A colleague dropped me at the Madras Yacht Club by the Marina, where the cobbled walkways paved the way to the beach sands. The club with its spacious reception area housed a nice, quaint bar with modern indoor lighting, a party hall, and other facilities an elite club could boast of. When I opened the bar door, there was a nip in the cold air generated by the AC. Though my bush shirt and trousers kept me warm, my cheeks had gotten cold by then. The barman greeted me with a familiar smile. Without small talk, he brought my rum and favorite snacks of Burwan Paneer and Peanut Masala over and went back to adjust the AC temperature. The soothing voice of Cliff Richard singing, ‘You are my theme for a dream’ flowed from the DJ box next to the bar counter. It was a Saturday evening, and the bar was totally empty except for me. In a short time, I had ordered another small, wordlessly lifting my empty glass up. When he replaced my drink, I asked the barman where everyone was. He said the regulars were busy doing last-minute checks at the Chepauk cricket stadium grounds for the match between India and England the next day; the rest were at the party hall for a book release function that evening.
To me, the next day was important too. I would need to be at the Chepauk stadium by nine in the morning with my colleague. It was a ten-minute drive from my hotel. He lived locally and would meet me at the hotel, and both of us would take an Uber to the stadium. It was a T20 one-day match. As a sports editor at Deccan Times – a Bangalore-based English newspaper – I was sent over to cover the last match of the year at Chennai.
An early sunset in December was not unusual. The evening sun was giving way to twilight although it was only half five. I decided to leave anyway. Outside, the yellow ceiling light at the portico dimly lit the cemented driveway in the misty winter. Chilly air swept away the warmth the rum had brought as I stood at the portico waiting for my ride. Further away, I noticed the club elders: chairman, Ayyasamy Modhali, and secretary, Douglas Peppin at the lawn reprimanding the gardener. They both wore collared shirts tucked into trousers with a crisp crease. The security saluted them, and they nodded—a reluctant tilt to their heads.
The next moment, a convoy pulled up at the driveway. Behind the police escort vehicle was a white Skoda with a flag on its bonnet. It stopped at the portico steps. Below the flag was a nameplate that displayed, P. Chelladurai, Judge, Chengleput District Court. When the judge rolled down the window, Ayyasamy and Douglas turned around curiously. The driver opened the rear door and a scent of jasmine air freshener followed as the door shut. With a quick pace, Chelladurai climbed up the steps where the doorman stood. Behind him were his two assistants with folded black coats on their arms.
Evidently, he was a VIP – a very important person. I could see that the judge had graying hair and mustache but had made efforts to look smart wearing a crisp white cotton shirt, short-sleeved. He had an air of simplicity about him; he wore no gold rings or wristwatches. His face was relaxed and he had clear, bold eyes although there was not much of a personality to him, being of medium build and height. I could see the doorman’s hand on the long handlebar attached to the glass door. Instead of pulling it, the hand stayed there. He was refusing to open the door. Then, he went a step further and blocked it standing right in front, disallowing the judge to enter. Chelladurai gave him a sympathetic smile and spoke to him softly, but the doorman nodded a vigorous no. It looked as if Chelladurai was patiently making several attempts to explain to the doorman who continued declining vehemently. I stretched my neck to see what the commotion was about. The judge was not wearing trousers; instead, he was wrapped in a Veshti – the traditional Tamil outfit draped around the waist made of white unstitched cloth – and wearing slippers,
From across the lawn, Ayyasamy and Douglas walked towards the entrance. They passed his car and stood shocked gaping at him. Wearing a Veshti, Chelladurai had violated the club dress code. Douglas was instantly disgusted. Ayyasamy sneered at the Veshti, looked down at the attire, raised his eyebrows, and faintly curled his lips. Then, his eyes went cold—he had seen it before; some prominent visitors deliberately meddled with the club dress codes; they found it challenging. For a moment though, Ayyasamy did not want to interfere, with the doorman doing all the defending – in fact, he thought the doorman would send the judge home and that they could score a brownie over the defier, but then the doorman spotted the two.
