Ruminations: My Wardrobe’s Memories By Sekhar Banerjee
In this personal essay Sekhar Banerjee seeks to explore the emotional history of an individual and a country through Bollywood – the Hindi film industry in India.
Wardrobes are always a secret place, much like the hideout that you used to build with your Ma’s or aunts’ sarees below the largest table in the house. Those were the days of large joint families in India with uncles, aunts, cousins, parents and grandparents, and also of ornate, mostly black, wooden wardrobes in respective families under one roof. It was an ecosystem in itself.
Seeking and building a hideout then, wherever that might be – in the unused attic or beneath the healthy shade of a household tree, was not a pastime for the children but a desideratum for them to be alone for some time somewhere. Much like the adults in the family. Wardrobes, too, smelt of privacy, some mystery back then. And they enclosed a sense of calm and timelessness wrapped up in perfumes and naphthalene balls. But, wardrobes are never large enough to hide for the children or for the adults or a family. They never were. The dark insides of wardrobes can only shelter our small parts.
Now that the joint families have almost gone with the wind in urban India, the large tables are gone too. Just like large wardrobes. But the wish to escape to a place as calm as a wardrobe still lingers. It grows more so in the middle of unending spells of lockdowns. Knowing that we cannot get inside the calm womb of a wardrobe, we are now under the largest table that we have – the State, and we are back to our childhood hideouts – separate and nuclear.
We have always been taught to be concerned about bigger things in life. But such a long staggered pause to thwart things as small as droplets rarely happen in one’s lifetime- may be the lifetimes of friends, parents and the relatives put together. And you, in puzzlement, start doing things that you rarely do. Like sweeping the floors as if you are wiping it cleaner than the original floor, washing utensils shinier than when it was new, or, for that matter, arranging your old wardrobe exceedingly thoroughly for the first time in your life.
Some wardrobes are much like messy, disobedient children which do not know when to offer what you are looking for. So you keep all the clothes in ascending order – the oldest ones, the older ones and the latest. Like history. Like memory. With the wardrobe, you try to arrange things in your memory as well because memory sometimes plays anachronistic tricks on us. It has an inherent tendency to favor and situate the most memorable things at a favorable area of your mind’s territory as a reference point, much like placing a favorite shirt of your youth ahead of or prior to its time in the wardrobe, as if, no fashion existed before that or you might not have felt ‘the most favourite’ feeling before that, or after. But things, feelings, fashions and persons do exist before or after a happening, a buy, a pleasure or a lockdown. In a bid to compress and demarcate ‘our time’, we acquire and compress things and feelings beyond our actual time on earth. This omnipresent attribute of memory makes us cherish the second-hand memories as our own as I still cherish my father’s memories of playing a football match with his friends at Tantor – a flourishing village near Dhaka (Dacca then) almost hundred years ago in Eastern Bengal in undivided India. I can still feel the warmth of that golden afternoon on my skin, the football field, and can even see the seeded, thick green mutha grass with inquisitive dragonflies hovering above them. But it was never a part of my own memory. As if this is not enough, I can relate to the taste of bakharkhani ( spiced flatbread, a local delicacy of Decca then) which my father loved and talked about though he left his Tantor and his bakharkhani much before 1947 and partition of India . But I know that I will be able to identify a bakharkhani wherever I see it. I even know how it tastes without having an actual bite- as if, I too existed with my father in pre-partition Bengal and India.
But I go back to my wardrobe this time to know my origin as a primary witness and not as a stockist of memories with an omnipresent self beyond my physical time. I want to arrange my time like a clean wardrobe and take up other co-memories like gifts and heirlooms in another phase – may be in another wardrobe like opening a new file digitally, which we often do with our documents after they get repeated and jumbled up (though this exercise always yields replicated files as we feel insecure to delete, like memory again).
