In my fathers cupboard lie about dozen dhotis or veshtis as we call them. Faded white and mildly stained, they are fairly unremarkable in appearance. To a layman they might even appear to be flimsy, ageing bed sheets. They are soft and comforting to touch and as I walk, I can imagine the wind fluffing up the fabric as it brushes softly against my legs. There are few garments that can provide the comfort and ventilation that a humble veshti can.
But then I’ve always been a boxer and Bermuda man, I’ve never really chosen to wear a veshti for comfort. Other then religious occasions, I’ve never been forced to wear one. The few times that I have worn a veshti, I have ensured that I’m wearing a pair of shorts beneath and that a belt holds the veshti snugly in place. The truth is, I’ve always had a deathly fear that the veshti would abruptly slip from my waist and slide down in rippling cascades, leaving me open mouthed in front of an unimpressed audience.
When Appa came home from Pondicherry on weekends, he would promptly slip into a veshti and baniyan after a bath. With the baniyan fraying at the sleeves and the faded veshti morosely sweeping the floor as he shuffled across the hall, the very sight of him in that attire caused my mother to go into fits.
“Why must you wear the same old baniyan?” she would cry, “you have so many fresher ones in the cupboard! And is that the way to wear a veshti?? The edges have turned brown from all the dirt that you have generously picked up from the floor! I’ll tell Renuka that she doesn’t need to sweep tomorrow!” In reply Appa would merely shrug his shoulders and go to sleep. Amma would grumble for a while before retiring to bed too.
If it got cold, Appa would take off the veshti and use it as a bed sheet. Of all his habits, this was the one that ticked her off the most. She would give him no peace, threatening him with dire consequences until he put it back on and used a proper bed sheet instead.
“Its disgusting Dev! I feel so embarrassed! Why aren’t you using a bed sheet if you feel cold? What kind of example are you setting for your son? ”.
Appa would groan and comply. Amma would continue to stare at the ceiling and seethe until sleep overcame her. I would smile in the dark and wonder if I’d have similar arguments in the distant future.
And then one day Appa unexpectedly slipped into a pair of oversized brown Bermudas and announced that he had no intentions of clambering out of them. The veshti had been sacrificed for a higher sartorial calling he said; now Amma wouldn’t have to worry about the dirt; after all the Bermuda would never brush against the floor.
Much to his surprise, both my mother and grandmother vehemently opposed the move. To Patti, it was added proof that we as a family were forgetting our roots and blindly aping the west. Her grandson could be forgiven for his attire but her fifty year old son prancing about in Bermudas? It was blasphemy! It was only a matter of time before he wore jeans and started referring to Amma as “Babe”.
To my mother, it seemed like Appa’s sartorial tastes had hit an all time low. While a trailing veshti had been bad enough, a pair of dirty brown Bermudas was the limit! What would the neighbors think? Not to mention her colleagues in school?
“You look ridiculous!” she hissed over the dinner table. “Who would believe you are a physics professor? With that old baniyan and that awful Bermuda, you look like a server boy in a tea shop!”
Patient as he was, even Appa was stung by the remark.
“Who cares what I look like? I’m only sitting in my room, not parading it in front of British Royalty! Besides, it’s my house! I won’t have a dress code imposed on me here!”
Amma ground her teeth and Patti lamented the loss of our culture. I kept out of the argument because I couldn’t pick a side. While I approved of Appa’s open act of rebellion, I couldn’t quite appreciate the way he looked. If he had looked unremarkable in the veshti, he looked a little silly in those corduroy Bermudas. When they became a little loose, Appa would hitch them up around his prominent tummy and tie the dangling naada into a neat bow.
While in a pair of formals, Appa looked every bit like the distinguished intellectual he actually was, with his tattered vest curving over his tummy and merging far too early with the Bermudas that flapped loosely around his skinny legs, I had to admit he looked better in the veshti.
When they realized that their protests were being ignored, Amma and Patti began to resort to more insidious methods. They either sulked or gazed morosely at his legs and sighed. Patti even threatened to pack up and go live with my uncle.
After a while, they stopped allowing Appa to answer the front door. Each time the doorbell rang, they would trip over themselves to get to the door before he did. They had a morbid fear that the visitor would catch sight of Appa and cause shame to descend on the family. After the visitor had been seated in the front hall, they would go to his room and curtly instruct him to change into something more decent before coming out.
The weeks of incessant badgering finally broke Appa’s resolve. One morning he walked into my room and gifted me his Bermudas. I accepted them and stowed them in my cupboard, knowing that I would never ever wear that pair in my life. Appa went back to sweeping the floor with his veshti and Amma was relieved to have something familiar to brood over.
I guess in the end, the real reason why I didn’t take to a veshti was because I associated it with a certain middle aged tiredness. Even though I inherited all of my father’s clothes, I left the veshtis in the cupboard. There was no place in my life as a young active MBA for a worn, middle class veshti.
My roomies and I were celebrating the arrival of our first MBA salary. It had been a stressful few weeks at the office but now that we had settled in, the future looked bright. The thought of a healthy bank balance made us smile contentedly. For that night alone we forgot our petty squabbles and bonded over alcohol. After all, there was nothing like a daaru party to celebrate.
I for my part had declined the heavy drinks, preferring instead to primly hold onto a bottle of Bacardi Breezer. True with an alcohol content of less than 5%, it was scorned as a dainty ladies drink by the guys, but I didn’t care. I could sit with them and drink and not feel guilty later. Besides, it certainly tasted nice.
We laughed, shared stories and as the alcohol levels in our blood rose, we began to have passionate arguments on everything from the Nuclear Deal to the acting abilities of Salman Khan. After we began to tire of the arguments we switched on the TV and waited for the images to appear. We’d been given an ancient and cantankerous television as part of our paying guest accommodation and it took its own sweet time to warm up and show images. Until then it was pretty much a radio.
As the images slowly swam to the surface, we realized that we were watching MTV’s Splitsvilla. I was watching it for the first time and was aghast by what I saw. From what I could gather, a couple of annoying young men got to pick and choose a partner from over a dozen eager, nubile young women. It wasn’t the theme that bothered me. What offended me was how pseudo the whole setup was. The cast looked like a bunch of half witted actors mouthing an inane script. The entire setup was so forced, I couldn’t help but wince. Where was reality TV taking us? It wasn’t even real!
I’m no moralist but suddenly I could catch a glimpse of what my grandmother had meant when she said we were forgetting our roots. If my kids were going to grow up watching such unadulterated rot then the next generation was going to be pretty much screwed.
And then I began to feel guilty. Who was I to pass disparaging remarks? I was no shining example of Indian culture. How could my children possibly look to me for guidance on the same? Something clicked in my head. I quietly slipped out of the hall and made my way into my room.
During my last trip to Bangalore, in a haste to leave for the airport, I had packed by Brother in laws veshti into my bag, mistaking it for a towel. It was buried inside my cupboard now and I hadn’t touched it.
I gingerly unrolled it and carefully wrapped it around my waist. I still hadn’t mastered the art of trying it properly but for a few moments, it held its position. I looked at my reflection in the mirror and had to admit I didn’t look bad. In fact I looked like I’d been wearing it all my life. The veshti completed me.
I smiled at my image and then quietly slipped out of it, knowing that I would be wearing it again soon...