With a quick turn, Chelladurai spun sideways to face the two. Douglas unbuttoned the collar button; he felt hot under the collar. I could see Ayyasamy frown, and although he was not facing me, I heard Chelladurai speak calmly with them. He was invited to participate in the book release function at the party hall, and he showed them the invitation. With a stiff face, Ayyasamy and Douglas indulged in short altercations with the judge and pointed in my direction. Chelladurai turned to look at me and I found myself moving towards them.
“Hey man, why are you wearing whatever it is that you are wearing?” yelled Douglas. Then, he turned to Ayyasamy and said, “Let’s teach this hoity-toity judge a lesson,” in whispers.
“Well, trousers and a shirt? That is the club dress code,” I said.
“You see, this gentleman over here abides by the rules,” Ayyasamy said, pointing at me again.
“It is 2012, sixty-five years after independence, and we’re still wearing western dresses,” Chelladurai said.
“So, you’re aware of the dress code. Yet, you are intentionally disobeying it, behaving like a Porki – a low-down,” Douglas said, staring intently at him.
The judge gave him a benign smile. “Bless you,” he said.
Standing bunched near the car, the assistants who were murmuring among themselves until then, laughed out loud. In an instant, lines were drawn—a clear divide between western trousers supporters and the ‘native’ Indian Veshti defenders. I felt that the sarcastic laugh was borne more out of a sigh of helplessness than for kudos of approval, but Douglas seemed mocked. With rising hostility, he shook his fist at their faces. The assistants glanced at him but kept commenting in whispers, and although they noticed the threat, they did not budge. Chelladurai turned to give them a stern look. Their eyes sliding away, the assistants fell into watchful silence.
“Don’t be oversensitive,” Ayyasamy whispered to Douglas. “Besides, our members are bureaucrats and police commissioners; we can throw the judge out easily. Be calm, we will win this—as ever.”
“But, why keep the British legacy alive with the western dress code? This kind of colonial hangover is harmful to the Indian psyche.” Chelladurai asked in a pained tone.
Ayyasamy shook his head with disapproval. He stepped forward. “On the contrary, it embellishes our psyche to look dignified in their clothes. Trousers maketh a gentleman. Besides, you are wearing slippers,” he said.
“You mean to say our Veshti is not dignified? And that we are ungentlemanly? You know it: nobody wears Veshti with shoes. Do you even know that Gandhiji wore Dhoti – a north-Indian version of Veshti – homemade sandals for a meeting with the King of England in London in the 1920s?” Chelladurai said with a hint of sarcasm.
“Sir, the club has a dress code that recognises trousers and suits for men. Please follow it. All we are saying is: wear trousers, a shirt, and shoes at the club. When you go abroad, you wear suits, don’t you? The code is the same for any member, be it ordinary or a VIP, and more so for guests.”
“I have heard that when non-VIPs ‘flout’ your rules, you simply throw them out. That is, you do not reason with them as you do with me. Anyway, you need to recognise the local culture too, shouldn’t you?” Chelladurai asked.
“I’m just being practical. Adopting the English ways is the way forward.”
“On the contrary, the dress code is outdated. The British no longer control these clubs. It is meaningless to hold on to that culture. We need to live in the present,” said Chelladurai.
Are you not speaking English now?”
“We can speak Tamil if everybody here, including Douglas, understands,” said Chelladurai. “And, why are the English ways the only way forward? Are the Europeans speaking English? Every country has its own language.”
“Can we agree on one language in India?”
“Yes, Hindi—which was already agreed as the main language in India. Besides, everything is written in English, Hindi, and the local state language. Probably you are not aware,” said Chelladurai.
“Sorry, sir, I don’t think I can allow you to enter. You know, it is what it is,” said Ayyasamy, emphatically.