The new clothes I brought over from India last week, like many of the other times I travelled, are sitting on a shelf, carefully folded. So did my embroidered sandals sit in their boxes for the entire previous year from when I brought them over from a Kolhapuri emporium. I basked in the knowledge that they were there, a piece of home tucked away in the closet.
When clothes travel over vast distances, they give rise to many phenomena, including fusion in the fashion of the times. But sometimes they also do strange things to people.
A professor in college I suddenly remember, for example.
Even in the Calcutta summers, when the concrete outside our college building grew so hot that even a drop of water disappeared immediately as it fell on the ground and the street dogs curled up in shady corners of the canteen to rest and no one shooed them away, our professor was always dressed impeccably. Dark trousers, full sleeved shirt, tie tightly in place and big black boots.
The staff room for the professors was relatively cool, shielded from the heat by thick walls of the famous building built in the British era. Everything else was engulfed by the sweltering heat in the afternoons. Even the railings of the verandah (that you had to walk across to reach the English Honours classrooms where we students waited) were like superheated rakes in the scorching sun.
No matter what the weather, which was mostly very hot and humid, our “Sir” was always dressed the same even as we sat in out thinnest cotton salwar kameezes under the noisy fan listening to his exposition of the wild storms in Riders to the Sea. I half expected him to vaporize inside the contraption of boots and shirt and trousers one day but he never did.
Sometimes he would tell us stories about his time in England at Oxford or Cambridge, about how he rode a horse in Hyde Park in the early mornings while people watched him admiringly. There were other younger “England-returned” professors in the department, but they had dropped the tie and embraced the open shoes and sometimes appeared in cotton Punjabis on hot days, but our professor never did.
Many years later I was reminded of “Sir” when I had a similar (but reverse) experience in the New Jersey cold. It was at a gathering on the occasion of Saraswati Puja, the annual festival in honour of the Goddess of Learning all Bengalis take very seriously. Continue reading When clothes travel