The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jan 2, 2008


My sartorial misdemeanours started at an early age. In Caracas, during Carnival, kids at my nursery were to appear in fancy-dress. My classmates were all agog. Some were going to wear regal costumes, others wanted to be Simon Bolivar. A couple of Disney fans announced that they would appear as Mickey Mouse. I boasted to everyone that I would be Batman. On the day, I went wearing a t-shirt with Goofy's face emblazoned on it. "We can't afford fancy-dress", my amma had said. I was not too bothered until my best enemy, radiant in a Robin outfit, asked me where my mask was. I shrugged him off and, when later in the day, he ran into a swing and cut his face, I thought of it as fine payback for his villainy.

In Moscow, we lived in a diplomatic enclave, surrounded by rich Europeans and Americans and their fancy-schmancy clothes and ever-present chewing-gum. I was cheerfully oblivious - clothes never did hold any particular attraction for me. (The only thing I truly envied them was their collections of superhero comics. I was starved for Marvel heroes, you understand. For being untidy and leaving our comics on various articles of furniture, my father had torn up the lot - to teach my sister and me a lesson. I'm not sure the lesson sank in very deeply - I'm still not the tidiest person on the planet - but the pain of the loss of all those books lasted a long time. But that's neither here nor there.) We used to do our shopping at the local Russian stores, wearing bright nylon outfits that would have sent Armani into paroxysms of despair. When Richard, the one pompous American boy in a crowd of generally decent Americans, taunted me for wearing a particularly bilious blue shirt ("You got it at the bazaar, didntcha?"), I yelled, "It's Canadian, you bastard!" and jumped him. He was two years older than me and heavier and he was taken aback by my onslaught, but it didn't take him long to throw me off and mutter, "You're a crazy fucker." I was seven years old at the time.

My fashion sense got progressively worse. By the time I was at St. Stephen's College, I was wearing floppy-collared shirts and bell-bottomed trousers. Add to this mix a head slick with Keo Karpin Hair Oil, a straggly moustache, a three-day stubble, and a rich accent acquired in the international school in Jakarta (where any Indian sing-song was mercilessly put down), and I was an incendiary vision. My friends flinched every time they saw me. Women ran for cover. Those who didn't escape in time found themselves introduced to me several times a week (each time they saw me they pretended they didn't know who I was - took me about a month to figure out I was being shaded, as the slang went.) "Hey!" wagged some wags, "It's the seventies again!"

As usual, I ignored the comments. In truth, they didn't bother me too much, except once when worn down by the sniping, I said, "As long as I dress neatly, what does it matter whether the clothes are fashionable or not?"

My pal Eki was not entirely sympathetic. "You may dress cleanly," he said, drily. "But I wouldn't call this neat."

Meanwhile, my good buddy Guru was attracting widespread attention for his wardrobe of Pierre Cardins and Yves Saint Laurents. Cunningly, he had stocked up in Panama where he had lived before coming to college. Women followed him around, gazing at him adoringly. (It later turned out that they wanted his class notes.)

Epiphany struck (ouch) a bit later when I chanced upon the khadi kurta. This worn with faded jeans and Hawaiian sandals (or hawai-chappal in the vernacular) was the costume of choice for the self-regarding pseudo-intellectual. I took to the combo like a Frenchman to goose liver. Visiting the Khadi Gram Udyog Bhavan, fount of Indian handicraft and rough cotton, in Connaught Place was a religious experience. And the kurtas were cheap! Fifteen rupees a pop. Yay.

Around that time I also started parting my hair in the centre and my stock in college fell to somewhere among the slimes. Ah, memories, memories.

Arriving at the Indian Institute of Science in the summer of 1990 was a true eye-opener. I witnessed an entire campus of geeks, none of whom had any sartorial sense. And if I, fashion illiterate that I was, noticed that, you may imagine the scene yourselves. The population was largely Tamilian supported by a big contingent of Bengalis and Andhras. The Tams were an austere lot, wearing bush-shirts untucked, and baggy trousers in various shades of grey. The Bengalis were wreathed in bidi smoke, so nobody could tell what it was they wore. The Andhra types were veritable peacocks. Orange shirts and yellow trousers. Walrus moustaches. My mind was numbed.

So I found myself suddenly - in my khadi kurtas and jeans - the best-dressed on campus. The others recognised a nonpareil in me. I was beset by sundry classmates who were willing to offer me their unborn children as slaves if I brought them kurtas from my next trip to Delhi. The kurtas in Bangalore were a sorry mess: bad cotton, awful lines, terrible cuts. The fashionistas at Khadi Gram Udyog Bhavan in Delhi would have committed suicide en masse had the Bangalore kurtas been attributed to them. But I didn't sell my soul, oh no, and refused all blandishments. I remained top kurta man in IISc throughout my four years there.

Once I found myself gainfully employed, the first article of high fashion I procured for myself was a pair of round spectacles in gold. Ooh yes. Gandhi, eat your heart out. The next thing I did was to buy a bunch of shirts from an export-surplus store in Bhikaiji Cama Place. Sadly, I can't remember the name of the brand. It was good stuff, though. Two hundred rupees for a shirt that wouldn't shame Van Heusen. The Keo Karpin Hair Oil was forgotten, my parting returned to the left, and I moved on to locally produced Christian Dior toiletries. These were so potent that after applying a judicious amount of cologne after a bath, the aroma was destroyed by the time I got dressed. Still, I thought it was better than Keo Karpin's cloying fug.

By 1996, I was in the USA, land of Walmart and shabby-chic clothes on discount. I splurged. I splurged, I tell you! My glasses were Armani now, and my boots Timberland. My moustache glistened under authentic (and liberally applied) Davidoff Cool Water aftershave. Women looked me for longer than two seconds before averting their eyes and nostrils. I was king of my game.

