He looked at my feet and was aghast. ‘What is this that you are wearing?’
‘Um, it’s just flip-flops, papa! What’s so shocking?’ I asked, knowing fully-well what he meant. Each toe was wiggling cozy inside a differently coloured toe in the rainbow socks. In white flip-flops. Just for Rs. 50 from Lajpat Nagar. I was a new student in New Delhi and back home on my first vacation. And it showed.
‘It looks very funny. And to think you are wearing this to the Masonic family dinner?’ this time the aghast was with a capital A. I wasn’t planning to defile their ‘Temple’ or some such with my informality, but neither was I planning on further defending my dressy socks against his shocks. There was no point. Because I had been his little one growing up in the same house, once upon a time …
And for all 17 years that I was home, my parents made sure that the thin line between comfortable dressing and shabbiness was never crossed. Also, that we children looked as proper as the occasion demanded.
In class 5, I was taught how to iron my school shirts to perfection (including those elusive spots just below the collars and under the arms), tie the right school tie knot and polish my shoes till they shone like stars. I cribbed because my brother’s pants were so much easier to maintain and here I was, every night, ironing my 20 pleats of worsted cotton skirt, the length of which, thanks to my mother, was maintained a good inch or two above the knees. (It looks smart, if you know how to sit and get up, she would say!)
Being in a girls Convent for most part of my schooling and a co-ed Patrician Brother school for the “better” remaining half, clipped nails, no earrings, socks pulled-up and hair tied neatly were just givens. (Sometimes I wondered if my parents having studied in the same schools as me, together, had anything to do with this idée fixation with keeping ourselves prim-and-proper. Perhaps, this shared passion made them fall in love?) I never gave it a second thought, and truth be told, did frown at the ignominy of fellow-students who did not know how to respect their uniforms or tap the Cherry Blossom just right on the ‘open’ dent and use it.
Back home from school, and it was a different story. No one cared a t if it was a whole tee or a hole-y one we wore up to the mango tree. With a home housing 12, including 6 children, every renovation meant mounds of sand to play in and white-wash brushes to steal. July was about trees laden with lichis to peel and eat, and December a month of home-made tandoori rotis in the day and bonfires in the evening, with a stock of wood saved in the kothari for over a year. Some hand-me-downs and a handful of downtrodden rags for clothes did just fine.
However, the moment we had to step out of the house, we would be hurried to get cleaned up and presentable – from top to toe. My parents had a remarkable zeal to get us looking like new, even if it was about going to the subzi mandi. The families staying in the valley for generations knew each other too well. What if we bump into someone we know? was the best papa could muster to make us go from rags to respectable. My mother had second hand knowledge of ‘clothes maketh a man’ kind of phrases from her Judge father who supped with the British so used better, more intimidating, phraseology.
At a time when I was all of 9, I remember papa looking at my feet and going similarly aghast when I wore my new and clean Relaxo chappal with a brown frock, ready to go to the club on a night when, mercy from heaven, kids were allowed to enter instead of waving goodbye to their parents going for a Ball Dance night. I had changed into frills to dress for the occasion, but my flip-flops had flopped. I wasn’t disappointed. Because I did not comprehend. I do now, and cannot thank him enough for that flop. Years later, when I heard my college professor once announce all impressed – ‘You don’t look like a hosteller at all. You don’t come to class in slippers and your clothes are always immaculately ironed. Not bad!’ I knew it was more than genes that were to be thanked for making me stand out from the crowd. It was just what I had been taught.
Today, in planes I see people, especially men, who seemed to have rolled out of bed and into a flight totally against their wishes. The stubble and the bags under the eyes agreeing with me, even as the drawstrings of the hosiery shorts try to bob cheerfully. I see pictures all over social networking sites announcing the contradiction of a new cocktail dress on the lady and a crumpled ‘Rockstar’ tee on the man, ready to go party.
I see running shoes with bow-ties, gym socks driving to office. I see school skirts anything but ironed, yellowing socks peeping out of dusty shoes and girls’ nails and boys’ hair competing for length in classrooms. The ties hang loosely around the necks and the pants dangerously low, showing a fake CK or D&G peeping on a band. And formal dress-codes? A blue-moon, happily replaced with shinier costumes for theme-parties. Why, even the clubs are giving up, what with political kurta-pajamas walking in for drinks and dinner after a day of feeling important, wrinkles, warts and all.
Last night, the flip-flops were back to trigger this jog down the memory lane. A guest walked in in Hilfiger shorts and Puma chappals for a formal dinner in a fine-dine restaurant. (I know they were a fine brand, but they are chappals.) I wondered if my polished pumps were ill-suited for the company. As I looked at the fading glories adorning his feet, I realized mine weren’t out of place at all. It’s the flip-flops that flopped again! And my parents’ idea, and mine, won yet again!
What my son learns to wear and likes to wear only time will tell. I picked a lesson that I liked and I am doing my best to teach him ‘Look your best!’ The homely chappals lovingly called flip-flops, in the meantime, are staying exactly where the occasion demands then to be – at home.
But that’s only my side of the story. What’s yours?
Sakshi Nanda went from studying Literature to serving the print media and finally settling with two publishing houses who called her editor for a couple of hard-bounds, no more! She writes as a work-from-home mother to realize herself as well as to be read, both – with her 2-year-old boy and her sarkari babu beau as the greatest source of ideas and inspiration. She believes eating baby food is therapeutic and that the pen is man’s best invention, after diapers that is! Meet her at: sakshinanda.blogspot.in