You Can't Wear That

21 Sep 2012

It is curious that students in IIT Kharagpur never wear a dhoti, or a lungi. Even more strange is the mandate in the Patel Hall of Residence that students must not eat with their hands, and must come to the mess dressed in ‘fulls’. They must talk in English. OP infamously requires second year students to wear formal pants and a shirt. The candidates contesting for Gymkhana posts find themselves similarly dressed during election time. In the hot and humid months that plague Kharagpur for so long in the year, shorts of any kind are banned in classrooms, compounding the students’s discomfort.

There is one compelling explanation for all this – We are trying to be English gentlemen. I find it rather surprising that in the IIT that Nehru described as India’s future in the making, there exists that most enduring of all imperial legacies. For such a conflux of the nation’s various peoples, belonging to all, and especially the lower-middle, economic and social classes, we seem to be strangely enamored by Western ideals of what is proper. Thus we try to speak English in the British accent in our English labs. We ask our graduating students to pay for convocation robes. And our HSS department teaches German but not Bengali. I think they could teach Bengali wonderfully.

Journalist: “If you go to the second Round Table Conference will you go attired in your native Indian dress or will you prefer European dress?”

Gandhi: “I shall certainly not be found in European dress and if the weather permitted I should present myself exactly as I am today.”

Journalist: “And if the King of England invited you to dinner at Buckingham Palace, you wouldn’t go in your customary Indian dress?”

Gandhi: “In any other dress I should be most discourteous to him because I should be artificial.”

The obvious counter argument is that this is done for reasons of utility. Jeans and a t-shirt is more convenient than wearing khadi, and knowing English and the ways of the western world is invaluable in real world organisations, which are already heavily westernised in their work ethic and outlook. This is true, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t acknowledge and take advantage of our own cultural learnings and desi wisdom. Indian styles of clothing have evolved to suit our particular climate. What could be more utilitarian than wearing a cotton dhoti that takes full advantage of the meagre wind during a stifling, humid, July afternoon? Indeed, this hypocrisy is seen everywhere once you look for it. How many of us will even talk about the fact that the seats on the toilets are ripped off by students because only a few know how to or want to use a Western style toilet, well… the Western way. It makes us uncomfortable, but we should face it – we do ape the west and judge ourselves by their standards publicly, but prefer to do things the Indian way in the private sphere.

We like to delude ourselves, to praise our heritage when it suits us, and to eschew it when coming under fire. There are advantages to both the Indian and the Western styles of living, and we can have the best of both. Let the Englishmen be Englishmen. Let’s learn from other cultures and then adapt it to suit our own needs. And let’s allow shorts and lungis in classrooms. It’s a purely practical matter after all.

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