Outrage is a national pastime. Trust Indians to turn a piece of meat into a mountain in no time. The nature of our outrage too varies according to the side of the bed you get up from. Anything is game as long as it carries the potential of being critiqued, ridiculed or rejected. The nature of this outrage becomes particularly severe when the subject is the tradition-west dichotomy. We have been raised on the idea that ‘western culture’ ” whatever it means to you on an individual level ” is bad influence. Foreign money, travel, even their visas are great, but dare you watch their cinema, listen to their music or talk and think like them. A recent incident from Delhi, where a woman wearing a saree was denied entry into an eatery is the latest case in point. How dare the world collude against our ‘tradition’? Who has masterminded this war against our culture?
Because outrage is selective and driven almost entirely on advantageousness, you don’t hear the same people complaining about giant corporations mandating ‘western’ formals for their employees or the fact that Wimbledon or Test Cricket can’t see past its white (racist?) uniforms. Also, almost always, the direction of this outrage is inward. Because an Indian chose to deny another Indian a right to some sort of privilege, everyone in neighbourhood feels entitled to teach the incumbent a lesson in national pride. The same outrage, however, won’t be hurled at western entities, including governments who are refusing to recognise ” forget culture ” even vaccines created in India. You kind of wonder what these facile and frantic opinions subsequently end up achieving, anyway ” other than maybe the completion of a power trip.
Let’s address the attire bit for a second. Sarees are acutely personal to our heritage and culture ” agreed. They represent a quintessential Indian way of dressing ” something corporates refer to as ‘ethnic’ wear in those terribly manipulative internal emails that make you want for a change. But is our cultural fabric so fragile that it feels threatened, it feels fearful of being told that there exists an alternative? If I, as a man, refuse to wear the kurta ” the prescribed ethnic attire for the Hindi belt at least ” which I always do because I find it uncomfortable, am I negating its cultural value or simply choosing something else I feel myself in. Also, is your identity an extension of your clothing or your mannerisms?
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From childhood itself we are empirically taught the value of attire and uniforms. They exist because they help induct discipline, a sense of moderateness that our adolescence will subsequently test with influences from near and afar. Uniforms, while suggestive of a certain collective identity, can also obviously become vehicles of oppression and castigation. Women, in this country can’t dress as freely as men. Were this woman who was denied entry to the eatery dressed in a mini-skirt, backless top, the outrage, I can bet my house on it would have changed motives and targeted her instead. The simple inference being, the dignity of the woman in question is incidental, almost functional to the larger, make-believe conversation of tradition vs modernism, our values vs their influence. I’m not sure what is achieved by holding onto either really.
Now to the part where an eatery doing only what it thinks is best for its business has become the easy dustbin to launch our pointless tirades about cultural values into. Everyone who owns or runs a business has the right to stipulate what works best for them. Don’t like it? Don’t go. Also, the stipulation of a dress code or a uniform of some sort doesn’t naturally imply that everything else you can wear is a cultural abomination. The restaurant, at no point has gone on record to say they are against the idea of women wearing sarees. They are only against them being worn on their premises. I don’t care what the reasoning is behind that particular rule. A lot of elite places have all kinds of rules, and that kind of is the point of elitism ” to be exclusive and exclusionary. Sometimes you can wear all that is required and still can’t get into places.
Freedom to choose is never absolute, because it will eventually be curtailed or countered by someone else’s freedom to choose the opposite. Then again you must decide what these opposites are. Is a pair of jeans the opposite of wearing a saree? Or is it a skirt, or a spandex suit, or a burqa. The thing is, there is no universalism and there shouldn’t be a desire to find any. The saree is a beautiful piece of clothing we prize as a national possession, but its rejection should not be linked to the suppression of our heritage. As much as women in this country love wearing the saree, a lot of them don’t either. As much as some events celebrate traditional ” sorry HR, ethnic ” wear, a lot of them don’t. None of them are negations of cultural heritage. And it certainly isn’t as weak-limbed to be shaken by the choice of attire, surely.