Some years ago, the acerbic British Labour Party parliamentarian Denis Healey compared an attack on him by Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer Geoffrey Howe to being “savaged by a dead sheep”. He came to mind the other day, when a press clipping from home revealed that I had just been cuddled by a shrap-clawed minx. Or clawed by a cuddly one: it is usually difficult for the victim to tell.

You see, I had spent a pleasnt morning in January in Chennai, in the company of the members of what is still defiantly called the Madras Book Club, in an atmosphere as warm as the air-conditioning at the five-star hotel was fridged. The literati who had invited me to address them were a highly accomplished lot, including novelists, short-story writers, journalists, editors and a generous sprinkling of professional reviewers, many for the estimable Indian Review of the Books, whose publisher, K. S. Padmanabhan, had put together the event. I had often enjoyed, even on the occasion her barbs were directed against me, I made the mistake of telling her so when we were introduced.

The morning went well, if the comments of the participants were to be believed, and it was topped off by a spendid lunch. The lady in question proposed a Vote of Thanks, upon which she and I were roundly applauded. A few days later, however, I received my unjust desserts: a scurrilous piece in an orange-hued rag by the lady herself. It began ominously enough, if you know the genere: “Shashi Tharoor is the epitome of the intellectual as an object of desire,” Beware of lavish first-sentences from usually tart pens: the acid will flow soon thereafter. It did – in the very next sentence: “He’s packaged himself so exquisitely he could have himself stamped ‘Made in India’ and sold at Macy’s.”

There followed a somewhat lengthy disquisition on my attire – “a good bordered off-white Kerala style mundu,… with a long blue striped cotton kurta” – in terms that would have had any self-respecting feminist howling in rage if it had been applied to the attire of a female novelist. (Women are understandably furious st their outfits being described as if they were intregral to people’s perception of their work, and it’s no prettier when it’s a woman doing it to a man) The Lady then specualted on my kurta’s provenance: “Fabindia?” For the record, it was from a modest pavement stall on Gariahat Road in Calcutta that has since been demolished by that city’s urban-renewal zealots. Also, its stripes were green and gold, not blue, but then colour-blindness is not apparently a disqualification for sartorial commentary in our more expensive papers.

The Lady didn’t stop there “Even the folds of his mundu-vesthi hang in unnaturally staright lines.” she opines . “He would be laughed off the streets of Calicut if he were to appear in such a garb. As everyone knows, the Keralite has innumerable ways of twiching up and hitching his mundu around his waist and furling it down as he walks and talks. Tharoor wears his like a ball-gown.”

Now I have no idea how ball-growns are worn, never having needed one, but this attack would have been below the belt, had I needed to wear a belt. I have no idea of the social circles in which the Lady waddles, but we Keralites hitch our mundus or lungis up in casual settings, when fording a paddy-field or chatting with friends, never at a formal occassion, where it would be considered disrespectful and improper, I have spoken at many a Kerala function at which mundus and lungis during innumerable stays at my ancestral village, I doubt I have anything to learn from a Chennai socialite about how to dress comfortably in rural India: but one look at her ample proportions was enough to explain to me why she might indeed consider straight lines unnatural. And yet that wasn’t the end of the adhominen dissection of your beleaguered clouminist. “His haircut is a dead giveaway.” she declares. “It’s fashionably shaggy and American preppy, falling in strands over his noble brow, with not a drop of coconut oil…” Now that’s hilarious. Anyone who have known me since I was old enough to give my own instructions to a barber knows that I’ve always worn my hair that way- in high school in Calcutta, college in Delhi, and on visits to Kerala. The haircut in question, which the optically-gifted Lady imagined to be American, had actually been done at a dusty saloon in the Coimbatore suburb of Kovaipudur, as far removed as possible from the fashionable origins it was supposedly a “dead giveaway” for.

But enough of all this: what exactly is the Lady’s point? It is, of course, that dreaded nemesis of every Indo-Anglian writer: the denizen of desidom challenging the authenticity of the NRI. There are many voices and accents engaged in our national conversation. The punspouting Stephanian is much an Indian as the dhoti-clad dehati, and the Stephanian does not become less – or – more – of an Indian if he dons the dehati’s dhoti. No more than the dehati ceases to be Indian of he pulls on a pair of Levi’s.

These are, the Lady will tell us, platitudes. It’s a pity she made it necessary to repeat them.

Source: Indian Express