Not that long ago social media in Kolkata was in an uproar when a filmmaker was stopped at the gate of a ritzy mall because he was wearing a dhoti kurta.
Filmmaker Ashish Avikunthak, a professor at the University of Rhode Island, says he has been wearing a dhoti kurta as a political statement for the past 26 years. He has studied at Stanford University and taught at Yale and never been differentiated against on the basis of his clothes.
In the motherland of the dhoti-kurta it's a different matter. He says he has been denied entry into "neo-colonial clubs" in Kolkata and "upmarket-gated apartment complexes" in Mumbai and now in a new low, a mall, in Kolkata.
He was allowed in after he argued with the guards in English. He failed the dress code but passed the language test. According to Avikunthak the guards said that "they have explicit orders to not allow people with dhotis and lungis into the mall as they were a security risk."
Not long before that, arts personality Sujoy Prasad Chatterjee had posted on Facebook about being refused entry into a well-known Chinese restaurant because he was wearing a lungi. It was a designer lungi but still a lungi and it ran afoul of the lungi rule. Finally the manager came and approved of it but Chatterjee told him "How dare you judge my wardrobe" and refused to eat there.
Dhotis. Lungis. Kurta pajama. It seems that Kolkata, once the capital of British India is unable to shake off its suited-booted colonial hangover. It's caused a social media uproar and much outrage, and rightfully so. "So this is Calcutta in 2017. Should we not boycott this restaurant?" asked Chatterjee in a Facebook post after his experience.
The clothes are also code for something we do not want to talk about – class. These malls and restaurants do not care about clothes. They care about the class of people they want to allow into their establishment.
But it's really not about the clothes. Or insensitive guards. Or even colonized minds. The clothes are also code for something we do not want to talk about – class. These malls and restaurants do not care about clothes. They care about the class of people they want to allow into their establishment.
And here's the uncomfortable truth — so do we. We might think we are upset that a mall is barring people because they are wearing a dhoti and kurta or a lungi. But if we are truly honest, we would have to admit that the real reason we are upset is that the mall is barring people like us who happen to be wearing a dhoti/kurta/lungi.
Clothes do not make the man. Class does.
The malls and restaurants did not invent class bias. They are just enforcing it. Unfortunately there is no easy formula to calculate class. It's something we recognize when we see it. But how do you create a checklist for it? Clothes are one marker but as we have seen, an unreliable one.
Clothes do not make the man. Class does.
In September 2016, there was another wave of outrage when Mocambo, another restaurant in Kolkata, refused to let a patron bring her driver in for a meal. He was refused because he was not "properly dressed". The restaurant told one media outlet he was not "clean enough" and was "wearing sandals and was dressed in an attire that was not appropriate". They told another outlet he was "indecently dressed... just one pant and shirt."
Kolkata-based filmmaker Srijit Mukherjee tweeted sardonically:
He was just dressed in one pant and shirt - How does one dress in three pants and five shirts at the same time... https://t.co/IV7oEyPXsf— Srijit Mukherji (@srijitspeaketh) September 12, 2016
But while social media huffed and puffed, we all knew that Mocambo's guard, like the guard at Quest Mall, was just the gatekeeper for our own class bias. They were enforcing it not just on behalf of the establishment but also on behalf of its patrons.
As the manager at Quest said there is no dress code, but certain liberties are given to security personnel to prevent people from entering who can "annoy other customers." Or more importantly make other customers uncomfortable. And it would be hypocritical to deny that deep down we are quite okay with that.
This is nothing unique to India. Western establishments often have signs that say "No shoes, no shirt, no service" and "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone". It's just that in India the dividing line of class is just more nakedly on display. We enforce our class lines in clunky ways, sometimes with signs that say "Staff entrance " or "staff elevators", and sometimes with rules like "No dhotis, no lungis". The rules are not foolproof as Avikunthak has shown but we use them so that everyone knows their place.
That's important to us because when that rule is broken, we have Mahagun Moderne in Noida and a riot-like situation with sticks, stones, sickles and rival FIRs. The fight over a missing maid who might or might not have stolen money turned into a full scale mob situation with the class lines on display.
"There is a definite class divide," Harshu Sethi, the employer at the heart of the conflict, tells the New York Times. "They hate us for the money, they wonder: Why are they so well-off, so rich? Why do they have everything? They envy us, and this is how it comes out."
Now the residents are relieved. Minister Mahesh Sharma reassured the aggrieved residents that the government was squarely on their side, not on the side of the maid.
"It is clear that a group of people got together with the intent to injure and kill and they should be booked under those sections and under the Goonda Act.
I assure you that they will not get bail for years to come. We will fight the case on behalf of the family," he said. The shanties in which many of the domestic workers lived have since been razed.
The minister's alacrity to accept one version of the FIR is telling. This does not mean those who vandalize property should get away with it. And the residents were understandably terrified about what happened, fearful for their safety. But the minister's quick reassurance indicates he was trying to tackle an even more scary spectre than a group of irate migrant workers.
Something else is brewing at the gate. If a class war really erupts in India, between PLUs and those not like us, whether in dhoti, kurta, lungi, banian or "one pant one shirt", would the carefully maintained class line not just snap like a clothesline?