When I met the wife for the first time, I was impeccably coutoured and on top form. My moustache was long gone. I had thoughtfully shaven it wa-a-ay before - a superb bit of foresight, in hindsight (the wife gags every time she sees my old photos). Fellow Malloos1 would have been outraged. As one said (not to me), "Who do you think you are? North Indian?"

My pals Amarnath and Sriram had told me to lay off the poor jokes and to put on the boots they had thoughtfully presented me with on my birthday. Soft leather, very spiffy. Sure to slay any full-blooded woman. I wore Diesel shirts and Dockers chinos. And a London Fog jacket to ward off the London elements. The wife, though, didn't think much of my jacket and parked her posterior on it in Hyde Park while I held her hand and did my thing. She didn't want to get her bottom wet, you see. But she did agree to marry me, so I guess the shoes, at least, did their trick.

To prepare my outfit for our engagement, I went to South Extension, Delhi's top fashion district. I got myself an elegant kurta - not khadi! It was fine silk. Or possibly cotton. Or was it polyester? I don't remember. Anyway, I wore this kurta and a Kerala mundu, and arrived resplendent for the engagement ceremony. The wife was in her room beautifying herself when her sister ran up to her, eyes round.

"He's wearing a long kurta", she gasped. [To explain: we Malloos, you see, have a short kurta. My North Indian kurta, on the other hand, dropped to below my knees. To be worn with the pyjama, you understand. My mundu was pretty much hidden behind the mass of fabric.]

"How long?" said the wife.

"Long", said her sister.

Meanwhile, my cousin Beena was staggered.

"What are you wearing?" she cried when she found her voice.

"National integration", I said, crisply. "North Indian kurta, South Indian mundu."

A friend of mine told me later that I looked like a fucking priest.

The wife was affability itself. She assured me that I looked cute. What can I say? I love the woman and she is a total sweetie-pie.

She maintained the fiction of my cuteness for seven years, until recently she admitted that she had been shocked (shocked) when she saw me. "Cute?" she said. "More like weird."

"Why do you think I insisted that you wear a Kerala ensemble for the wedding? So you wouldn't slay the guests with your haute couture", she added.

It's good to know that we have no secrets between us now. Ahem.

Anyway, after marriage, we retreated to the USA again. Out went the Walmart outfits. "But it's shabby chic", I wailed as the wife tossed one well-loved shirt after another. She snorted. "Forget chic. It's just shabby."

She propelled me, in one tremendous swoop, to Banana Republic. Suddenly, I was a preppy dude. Women took longer looks at me, perhaps lasting all of five seconds.

When we met my old pal Nitish in Boston, he gasped, "You two look like total yuppies." Back at Stephen's, he'd never have said that about me.

Meanwhile he - at the time still a student - was wearing that old favoured staple: khadi kurta and jeans. He looked extremely comfortable. I, on the other hand, I just glowered with envy.


1. Malloos: diminutive for Malayalis, the denizens of Kerala.


Anonymous said...

This is a hilarious post!

Your time-line suggests you may have been at Stephen's at the same time as some of my best friends - one a diplomat-child himself, another is now a diplomat and yet another now in sunny California. Not trying to unravel your identity, just placing you on a time line in my mind. :-)

Fëanor said...

@laviequotidienne: Ah, I see you're back online! Glad you liked the post. It's been gnawing at me for years. I might know these diplomatic scion chums of yours. But they might have chosen to forget me in view of the sartorial nightmares they faced because of me on a daily basis, heheh.

Anonymous said...

Feanor: Indeed I am back and may even post about the 7 days of rambling if I can muster enough courage to upload photos...

This post has enough information about you. I shall ask them. None of them was so shallow as to use sartorial choices to judge people. They are friends with me after all and that should say something about them hidden depths! ;-)

The one in California is one of my best buddies and blogs at:

Fëanor said...

@laviequotidienne: nope, can't say that proclivitas rings a bell. but anyway, i was fairly obscure in college so i don't hold out any hopes of recognition, heh. also there were jholawalas galore, so how does one pseudo-intellectual stand out from a myriad others? :-)

Anonymous said...

Liked your piece so much that I even wrote a comment but it isrefusing to go! Not just because of the liberal compliments to the serd, I liked the piece. Unlike your places of interest piece where hard cold facts clogged the piece, this one is more personal and warm and would amuse anyone. Kudos man.

The Inquisitive Akka said...

Yup, that was funny!But you know, I just got a new "Sartorius" high precision analytical balance in the lab yesterday so I somehow assumed you were going to write an article about that! :) Strange coincidence huh?:)
You were extremely well dressed when I met you, that was probably the El Nina effect :)
Btw what did you/do you think about my man's dress sense??
Khadi kurtas and jeans rock, I still love them!

Fëanor said...

@Akka: Hello! Thanks for stopping by. I take no credit for any improvement in my fashion sense. Likewise, I don't think your Mr B can take any credit either :-) So I guess you and Nina can feel quietly satisfied. Quietly, I said!

Anonymous said...

This blog was an easy read, as it had humor and human emotions (includiing liberal sprinkle of F word). Keep up the good work

Anonymous said...

Man, you should thank your lucky stars the you came to iisc and increased your self esteem!!!
But I have to admit that the piece was well written and hilarious. Wanted it to go on for some more time when it ended...

Anonymous said...

aha.......hilarious. wonderful. keep the khadi, replace the jeans with pajamas, add a long khadi away with moscow, jakarta, london part and replace them with could almost picture mr mennon as the ubiquitous bong intellectual !!!

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