Sadly, I was far removed from such sartorial elegance. Most of my school days I wore shorts, only lately to graduate to trousers. The acme of finesse was to cover my miserable short-sleeve linen shirt with an overused corduroy jacket. When I went to college, I won a scholarship and had the excuse to acquire two Oxford shirts – a style I fancied – and gabardine pants. That, for me, was the pinnacle of sophistication and I went to college with unduly enhanced confidence.
Appearance felt critical in college, no doubt because there were women in the class. We prized anything that would give us a visual distinction. So it was that Amal came to my attention. Not just mine, but of my friends too. The remarkable thing about Amal was that he wore dhoti with the elegance of a world-conquering megastar. Every crease was in place, every fold was perfect, the overall impression was nothing short of stunning. Amal was a dhoti wizard, a master practitioner of the dhoti-wearing art.
Amal was in another class, but I didn’t let that little thing stand in my way. I cornered him and took him to the nearest coffee house. On the way, I gathered the other co-admirers and broached the delicate subject. Amal had to tell us the secret of his mastery. Would he please, please teach us how he wore a dhoti and made it look like some royal apparel? From modesty or from sheer lack of self-knowledge, Amal seemed taken aback. Six fellow students, all apparently desperate to learn how to wear a dhoti like him! He could barely believe our eagerness, but we told him emphatically that we would like to learn his secret and as soon as possible.
“But I would need a place to show you how to do it. I couldn’t do it on college premises?” he said.
I had a ready solution. I lived right next to the college, three minutes’ walk. We had a large apartment on the third floor, and it was entirely mine the whole day because my parents both worked. On the day he was free, I could lead him and the other friends readily to my place. I would have a couple of dhotis ready for him, for lessons and demonstration.
Amal was by now quite impressed by our enthusiasm. “All right,” he said, “let us do it next Friday, when our classes end early, around three in the afternoon.” He turned to me and said, “I will meet you near the college gate and we will take it from there.”
The die was cast.
First the unfolding, then the tying and creasing, and then the different steps of deployment. Finally, Amal emphasized, a thorough inspection to evaluate the result and troubleshooting to take out any glitches. The outcome simply had to be perfect. Amal went over the process twice, demonstrating how he manages each step punctiliously, and then wanted us to try, one by one.
Being the host, I went last and had the benefit of seeing others’ mistakes. Still I was the worst performer. But I am stubborn and kept going until Amal gave his seal of approval. After they had left, I practiced a couple more times to make sure that I had it right.
When father returned from work, I was determined to give him a surprise. I told him, “I want to show you something,” and returned within seven minutes, with a dhoti meticulously wrapped around me, Amal-style. He said what I wanted to hear, “You are wearing it better than me.” He must have mentioned it to mother, for that weekend I had a surprise. Mother presented me with a beautiful dhoti, with a black-and-chrome border, a kind rather unusual those days but which I had mentioned to father as the kind I craved.
I wanted to inaugurate the gift on a special occasion. It appeared three weeks later when our family was invited to the wedding of a son of father’s colleague. I wore the dhoti along with a silk kurta I prized. While my parents talked with their friends, I looked for a familiar face. Then the colleague appeared with a young British girl and said that she, the bride’s pen pal, was visiting India for the first time and attending the first Indian wedding. Could I please take her to the dinner and help her with the unfamiliar food? At the table, I went to fetch her a fork and a spoon, but she insisted she wanted to eat with her hand, like the other Indian guests.
She did reasonably well with the rice and some fries, but then she was served a large ladle of curry with little potatoes. I saw her struggling with awkward fingers trying to lasso the potatoes which kept slipping from her grasp. Then, as she made a determined bid, two potatoes shot out of her fingers, and, dripping with rich brown curry, landed on my kurta and rolled down my precious dhoti. The dhoti now had a new color, a broad, curved stripe of chocolate. The British girl apologetically exclaimed, “Oh, my God!” I looked at my favorite dhoti and my thoughts were less than divine.