women, don't you? And the authenticity is being lost just because the young Indian women are relegating the status of the Sari for special occasions and are not adorning it on a day to day basis.
Now, I get it. And trust me, I am completely overwhelmed by your thoughts and your ideas. I take a lot away from your article, and I can only humbly hope you will do so too, from this letter of mine.
With Due Regards.
PS: By the way, I forgot to mention something else - your statement about "Punjabi-ised folk who think nothing of giving masculine names to their daughters". I truly didn't understand what you were getting at, and can hope that you will elaborate real soon. In the meantime, this nugget of information may just help you: In a lot of Indian communities Shashi is also used as a name for the daughters.
An Open Letter to Shashi Tharoor
- » Published on March 26, 2007
- » Type: Opinion
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