How’s this for a cool business idea: a tailor on demand? I’d bite; I’d buy; I’d pay above market prices. The festive season has just started and I am discovering yet another area in which I am a complete and utter failure. From this moment on, all the way through to Christmas, the most important man in an Indian woman’s life is not her red-hot sizzling lover; not her boyfriend who brings her bed tea and other goodies; not her daddy or sugar daddy who showers her with solitaires and antique armbands; nor her dear husband who has been putting up with her loud and inappropriate burps for the last 15 years. The most important person in a woman’s life is the local tailor who will stitch her dreams out of brocade, silk and cotton. My failure: I don’t have one. Actually, I have several, but none that I have any sort of clout over.
Scissor-hands: Chetan tailor at Commercial Street, Bangalore, can copy designs. Hemant Mishra / Mint
During the last three months—June, July and August—I had a stream of young returning Indians, all of whom had one commonality. They had dreams of tailoring in India. Matt wanted to tailor himself a suit. My niece, Nithya, is interning with Indicorps in Gadchiroli village in Maharashtra. Her supervisor told her that a sleeping bag made out of silk would keep out mosquitoes and bugs; so she wanted one stitched. Shweta from Seattle needed a blouse taken in. They all came to me. Until that moment, I was doing my Indian Don thing. The whole Godfather approach that I take with young NRIs. Name your wish and it shall be granted; that type of thing. Expansive, a female Marlon Brando sans cigar: That’s me. You want Italian food, baby? No problem. I’ll take you to Via Milano. You want chilled asparagus? No problem. Readily available in Russell Market. You want silver jewellery repaired? To Ibrahim Sahib Street we go. You want a tailor? Ahem….zilch, nothing, nada.
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You want to know my current definition of clout? Somebody who has power over a tailor. Somebody who can get a tailor to do—not stitching, mind you, but alterations and that too, within 12 hours or less. That’s my definition of a VPP (Very Powerful Person). And here is my wager. None of you lovely ladies who are reading this column have one. This may be a sexist assumption but I doubt any of you men have any sort of clout with an Indian tailor. But if you do, let me know and I’ll show up at your doorstep.
I have a tailor. I have several actually, on Commercial Street, Bangalore. I have a guy who only does “pico” for saris. I have Mohammed Ismail who specializes in sari blouses. The “katori cut” black sequinned number he made for me would make Tabu weep. There is Chetan tailor who stitched a slip dress out of raw silk, that resembles a Jil Sander or Thakoon design—if you squint.
Custom tailoring is the promise and pleasure of India, but also, in my experience, a landmine fraught with disappointment. The reason is that the best tailors are temperamental artisans. I’ve had guys refuse my business rather than deliver on deadline. So you coax and cajole; dance and flatter; negotiate and threaten. “Mano a mano. You and me, bro”. Just the two of us, and that lovely lehenga you are going to stitch for me in 10 hours or less.
I think my technique with tailors is all wrong. I approach them like I would approach a boyfriend: full of expectation that he will be the one. So I flutter my eyelashes, dreaming girlish dreams. Ismail (not of the “Call me Ishmael” fame) will look me up and down and mutter three words that are devastatingly succinct. “Ramadan rush, madam,” he says. Either it’s Ramadan or Diwali or Christmas. So I sit there like a jilted lover, waiting for the phone call, or in this case, the delivery of that little black dress. And disappointment.
Sometimes I feel like throwing it all in and going to Raintree, Cinnamon or Hidden Harmony to end my misery. Buy a ready-made outfit and walk out in 10 minutes. None of this cajoling, pleading and begging in half syllables. Please, Master. Saturday. Family wedding. In-laws. He shakes his head without looking up.
The problem is that tailors spoil you. Once you know the pleasures of a custom outfit, tailored to move with your body, you’ll never buy ready-made again. Or rather, you’ll know exactly what ready-made clothes lack. Thoranam boutique on Ulsoor Road is a happy compromise if you simply want Indian outfits. Jayant, who owns the place, is from Kutch and has a fabulous tailor. You go there and choose from an array of fabrics. There are raw silks, jute, cotton and block-prints. He will do packages: Five salwars for Rs2,500. That type of thing.
This is the thing with the tailors I know. Give them two weeks and they can stitch anything. But you have to be flexible. None of this NRI 24-hour-turnaround. And this is why, in spite of all my carping, I love it.
I love dealing with temperamental tailors. I love the fact that you have to figure out just how much money will tempt them without making them lose their respect for you. I love the little verbal dances we do—my flirting to his dour rectitude. My pleading to his, “Nahi kar sakte, ma. Aap kapde le jaiye” (“Cannot do it, ma. Please take your clothes away.”). I love tailors because…in that plunge of a sweetheart neck; in the cut of a halter-neck blouse; in the curvy silhouette of a salwar-kameez lie the secrets of Indian femininity. And they have the key.
Shoba Narayan needs an entrepreneur or a don with a tailor. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org