In my primary endeavor to trace back the history of my upbringing, I rummage through my wardrobe and fish out the metamorphosed shirts of the late seventies and early eighties while I was growing up. I find shirts with dog collars, large breast pockets, half-grey half-white load- shedding shirts (a shirt design inspired by the vain government excuse of power cuts in 80’s Communist Bengal). There are saffron Guru Kurtas after the romantic Rajesh Khanna and colourful bell-bottom trousers after the angry Amitabh Bachchan. There is also a Bobby Print (polka dots) shirt after Bobby –a pan-Indian blockbuster in 1973. There were fewer abstractions, and the cuts were mostly a straight lift from the contemporary Hollywood movies with a shrewd twist. The late sixties and the early seventies saw a Gregory Peck style cap and a scarf on a reticent Dev Anand but, surprisingly, swinging Shammi Kapoor was all too inspired by none other than Elvis Presley! Had my parents or my uncles and aunts been alive today, their respective wardrobes, I guess, would have revealed on their special shelves either a Sadhana cut sleeveless churidar-kurtas (Waqt,1965) or a Mumtaz saree (Brahmachari,1968) and a Raj Kapoor-style baggy trouser (Awaara,1951) modelled after Charles Chaplin’s tramp trouser. Though I am sure that the wardrobes of my grandparents would have been as traditional, formal and understated as Bollywood was before and after the Second World War and subsequent independence of India,
However, the parental control was still common and ubiquitous in small towns even in the early eighties. I still recall a hilarious episode of my childhood with bell bottom trousers. In the late seventies, every boy in the neighbourhood was wearing bell bottom pants and it turned into a fashion rage during successive annual Durga pujo carnivals. I was restless to have one. But watching a Hindi movie, let alone following a Bollywood fashion, was considered a dissolute exercise in most of the Bengali bhadrolok middle class family till then. Ours was a small town with a traditional society of migrant clerks, teachers and tea merchants founded in the later part of the nineteenth century, especially to manage the growing tea plantations and subsequent administrative operations in northern Bengal. After a series of emotional tantrums and much persuasion with the womenfolk of the household, I was taken to the most established tailor in our small municipal town whose tailoring workshop, much like the fashion designers’ of today, was also named after him- Debesh. He inspected the fifteen year old desperate boy and, with the usual nonchalance of a master tailor, instructed one of his assistants to take my measurements. While measuring and shouting (Waist – 24! Length -30! ) , the junior paused and asked my mejda (second brother) about the bottom-round that he wanted for this visibly nervous boy. I listened to my frail voice whispering ‘26! 26 !’ Debesh dorji, the master tailor, paused too. He stopped writing the measurements for a whole minute and then retorted – Tahole ki Nouko Baniye Debo (Should I make a boat for you)?
I had to wait a few more years to have my first blue gabardine bell-bottom trouser stitched from Shalimar ( named after a 1978 blockbuster) Tailor – a new tailoring shop with posters of Bollywood heroes pasted on all walls. With Shalimar, our small town also had its first exposure to contemporary Bollywood fashion. Mohammed Irfan, the master tailor, was straight from Bombay (Mumbai now) – the sanctum of Bollywood. He was a thorough professional and never imposed his opinions on anyone. It was also the first time I saw someone writing the bills in Urdu. Within only a couple of years, Debesh closed up shop. Now, after a lapse of nearly forty years, I realize that Mohammed Irfan – a migrant tailor actually from Sasaram in neighbouring Bihar -was a symbol of the changing times in a closed society in a small, traditional town.
But procuring and sporting a fine fabric in a closed economy was as difficult as convincing a good tailor about one’s desired proportions. The illegal import was the only flicker of hope for the young and the restless. So stretchlon and gabardine clothes were smuggled in through Nepal and subsequently sold at a higher premium at Hong Kong market in Siliguri, a trade-centre in the Himalayan foothills. My barda (eldest brother) had a length of blue gabardine cloth delivered from Dhulabari (a border town) in Nepal to our house through a ‘smuggler’ of clothes for me and my sejda ( third brother). It was then common for the youngsters in a middle-class joint family to be dressed in the same set of dresses.
I don’t have my first blue gabardine bell-bottom trouser in my wardrobe anymore but the memory of my earliest introduction to fashion lingers. However, Indian terry-cotton drain pipe trousers, rough denim jeans and jackets of the pre-liberalisation era with box pockets are still in the wardrobe like museum pieces of a lost time.
