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On a post last year, showing our erstwhile Raksha Mantri strolling past a tri-services guard of honour, in sandals, with shirt hanging out over his trousers and one hand in his trouser pocket, while an overwhelming majority of readers condemned the lackadaisical and clearly insulting manner of reviewing a guard of honour, some held the contrarian view that it didn't matter a bit.
In every culture, in every society across history, dress has been an important part of social discourse. Most of us know, merely from subtle social cues, what dress is right for what occasion. Some have to be taught.
The Armed Forces have a very formal and structured hierarchy of clothing for every occasion. Horse riding is done wearing jodhpurs or riding breeches with putties and knee-length riding boots or shoes, respectively. A formal occasion is to be attended in ceremonial uniform or lounge suit or National Dress. Various regimental and service-specific accoutrements are also specified.
Lower down on the scale of sartorial formality, is the civilian establishment, where we have a National Dress, comprising a band gala coat and trousers. The National Dress or a lounge suit is de rigeur on formal occasions, for example a reception at the Rashtrapati Bhawan.
In India, we have a very ambivalent attitude towards formal dress, in part because we have never consciously included the concept into our national life, and in part because we are a nation of very diverse cultures. Almost every nation I know, has a formal National Dress, just like we do. But I cannot point out a single nation as ignorant about it as ours.
In 2006, as I was about to turn 50, my mother, brother, sister and I made a trip back into memory. We made our way via Singapore, to Jakarta, where I was born. On my birthday, we visited the hospital I was born in, before making our way to Makassar, the capital of the province of Sulawesi, where my parents lived for over 11 years.
Landing in Makassar, we hired a cab, while my mother extracted the wedding invitation card of the Alis' son's wedding, that she had received in the late 70s, well after we had returned to Meerut. The cab driver took us to a house, which I instantly recognized. While everyone else sat in the cab, I went to the front door accompanied by the cab driver. A maid opened the door and the cab driver explained that we wanted to meet Mrs. Ali. She shut the door and went in. Presently the door opened and a wizened lady in a head scarf opened the door, looked hard at my smiling face and recognized in a 50-year-old face, the 10-year-old boy she had last seen four decades ago. Her hands reached out to my face and she whispered "B-o-b-b-y", the pet name only a few call me now. The cab driver, seeing the reunion, ran out to inform the rest that we had landed up at the right house!
Soon my mother and Mrs. Ali were exchanging tearful greetings, while a younger woman stood by, watching the proceedings with awe and some reverence. Two days in Jakarta had triggered off some memory of Bahasa Indonesia for my mother and for me and amid faltering Indonesian, the two ladies tried to catch up on all that had transpired in their lives - that both had been widowed, all their children had married and they were both happy grandmothers. That is when we learned that the woman standing alongside was her eldest son's wife, her son, the mayor of Makassar, having gone away to Bandung for a Bridge tournament!
A while later, a pretty teenager, Mrs. Ali's grand daughter walked in, obviously returning from a half day at school and was excited to see us all. She spoke flawless English and was able to get a whole lot more conversation going with her to-and-fro interpretation of our talk.
The Alis were among our closest family friends, along with the Spaniard Baslamas and the Ramchandanis who lived across the street from us. My childhood memories of Mrs. Ali, are of a strikingly good looking, statuesque woman, always elegantly dressed in calf length skirts and dresses and occasionally in traditional Indonesian dress of sarong and fitted top. The sight of the same person now, in a dark hijab and a head scarf, was a reminder of Wahhabi funding and the destruction it has wrought across the planet.
Promising to meet up again in the evening, we left the Alis, to drive down Jalan Haji Bau, to find our house. I identified it immediately, while my mother kept arguing that it wasn't; till I pointed out to her the changes that had taken place and the Ramchandanis' house across the road. We approached what used to be our house, which was now flying the Indonesian flag and had armed policemen manning the gate. We learned that the house was now occupied by the police chief of the province. The head of the security detail allowed us a round of the house from the outside, explaining apologetically, that as the lady of the house was away to her parents, he couldn't allow us entry into the house. We left a telephone number with the guard commander and departed, to look up the TB hospital my father had founded in the city.
Meanwhile the entire city's map had come back to my mind and I began confidently directing the cab driver to the hospital, pointing out the Military Hospital on the right and the public gardens on the left, along the way. Till we reached a mall where the hospital should have been! My mother insisted we were at the wrong place. But I asked our cab driver how old his mother was. Satisfied that she was old enough to answer my question, I asked him to call his mother and ask her what happened to the hospital that was there, where the mall was now. His excited voice told us I was right. The hospital had been allotted a much larger plot of land and had been rebuilt at a different place. Assuming that it would be a completely different place by now, not even carrying the original foundation stone that would have borne my father's name, we decided to go and find our hotel instead. But by now, our cab driver was so involved in the unearthing of this piece of history, that he insisted we visit the hospital at the new site. And so we did.
As we entered the hospital entrance, we found the foundation stone! And all of us, dressed in our touristy worst, posed beside the stone to take photographs. Till the commotion attracted the Matron, who bore down on us with a stern look and a finger on her lips, hissing out a "shhhh"! On our cab driver explaining who we were, she eagerly escorted us to the office of the Director of the hospital. My mother was carrying about a kilogram of photographs of the hospital, recording its foundation stone laying ceremony and several photographs of my late father. The Director fell silent for a while. Then he placed his hands over the photographs and showed us the walls of his office, adorned with the photographs of earlier directors of the hospital. The only one missing, was a photograph of the founder he said, for which there was an empty space on the wall! He asked for custody of the photographs for a day so that he could get copies made and requested us to please visit the hospital definitely at 10 AM next morning. The Matron was by now beaming from ear to ear. long sleeve boho wedding dresses
We made our way to our hotel. The Alis visited us that evening for more catching up. I went out to town to search for the Makassar club and my kindergarten school, which was just behind the club. My search was in vain for both had been demolished for other buildings to come up instead.
The next day we reached the hospital at 10 AM, again in our touristy worst, to collect the photographs and leave for some sight seeing. To our amazement and then horror, we found the entire hospital staff decked out in ceremonial national dress to welcome us, the women in greenish woven sarong with a gold brocade shaped top and the men in a similar outfit with a straight coat! We were ushered into a conference hall, my mother invited to grace the podium and and amid claps and cheers, was gifted an ornate, traditional model of an Indonesian deep-sea fishing boat.
We stuck out like sore thumbs in a hall full of men and women dressed in formal national dress. But we were overwhelmed that the whole hospital thought fit to honour us by receiving us and feting us in their national dress.