I write this on Monday, the loud sounds of fireworks from last night still ringing in my ears, this being the Diwali week in London. Last Sunday at Trafalgar Square, the city’s mayor Boris Johnson opened the festivities. An irrepressible host kept referring to him as “Mr Boris” and kept stating the obvious, like a Doordarshan commentator, with appropriately endearing English: “Everywhere, there is (sic) masses and masses of peoples.” Chicken tikka masala, lest one forgets, is the favourite item on British menus now, and supermarkets—even upmarket and organic ones—sell all the dals and pickles you want.
There is the multi-everything Britain visible in its large cities. And then there is that steadfast, stiff-upper-lip, Olde Englande, in the hidden corners of the same cities. I am to encounter one such soon, at this black tie dinner tonight, presided over by the British royalty.
My hosts have reminded me several times that it is a black tie dinner. A British friend suggests I wear a red or green bow tie instead. That would be lese majeste. I am still worried about what might happen if I pick up the wrong fork.
The hosts seem nervous that I might make a multicultural point by wearing churidar-kurta. I might not be let in, I’m quietly warned, unless I wear the kind of stuff toffs and posh aristocrats wear at the Ascot or in period dramas such as Brideshead Revisited that have become a neat little earner for British television networks.
At the shop, the attendant insists I also need a cummerbund, the sash around the waist British officers wore for ceremonial reasons in India. Kamar bandh; tie round the waist. The reverse colonization of the Oxford English Dictionary is alive and well. But if they can adapt their clothes and embellish it with our adornments, can’t I wear something else?
Try a dhoti, a close friend tells me. But she is an American; they fought their way out of being a colony by fighting battles, by tossing tea crates in the Boston Harbour, and by refusing to succumb to the charms of cricket. We had our civil disobedience, but we were non-violent, and remain pleased to be part of the Commonwealth.
Gandhi, of course, would have carried his dhoti well. Winston Churchill found the image of Gandhi’s sartorial preferences at the 1931 Round Table Conference so revolting, he expressed his outrage over “the nauseating sight of a seditious Middle Temple lawyer striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace to parlay on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor”.
I don’t know how to wear a dhoti. I don’t know how to wear a bow tie either: Astride two cultures, at home in neither, I feel like I’m floating in the plot of a postmodernist novel. This is becoming more challenging than it should be, it has become a dilemma: In Evam Indrajit, Badal Sircar’s seminal play, Indrajit asks: “But is there a rule that one must abide by rules? One can hate rules—why should they be there at all?” To ensure stability and order, I know. But that begs the question: Do I obey the rule? What point would I be making if I defy it?
Do I dare disturb the universe? (In the end, I promise, I won’t wear the bottom of my trousers rolled.)
We admire foreigners who wear churidar-kurtas or saris; we don’t seem to mind when at some nightclubs in India, bouncers turn away those wearing chappals. It is polite, then, to take others’ dress codes seriously. We conform; we are penguins.
But there are other ways of getting one’s point across. Some two years ago, I was invited to a seminar at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the home of Britain’s foreign ministry. The building is off Whitehall, not far from steps named after Robert Clive, and his statue greets you as you arrive. East India Company’s governor gives the office its raison d’etre, it seems. The seminar is held in a room named after India. There is tea in the balcony, with the fine English name of Tetley.
The topic of our seminar is human rights, and someone makes the point that it is a Western concept. In my response, I note the irony of our venue, the images of imperial officials sternly staring down at me from their portraits, the statue of Clive outside. And then I talk of Ashoka’s edicts which preceded the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights by a few years, and I talk of that Gujarati barrister, Mohandas Gandhi, as the sources of my tradition. Then, for good measure, I remind everyone that the tea we would drink shortly came from India; and now, the company whose brand is on the tea bag, is owned by an Indian.
And so the order changes—not always with pomp and circumstance, not inevitably with cannon bursts and rebellion. And sometimes, words are enough.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org