I had another illusion shattered today. A small bubble that had floated, though despondently, among the debris of burst ones. I have lost my respect for Shashi Tharoor. In spite of his evidently media-savvy personality, I had admired the man’s charm, his success, and – most of all – his way with words and his sensible views. Though not overtly disappointed when he failed to secure the UN top job, I was glad that he was a brand ambassador of a country that so desperately needs respectable ones.
A few columns of space in today’s Times of India burst that bubble and had me foaming at the man for being such an insensitive chauvinist.
He wrote in lament of the sari’s failing popularity. He penned his regret that it seems to be going the way of the kimono. The entire article was a comment not on the state of the sari, but on the small-mindedness of the writer. Sample this: “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.” Being stout or thick-waisted is a handicap? And I haven’t heard yet that Shashi has been appointed “Supreme Judge of All Female Attire and Physical Appearances on the Planet”. Or is that a position he is vying for? Perhaps he is just one of those multitudes of men who feel qualified to comment on anything to do with women, and believe that their opinions matter. I wish, then, that he would air his opinions in private, not in a national newspaper.
But that was just the second paragraph. Further on, he mentions in passing “the increasing dominance of our culture by Punjabi-ised folk who think nothing of giving masculine names to their daughters”, thereby demonstrating himself as not just a sexist, but a racist too (or a state-ist, if you think of the Punjabis as a state, or, perhaps better, a community-ist). Punjabis have a bad influence on “our” (by which I presume he means Indian) culture because they give their daughters masculine names? And which names does he define as masculine? And by what standards? I know of women named Shashi. Does that make Shashi a feminine name? Shouldn’t we look down upon Mr and Mrs Tharoor Senior for giving their son such a name?
It doesn’t stop at that. Tharoor kindly examines the reasons why “today’s younger generation of women” have rejected the sari for daily wear. He ignores their voiced argument of practicality and suggests that the sari is a casualty of the young Indian woman’s aspiration to modernity. That being in pants or salwar is more modern, enabling the woman to free herself from the trappings of an era where women, in Tharoor’s own words, “did not compete on equal terms in a man’s world”.
But neither of these reasons satisfies Tharoor. He deplores the “Westernisation” of Indian women, and speaks nostalgically of how Indians have always been “modern in ancient garb”. He even draws on the Mahatma and his – often criticised by westerners – loincloth. He describes how, when Gandhi was criticised for meeting the King dressed in his simple dhoti, he commented, “His Majesty was wearing enough clothes for the two of us.” And while you read all this, the photograph of Tharoor clad in suit and tie stares up at you from the column.
But of course, it is only women who are burdened with the responsibility of preserving India’s tradition – tradition that is bound up in those yards of cloth. Men of course, can be Indian in suits, but how can a woman in western dress be Indian?
I am not surprised at the sentiment. I have observed enough versions of it to know it is fairly common. I remember a male classmate in my college helpfully informing my jeans-clad friend that jeans were going to be banned in college. “Oh!” I exclaimed in consternation. “What will you guys wear, then?” His confusion lasted only for a second – while his companion laughed loudly – before he said, “I meant for the girls.”
“Ah,” I cried, understanding apparently dawning. “That is a good step. In fact, I am perfectly prepared to wear only mekhela-cador” (the Assamese costume) “to college every day. But first, every guy should be dressed in dhoti.”
It is infinitely worse to have a man of Tharoor’s stature state what seemed a vulgar sentiment in a teenager from a small town. It is appalling that the irony of expressing such views underneath a photograph of himself in western dress escaped a man supposed to be intelligent. For a man who is well-educated, a global citizen, and has worked much of his life in the world’s most overarching humanitarian organisation, his words unmistakably reveal the smallness of his mind.