In hindsight, I realize that it is Bollywood- not my immediate traditional social and cultural milieu that has shaped up a portion of my individual cultural psychology like almost everybody else’s in India. Nobody in India can, possibly, escape Bollywood and its inexorable aura. It is a microcosm of the craftily designed great Indian collective fantasy based on and borrowed heavily from folk culture, history and mythology. However, it was cleverly fused with the West and yet, finally, moulded into a new narrative of the evolving time. Since the seventies, we grew up through films of the romantic Rajesh Khanna, the angry Amitabh, the suave Shahrukh, the amorous Aamir and the sly Salman. Nonetheless, I have found out a tailor-made brown and white baggy terry-cotton pants with pleats and a loose chequered shirt with box pockets tucked in one of the lower shelves of my wardrobe. When did I get that? Is it mine or my father’s? It must be either from the 1950s or late 1980s or the 1990s which outrageously borrowed a few cuts from the past, some cuts from the West, and stitched newness even onto the oddest. My memory could not help me much, and it is now all the more difficult to claim a possession since my father and I are of the same proportions. But, leaving aside my confusion over a personal memory and an heirloom, almost half a century perfectly stood still in a baggy trouser.
Furthermore, an aspect of my clothing memorabilia in the wardrobe strikes me – their colourfulness. They were brown, blue, yellow, green and the shades in between. Do we still flaunt our mood and a naivety for vivid colours? Have not all muted colours, and the combined colours of steel, leather and glass fused with real time noise become synonymous with modernity across the globe since the turn of the millennium? Is modernity a homogeneous, washed-out perspective?
Looking through the window, I find the last leg of spring. It is now hell bent on sporting a new set of attires each day like someone in love for the first time, or, for that matter, the last time. But, however close it is to summer or however distant the next summer is, it intends, by all means, to deck up with its colours, leaves, air, flowers, sounds and its unmistakable aura – an old-world unashamed aura of flaunting its mood even in the middle of a lockdown. Interestingly enough, this again makes me think more about Bollywood than my immediate contagion concerns. I sense that most of my analogies and metaphors for Vasaant Ritu (Indian spring season) are rooted neither in western literature’s finest writers’ best descriptions of spring nor the western film directors’ vivid vernal depiction. It is not either based on contemporary Indian literature. It is directed more by its representation in the Bollywood films based loosely on ancient classical Sanskrit tomes and the concept of Indian aesthetics even after almost two centuries of English education in India. This inherent epic and operatic character, cleverly embedded in a series of elaborate song and dance sequences in a fixed set of plots in spring or in rain, was always the soul of Bollywood movies. Everything – the characters, the plot, the seasons and their festivity- was a part of this grand scheme, not above and over.
It is often said that the concept of India, an amalgam of languages and cultures, exists only through elections, cricket and Bollywood. In such a heterogeneous scenario, Bollywood grew to be the true emotional historian of India – a territory of non-documentation and of forgetfulness. Nevertheless, mobility, market and the resultant homogeneity have, slowly but decisively, robbed Bollywood of its niche for manipulation of fantasy on a fixed set of plots and its unique fashion statements.
Our wardrobes have also changed from the indigenous and traditional to multinational and contemporary. So did our fantasy and its colours. From primary to secondary to offish and complex. Springs or no springs, our wardrobes now look almost the same worldwide.
On a recent trip, just before the pandemic, to Jalpaiguri where I grew up , I asked my cousin about Mohammed Irfaan, the master-tailor of our youth. The question drew almost a blank at first. As most of the old things do. It took him some time to locate Irfaan and his tailoring shop in his memory. A long pause. Then he smiled and remarked – ‘ Oh ! That Irfaan ! Let’s search him out!’
We drove around in the narrow bylanes of our small town on his motorcycle to locate a lost piece of our memory. After searching for an hour or so, and asking almost a dozen swank tailoring shops in the town for a trace of either Irfaan or his shop, we came to know that he was too old now to work and his son ran the shop in the same place where it used to be. We were again baffled. Did we not pass through the same street without finding either him or his tailoring shop?
We went back to the street again. Like a runaway locomotive coming back to couple with the coaches left behind. I was disappointed when we found the Shalimar in a row of small shops that strung out along the new bus terminus. It is now a dingy tailoring shop eclipsed by the newness of the town and its economy. The person sitting inside the shop, behind an old sewing machine, might be Irfaan’s son. I did not ask him anything. Past cannot be questioned.
But my old wardrobe, it seems, has a memory of its own. It has the omnipresent memory of a museum – a museum of my unpublished private diaries in fabric and the personal letters of fashion that I wrote to myself. The history stored in my wardrobe is a piece of the private and emotional history of an individual and a nation.
Sekhar Banerjee is an author. He has four poetry collections and a monograph on an Indo-Nepal border tribe to his credit. He is a former Secretary of Paschimbanga Bangla Akademi under the Government of West Bengal. He lives in Kolkata, India.