I sent this piece for The Hindu’s Open Page last week. Open Page is a section in the paper for reader’s contributions, within 700 words. It’s gratis; they don’t pay you anything for it. But given the standard of The Hindu, merely getting published is a good thing. I had sent an article last year too, but that didn’t make it (Dog-gone); so, you know. Anyway, this time, knowing Chennai better, I decided to write about something that’s quite intrinsic to the city. And it made it. With minor edits and formatting reduction, an addition to the headline, and inclusion of a summary paragraph. Here’s the link to the online version: This piece on Hindu online. And bellow’s the original piece.
I’ve stayed in Chennai now for about 3 ½ years. And one thing that awes me about the city – apart from how much buttermilk and coconut water people can consume (yes, the heat); how they can sip piping hot tea… at noon… in summer (I realised, it’s to induce sweat for cooling); how people can line up to watch the first-day-first-show movie of their favourite hero, at 7 am, and then go for the next show; how one hero, politician, or hero-turned politician seems bigger than the other, and so does his cut-out; how many pattu sarees a Chennai woman can own; how much gold jewellery she can don – one thing that awes me about this city apart from all those awesome aspects is… the dhoti/veshti/lungi, the different names depending on slight differences in material and manner of usage. (For the purpose of this piece and for the benefit of non-Tamizhian readers, I shall hereafter refer to it as dhoti.)
The dhoti, to me, is near-ubiquitous in Chennai. And even if rapid urbanisation, or “mall-isation”, has eroded some of its universality, it still shows up at the multitude of cultural events the city, being the cultural capital of the country, is host to – kalyanams, arengetrams, upanayanams, sabhas – and of course, shop/store/showroom openings. And after all these years of being here, it’s easy to see why. This single wearable piece of cloth for men boasts of both tangible and intangible benefits.
It’s the ultimate heat-buster. On a hot day, and Chennai has very many of them, when the heat gets to and also into you, simple: just roll it up half-way and let the wind beneath your wings. Want to cool yourself some more? Lift it up some more and fan yourself with the lower end. Take care, though, not to lift too much. (After all, anything goes viral on social media these days.) But then, the seasoned wearer that you are, you already know that.
It’s the epic stretch-pant. Had too much thayir saadham? Want to have more thayir saadham? Put on some weight after the visit to your ooru, where paati fed you all her delicacies? Your religious 5-am, 1-hour walk not yielding results? All you need to do is loosen it a little, and you’re not fretting anymore. Works as well if your walk does yield results. Just tighten it, and you’re saved from buying new clothes. Ingenious, whoever invented this one-piece wonder. (The same guy who invented that other one-piece wonder, the saree?)
It’s extremely utilitarian. We’ve already looked at its use as an airing device. Likewise, you can use it as a face wipe. It can also be a duster if the auto/car/movie seat you’re about to descend into it isn’t to your cleanliness liking. On the sombre side, I have seen several poor and homeless people use it both as a thin quilt – covering half their torso, half their legs, and when really cold, curling up like a foetus and swathing their entire body – as well as a bed-spread to avoid the dirt and dust of the ground.
It’s also democratic. The rich and the not-as-bountiful both wear it. Yes, the rich (and the powerful) largely wear the white, silk version with borders (veshti), and the not-as-bountiful mostly wear the, well, Madras-checksish version (lungi). But it’s democratic because no matter how many veshtis the rich and powerful possess, it doesn’t really show that they have several (unlike the number of cars they possess), because they’re all white (their cars are mostly all white too). In fact, the tables (banana leaves?) turn a bit here as the not-as-bountiful have quite a few in multi-colours, and thus seem to possess many.
Finally, it also reveals character, or at least, behaviour. When angered, you roll it up, ready for a fight. (At least, that’s what Kollywood seems to suggest.) But when you meet someone older or of a higher stature – a star, a politician, or your amma/appa – you immediately roll it down in obeisance.
The dhoti indeed reveals, figuratively of course, many a tale of the Chennai/Tamizh male. No wonder, a couple of years ago, the reigning king and queen of Bollywood too sang paeans to it.
Here are pix of the offline version of the piece.