Being Shashi Means Never Having to Say Its Your Sari

Shashi Tharoor says SariMore proof that the S-G letdown is Sending Shahsi Tharoor down the long stony path to crankdom and grumpy Uncle-ness. He’ll be swilling Johnny Walker Black and talking out his neck with Christopher Hitchens any minute now … although as Hitches still has his turn of phrase and the relevance that comes with a current best-seller … Shashi will once again be an also-ran.

The latest proof of Shashi’s descent into Grumpy Old Indian-ness is that after a bloviating, pompous-ji article on the disappearance of the sari from the modern Day India as it is raked by his Shashi-esque gaze. He did not receive the approbation to which he is accustomed

He has responded to criticism with all the aplomb of an uncle chortling through his moustache …

Have a gander at the musings.

Remember if you don’t read the Tharoor-ists have already won!

The Sari Saga (via The Khaleej Times)
By Shashi Tharoor

13 July 2007
EARLY IN 2007 I found myself unwittingly caught up in a row over sexism (mine) and feminism (others’). It all began with a casual observation in one of my columns, prompted by my last few visits to my homeland: whatever became of the sari?

For centuries, if not millennia, the alluring garment, all five or six or nine yards of it, has been the defining drape of Indian womanhood. Cotton or silk, Banarasi or Pochampalli, shimmering Kanjeevaram or multi-coloured bandhani, with the pallav draped front-to-back over the left shoulder or in the Gujarati style back-to-front over the right, the sari has stood the test of time, climate and body shape.

Of all the garments yet invented by man (or, not to be too sexist about it, mankind) the sari did most to flatter the wearer. Unlike every other female dress on the planet, the sari could be worn with elegance by women of any age, size or shape: you could never be too fat, too short or too ungainly to look good in a sari. Indeed, if you were stout, or bowlegged, or thick-waisted, nothing concealed those handicaps of nature better than the sari. Women looked good in a sari who could never have got away with appearing in public in a skirt.

So why has this masterpiece of feminine attire begun fading from our streets? On recent visits home to India I have begun to notice fewer and fewer saris in our public places, and practically none in the workplace. The salwar kameez, the trouser and even the Western dress-suit have begun to supplant it everywhere. And this is not just a northern phenomenon, the result of the increasing dominance of our culture by Punjabi-ised folk who think nothing of giving masculine names to their daughters.

At a recent Press conference I addressed in Trivandrum, there were perhaps a dozen women journalists present. Only one was wearing a sari: the rest, all Keralites without exception, were in salwar-kameezes. And when I was crass enough to ask why none of the “young ladies” present wore saris, the one who did modestly suggested that she was no longer very young.

Youth clearly has something to do with it; very few of today’s under-30 women seem to have the patience for draping a sari, and few of them seem to think it suitable for the speed with which they scurry through their lives. (“Try rushing to catch a bus in a sari,” one young lady pointedly remarked, “and you’ll switch to jeans the next day.”)

But there’s also something less utilitarian about their rejection of the sari for daily wear. Today’s younger generation of Indian women seem to associate the garment with an earlier era, a more traditional time when women did not compete on equal terms in a man’s world. Putting on pants, or a Western woman’s suit, or even desi leggings in the former of a salwar, strikes them as more modern.

Freeing their legs to move more briskly than the sari permits is, it seems, a form of liberation; it removes a self-imposed handicap, releasing the wearer from all the cultural assumptions associated with the traditional attire.

I think this is actually a great pity. One of the remarkable aspects of Indian modernity has always been its unwillingness to disown the past; from our nationalists and reformers onwards, we have always asserted that Indians can be modern in ancient garb. Political ideas derived from nineteenth and twentieth-century thinkers have been articulated by men in mundus and dhotis that have not essentially changed since they were first worn two or three thousand years ago. (Statuary from the days of the Indus Valley Civilisation more than four thousand years ago show men draped in waistcloths that Mr Karunanidhi would still be happy to don.)

Gandhiji demonstrated that one did not have to put on a Western suit to challenge the British empire; when criticised by the British Press for calling upon the King in his simple loincloth, the Mahatma mildly observed, “His Majesty was wearing enough clothes for the two of us”. Where a Kemal Ataturk in Turkey banned his menfolk’s traditional fez as a symbol of backwardness and insisted that his compatriots don Western hats, India’s nationalist leaders not only retained their customary headgear, they added the defiantly desi “Gandhi cap” (oddly named, since Gandhiji himself never wore one). Our clothing has always been part of our sense of authenticity.

