The White Veshti - contd
by Padmaja Sriram
Chelladurai withdrew and stood by his car, making calls on his mobile phone.
Ayyasamy returned to join Douglas and me, apparently pleased with himself for crushing the ‘little skirmish’ as he put it. I was observing him when he caught me with an unexpected side look.
“What do you think?” he asked with a sidelong glance towards the judge and his assistants. “What do you think of this lot that intentionally comes itching for a fight?” he continued.
“Oh, I am just visiting; so I wouldn’t know them,” I said.
Hoping it was a neutral comment, I avoided introducing myself. The sounds of the murmur lowered while I spoke.
“As if we haven’t seen these types. Clubs elsewhere in the country have sent chief ministers – reigning ones – multinational heads, and directors of top institutes back for acting funny like this—wearing Pyjamas and Dhotis, and, particularly, disobeying the dress code.
“I don’t like these characters. Torchbearers of tradition, my foot,” said Douglas. The next moment, Ayyasamy, wearing a grim face, added. “Spoiling the purity of civilisation,” After a pause, he continued, “If we don’t put our feet down, these so-called traditional upholders might change the language to Tamil.”
“Or play Tamil movie songs for the ballroom dance, abli,” quipped Douglas sniggering at me. After a moment, his hands clenched into a fist and he glowered at me, blue eyes popping out of the light brown face as if somehow I was part of the conspiracy as well. Perhaps he was warning the world in general. Again, I noticed a scornful look on his face: I knew he could disparage anyone’s psyche with that disdainful look. When I looked confused, Ayyasamy said, ”When he said abli, he meant, “I believe”,” and smiled at Douglas. “Keep it quiet,” he whispered to Douglas with an austere look in his eyes.
“But they have Tamil pride. You can’t deny it,” I said quietly, knowing I sounded like the devil’s advocate.
“There is a deeper inferiority complex they harbor. It’s no wonder they are overreacting and faking pride. I will not allow our club premises to be a scene for their shallow protest,” Ayyasamy said.
“Tamil culture is very old, almost 3000 years old. There’s nothing wrong in being proud of it,” I said.
Ayyasamy shrugged. “We don’t care, if we allow this loafing around in the local wear, one thing will lead to another, and before we know it, the natives will ruin the solemn character of this sacred ambience,” Douglas added in a flat tone.
I did not know what to say. So, I nodded in agreement. Despite his quick anger and harshness, it was a surprise to listen to his well-modulated voice speaking impeccable English. Perhaps his folks were settled in Australia or New Zealand.
I observed the vigilant eyes and perked-up ears of the assistants at the other end. At the same time, the doorman was keenly conscious as well as busy checking and allowing entrants through the door. Just then the door opened and a gray-haired man in a safari suit walked out into the porch straight up to Chelladurai. Both of them spoke to each other in low tones with animated gestures. I could hear hushed sounds in Tamil. The Veshti-clad guest looked briefly at the club elders and me. There was more quiet talk. The two club elders were staring at them with open, taunting eyes, working up a stiffer upper lip. The judge then strode, royally accompanied by the safari suit, to make another pitch to them. The assistants and the policemen stood near their vehicles and watched with great caution. The doorman gave a quick glance in our direction. He seemed anxious. Then, Ayyasamy turned to me, signaling their arrival quietly, “They are at it again.”
I made no attempt at a response. He expected me to say something, but I just looked away.
“Hello, I am Kumar, the chief guest at the book release function. I invited the judge. Since he is a guest, I do not think we need to impose the dress code on him,” said the safari suit.
“Apologies, but I repeat: We cannot allow anyone inside the club if they violate the dress code, sir,” Ayyasamy said in a firm voice. “It is your responsibility to have instructed the guests. Please do not recommend further. Period. Thank you. ” Ayyasamy put his hands in his trouser pockets with a flair and stood stylishly erect. The judge and the safari suit sidestepped and after a moment, treaded softly back to the car. They continued murmuring.
In a moment, the doorman opened the door for a prominent-looking member with an ingratiating smile, a bow, and a salute. The two club elders noticed this and, visibly pleased, looked up the steps at him to address.
“You dress right, you’re treated right!” bellowed Ayyasamy like a super baritone performing the finale in an opera.
