City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Great Indian Rope Trick?

This column has been accused in the past of writing about things that do not deserve to be thought about, let alone be written about in newspapers, those repositories of Terribly Important Things.

Articles about the nightie, the swing, postcards, pigtails, sugarcane juice, the tiffin box and several other such trivialities always has at least some people (the politer lot) go ‘what things you write about, man’. When there are so many important things happening in the world, how does one ignore one’s responsibilities and write about such mundane things? And yet, if there is reason to talk about the big stuff, there is perhaps an equal need to reflect upon some currencies of everyday behaviour, the more trivial the better. So perhaps there is no better time than now, given that this piece is being written on April 1, All Fool’s Day, to write about the institution that holds much of India together- the drawstring or the ubiquitous nada.

The world needs something to hold up its pants and salwars, it must be acknowledged. We have the belt, that pins one’s pants to one’s waist with martial severity. The belt is tether, an imposition of order on one’s midriff and it travels through its own loops till it finds an appropriate slot, into which it enters and remains till such time as the trousers do. Clothes tie our bodies in the name of draping them, and belts in turn tie up the clothes. Belts can be loosened; they are flexible, but not fluid. They are cruel too, in that they provide a means of measuring one’s material progress by way of waistline.

A long worn belt carries the scars of its journey; from a sprightly twig that wears the belt more as affectation than need, to grizzled tree trunk that bulges out of bulges. The notches tell the story of battles lost, of grim last ditch stands giving way to more grim last ditch stands, till the very last notch is left standing, tottering in acute awareness of its mortality. The belt is destined to become heroic before it becomes useless, but eventually even belts can be outgrown.

There is also the suspender, which is an altogether extravagant solution to the problem of gravity. Needing suspenders seems to be an admission of some vital and basic human incapability. It is like wearing trousers with training wheels, pants with bibs, made for people for whom holding up their pants seems a very difficult task, one that needs the help of a few yards of elastic.

Regrettably made fashionable for a while by movies featuring cut-throat business tycoons, this vertical answer to a horizontal question is fortunately seen less often nowadays, but we all know that fashion will not let sleeping dogs lie.

The nada is an elegant design solution to the challenge posed by our bodies; solving the problem by not acknowledging it. It is an instrument that gives its users total control. It sets no standards whatsoever and allows for no measurement. Made for stomachs that expand with caprice, it is all accommodating and all forgiving. it belongs to a world where human imperfection is accepted as a fact of life, and by design no comment is made on this.

The nada is supremely context-sensitive and infinitely adaptable. The variability of circumstance is mirrored in its design- it fulfills a core desire of ours- to ‘adjust’, and does so without reserve. The body is allowed to become whatever it chooses to be; it makes the garment fit the body and not the other way round.

In this it is a counterpoint to everything else that is tailored- in most of our other clothes, the body is measured and the attire is made to fit it. In this mental model, the fact that our bodies are open systems whose function it is to change is blithely ignored. We design clothes for bodies, not people, and the nada begs to disagree.

It is an illustration of the power of the simplest solutions, that use very little resource, but provide sophisticated function. Once one gets past the somewhat cumbersome installation, it is for most part easy to fasten, requires no effort to untie, cheap and easily replaced.

It has its flaws- for one, it occasionally disappears within the folds of the pyjama, and needs to be fished out using an extremely complicated instrument featuring the wrong end of a used toothbrush. The knot sometimes hardens into stubborn denial and needs to be disentangled using a mysterious combination of force and tact that most mothers seemed to have mastered; these nada-whisperers of our time possess a rare gift of coaxing out a battered straight line from a sullen knot.

In the Indian cultural imagination, the nada occupies a place of some significance. It is largely an object of derision, as testified to by Shakti Kapoor in a typical 80s film. With its faithful companion, the dhari-waali (striped) underwear, the long nada was vaguely lewd and largely ridiculous. It is a dangling sign of the nether; a glimpse of the crudity that lurks beneath civilised veneers.

There is a modern version available too. The drawstring that you find on track pants, is a neater version, more prim and decorous. Its role is modest; it doesn’t actually hold up the pants but merely allows it to be tightened just so. The nadawas part of a world full of rustic wholesomeness. Wide comfortable pyjamas, petticoats battered by the washing bats found in every home, and profoundly unsexy underwear- this was the nada’s natural habitat, in which it roamed free. The drawstring is part of another world, one where comfort is a fashion statement.

The tyranny of fitted clothes, that respect neither a full stomach, nor the passing of time is something we take for granted today. We grow out of clothes regrettably frequently, and think that this is normal. Try growing out of a nada.

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