I REMEMBER being struck, on my first visit to Japan some fifteen years ago, by the ubiquitousness of Western clothing in that Asian country. Every Japanese man and woman in the street, on the subway or in the offices I visited wore suits and skirts and dresses; the kimono and its male equivalent were preserved at home, and brought out only for ceremonial occasions.

An Asian Ambassador told me that envoys were expected to present their credentials to the Emperor in a top hat and tails. This thoroughgoing Westernisation was the result of a conscious choice by the modernising Meiji Emperor in 1868. One sees something similar in China today: though the transformation is not nearly as complete as in Japan, the streets of Beijing and Shanghai are more and more thronged with Chinese people in Western clothes. In both Japan and China, I allowed myself to feel a perverse pride that we in India were different: we had entered the twenty-first century in clothes that our ancestors had sported for much of the preceding twenty.

Today, I wonder if I’ve been too complacent. What will happen once the generation of women who grew up routinely wearing a sari every day dies out? The warning signs are all around us now. It would be sad indeed if, like the Japanese kimono, the sari becomes a rare and exotic garment in its own land, worn only to temples and weddings.

Saying which, I went on to appeal to the women of India to save the sari from a sorry fate.

Feedback is, of course, the life-blood of the columnist, but sometimes you get so much feedback it amounts to a transfusion. Practically every woman in India with access to a keyboard rose up to deliver the equivalent of a smack across the face with the wet end of a pallu. Emails flooded in to all my known addresses, including to my publishers and agents; the blogosphere erupted with catcalls, many of which were duly forwarded to me by well-meaning friends. Having digested as many of them as I can take, the only fashion statement I was left in a condition to make would be to don sackcloth and ashes.

So where did I go wrong? It seems my innocent expression of concern at the dwindling appearance of the sari on Indian streets and offices was offensively patriarchal. It reflected the male gaze, demanding of the female half of the population that they dress in order to be alluring to the masculine eye.

Worse, by speaking of the declining preference for the sari amongst today’s young women in terms of a loss for the nation, it placed upon women alone the burden of transmitting our society’s culture to the next generation. And this was unacceptably sexist: after all, my column only called for the sari’s survival, never demanding that Indian men preserve the dhoti or mundu. These arguments were made, with varying degrees of emphasis, by a variety of critics, most notably in a lengthy email from Vinutha Mallya and in an “Open Letter” addressed to me by a blogger who signed herself Emma.

I admitted right away that all these points were valid ones, as far as they go. Yes, I wrote as a man, because that is what I happen to be. If columnists were all obliged to be Ardhanarishwaras, we might be more even-handed in our judgements, but I doubt very much that all our columns would be worth reading.

The purpose of a column is to offer an individual perspective — with which the reader is, of course, not only free to disagree, but encouraged, even invited, to disagree. I apologise if my point of view offended any of my female readers, but I do not apologise for having expressed my point of view on this subject, as on any other. If a female columnist were to expatiate on the merits of tight jeans on male hips, I may not agree with her, but I would not excoriate her for taking a female view of male attire. What other view could she take but her own?

What about my unreasonably demanding of women that they preserve and transmit Indian culture? I have to concede that Indian men have abandoned traditional clothing in even larger numbers than women have put aside the sari. At the Press conference I described, there were a few men in mundus, but the vast majority was in the Western shirt-and-pant combination that dominates working attire in our country today. For every Karunanidhi or Chidambaram who adorn our public life in spotless white mundus, there are ten others in trousers. And, as several of my critics pointed out, my argument was a bit rich coming from someone who spends his working days in a Western suit and tie.

POINT conceded, but I should hasten to add that this is not a result of my own preference, but of the norms of international officialdom. Early in my UN career I turned up at work in an elegant cream kurta, only to have my Danish boss ask disparagingly, “who do you think you are — a surgeon?”

I still wear kurtas all the time after hours, at least when the climate permits it, and mundus in Kerala; but it was clear to me that if I was to represent the United Nations to the world, I was expected to do it in a suit and tie. Indian women in India, on the other hand, would face no disdain for sporting the sari: if they choose not to, it is because they choose not to, not because their employment obliges them not to.