I could see him being overconfident. Baring his chest up, Ayyasamy stared at the assistants with a drilling look, but they averted the gaze and moved
closer to the policemen, pretending to talk to them. They ignored Ayyasamy’s gesture. But I could see the safari suit and the judge openly reacting to Ayyasamy’s direct attack. With an intense frown on their faces and pursed lips accompanying high wariness, they exchanged words quickly. They now seemed to have decided on a confrontation, and the judge looked like he had preplanned the situation much ahead. With a sideward tilt of his head, the judge gave a nod to the policemen; two of them in mufti walked towards him and stood right behind. His assistants walked and stood to his left. Taking long strides towards the two, Veshti ends flapping against his feet, the judge proceeded to the two club elders with a quiet and dignified bearing. It struck me that he might arrest them, and that thought sent shivers down my spine. But the two did not seem the least threatened, they simply curled their lips again – stronger, this time – as if that particular gesture had seen them through many such past battles.
“We live in India, do we not? The club operates within Indian rules and constitution,” Chelladurai began threateningly.
“Elite clubs all over India, such as ours, are private institutions. So, we do not answer to the government.” Ayyasamy countered with a smirk.
“The club owns huge public lands. You avail many facilities from the government; you cannot claim private status.” Chelladurai looked Ayyasamy in the eye.
“That’s not true. You can check our records,” said Douglas with a grunt.
“You are still forbidden to enter! I have not known any judge breaking the rules.” Ayyasamy growled like a wounded lion. As an afterthought, he said, “Your assistants are welcome to enter though, don’t you think?” he put his hands on his hip and looked at Douglas, who let out a giggle. Patience faded out of the judge. He closed his eyes in slow motion and swallowed the insult. He looked quite hurt, this time very deeply.
Chelladurai retreated, but stood by his car and spoke in low tones with Kumar. They seemed anxious but it did not look like they were seeking another confrontation. Keeping an eye on the judge’s retinue that kept its eyes on the two club elders, I wondered if this was yet another calm before the storm. I sensed the tension and felt that making small talk would ease us.
So, looking at Douglas, I asked, ”What’s for Christmas this year?”
“Well, apart from the booze and the boussards?” he chuckled. “Hmm, let me see: we have the Alistair McGowan comedy. “
“Wow! Unbelievable. Maybe he can tour Bangalore too.”
“Oh, top. it’ll be a Himalayan blunder for him not to,” he said, shrugging. Turning to the door, he bared his teeth saying, “No, not again; the blessed mic isn’t working. I’ll go fetch the recordist, be back in a sec.” He seemed preoccupied for a moment, then calling the doorman, he left stricter instructions not to let non-members in. Ignoring the judge’s retinue whose eyes were glued on him, he clambered up the steps skipping one at a time.
The judge continued making calls frantically. Kumar left him to return to the function. The retinue continued to be vigilant but I sensed a drop in their enthusiasm. After a while, they turned their watchful eyes away and stopped looking at Ayyasamy but the judge continued calling up people but now with lower energy than before. Ayyasamy gave a sigh of relief. The tension began waning. The policemen went back to their vehicles. After a while, the assistants stepped into the car. Douglas was back. The mood had changed. Eventually, the judge climbed into his car, and the convoy drove away. The confrontations were over. The two club elders looked tired but victorious.
My ride had arrived and I waved my goodbyes to the elders and drove away. The next day, the incident was all over the papers. Condemning the archaic practices, the English newspapers in the city gave a vivid account of the incident. Perhaps the judge, in his many phone calls, leaked it. But then again, I had seen such columns appear in Bangalore too. The scene would be debated and even make it to the parliament debates. But nothing would come of it. I got ready to go to the stadium. The match was a tough one, and, unfortunately, India lost to England. I felt peeved remembering how, as a kid, I badly expected India to win the match with England in the 1988 World cup semi-finals, and India disappointed me thoroughly. I did not watch any match for over a year after that. Mostly, India lost matches with England when held at the English cricket fields, but losing on home grounds was unpardonable. It was utterly disappointing.
After about a month, a glance at the day’s newspaper headlines made me read it further with great interest: Tamilnadu Assembly passes a bill to end Veshti ban at elite clubs. The column mentioned the risk of cancellation of the club license and fines as penalties. ***