The Fashionable Chennai Man

Last month I attended an understated but classy event in Chennai which, even though my name suggests it, is not my home, or even my ‘hometown’ as the government would describe it. For me Chennai is the place which always serves as a reminder that there are more elegant ways of living life than the one Delhi prescribes or, for that matter Mumbai.

For the record, I have lived in Delhi since May 7, 1958. That is over 60 years. So as Amitabh ­Bachchan said about his English in a Hindi film, “I can talk Delhi, I can walk Delhi because Delhi Sir is a very phunny city”. This especially so when it comes to dressing because in Delhi it is not just the ladies who turn out in all their finery — which has the same effect as Colin ­Powell’s ‘shock and awe’ — the men also preen about like fully-loaded peacocks.

In Delhi it is not just the ladies who turn out in all their finery — which has the same effect as Colin Powell’s ‘shock and awe’ — the men also preen about like fully-loaded peacocks.

This Delhi practice has been a matter of considerable dissonance between my wife and I. The reason is this. In school the uniform was white shirt with grey pants. In college, when I was staying in the hostel, I saw no advantage in changing this combination and, by the time I found a job, it had become my normal attire. For the best of the last 60 years therefore I have worn white khadi bush shirts.

However, as can happen to anyone who is not watchful, I acquired a girlfriend soon after getting a job. It didn’t take her very long to start complaining about my clothes. Monotonous, she said, and shabby as well. She also asked me to wear shoes which I said I would if she too agreed to wear them. That settled the shoe issue but one day, after weeks of nagging, she bought me two bush-shirts, one bright yellow and one bright blue. Both had checks and I was forced to wear these abominations for the sake of increasingly irritable love and much sought-after peace.

But fortune favours the meek, and after a year or so, she grew tired of me and I was able to revert to my style. I am reminded of this episode because not having attended a similar event in Chennai for a long time I had forgotten how much of a Chennai man I am at heart. While the wives, sisters and daughters had turned up at the said event looking gorgeous, the men — as usual, I was told — were dressed as if they were going to office, which indeed many of them were because the event was at 8 am. I, too, was dressed in exactly the same way — grey trousers and an off-white bush shirt. Off-white because in Delhi, thanks to the dust and other pollutants in the air, white soon becomes brown which I fashionably pass off as off-white.

The contrast between the ladies and the gents in that enormous hall could not have been sharper, especially for my Delhi eyes where sometimes, if you are looking at them from behind, it is difficult to tell the men from the women. In fact, I know men who spend up to `20,000 on a mere pajama-kurta set for use just once or twice. Not so in Chennai, I think. Indeed, I remember a time when the men would turn up in just dhotis, and nothing on top. But that was before air-conditioning had become ubiquitous. Now the New Chennai Man has acknowledged its advent. He puts on a jubba or a ­chettai, usually white. That for him is the height of fashion.

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