And let’s face it — whatever the aesthetic merits of the dhoti or mundu, they pale in comparison with those of the sari. It’s fatuous to suggest, as several of my critics did, that the two are equivalent. Ask a fair-minded jury of women and they’ll agree that the beauty of a well-crafted sari is a source of non-sexist pleasure — to them, not just to men — in a way that no dhoti can possibly match.

Saris may well be a hassle to wear, and less convenient to get around in, but those are points I had already conceded. What they are, though, is special – and to my relief a handful of Indian women wrote to say they agreed with me.

Shreyasi Deb sent me a blog post in which she declared that “I know that the ultimate weapon in my kitty is the saree … This Sunday I have taken down my Ikat, Chanderi, Puneri, Laheriya, Bandhej, Bomkai, Gadwal, Narayanpet, Maheshwari, Kantha and Kanjeevaram sarees and stroked them in the reflecting sunlight.” (I guarantee no man would ever think of doing anything similar with his dhoti collection.)

And Sindhu Sheth wrote that she would heed my appeal: “I have decided to wear a sari (instead of my regular churidar-kurta) — once a week, to begin with.” In that “to begin with” lies the hope that my original appeal will not have been entirely in vain….

Shashi Tharoor, the former UN diplomat, will write a fortnightly column for the magazine.



Ohhh Shashi … do shut up .. I mean, you’re a pretty consummate old ass, aren’t you? Not that I want to hurt your feelings, of course. What with being in the guild myself and all. Still a purist might well consider you more or less off your onion.



Filed under Cartoons, Grumpiness, News and politics

5 responses to “Being Shashi Means Never Having to Say Its Your Sari

  1. pepper

    I agree… all of tharoor’s writing reflect pompousness and a degree of self-righteous indignation

  2. Inya

    Listen to yourselves. You sound ludicrous. Since when has free expression of thought become an offense? Everything in life is not a battlefield, my fellow country men. Give the man some space.

  3. Pat Benatar would disagree … its all a Battlefield.

    … and Pat kept her 80s hair in the 80s. So she trumps Shashi every time.

  4. Johnny Western

    Far be it from me to disagree with anyone who seeks to maintain their ancient customs, but I had to stop reading at the stuff about the Japanese.

    The point about the Japanese is – they’ve rushed to the forefront of modernity and now are a definer of modernity, not an imitator of it.

    Never the less age wars are pointless, you can’t subvert a river with hot air. It’s especially harder to do it with a feeble body, and impossible once we’ve passed.

  5. Paul Kooros

    Dear friends, don’t have a stroke over this! Everyone should wear what they like for their comfort and convenience. There is something to be said however about keeping culture alive. Culture is just as much in clothes as in literature, art, poetry and music. My father, who came from Iran, was lamenting the loss of so much clothes-culture for practical and political reasons. For example, hats: In his youth there were hundreds of different hats, and you could know each man’s region and village from his hat. It gave you an connection to people, a community that you could know immediately someone from your home town, or home region. That’s what culture is about, connecting people in a unifying fabric (a sari?) they can enjoy for its own aesthetics.

    Unfortunately, in Iran, the king of the time’s Government made it illegal to wear any hat but the Pahlavi cap, like a French gendarme’s hat — a symbol of modernization, in the fassion of Ataturk. It quickly eliminated an enriching hat culture. I would hope that all good parts of any culture, the enriching parts, can be kept, without being at the expense of practicality and progress. In the case of the king, the oppressed people forced to change their dress were resentful, and rose up against not only the dress, but also regretably against the modernization it represented.

    Those who would resist modernization need not be made to feel the threat of losing their culture in the process. The Quebec French feel their culture is so threatened by the English they have “language police,” and their stop signs say “ARRET”. In Paris, not as threatened, the stop signs say “STOP”. Don’t underestimate the danger of the reaction of the threatened conservative (e.g. Iran, Geo. W. Bush?) to modernization. How much better to just be free, dress as you like, and still love and cultivate the good parts of culture.

    Perhaps Shashi Tharoor was being too romantic in wanting to promote the everyday sari. But clothes culture, when not oppressive, is a great treasure; a unifying force in society, giving a sense of common destiny, a foundation for a bright future.

    Love to India from the U.S. – Paul (Denver, Colorado, USA)

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