The more I see of what we see of sophisticated behavior, the more convinced I am that it is all about telling the world how much time you have to spend on the trivialities of life. We, Indians, have been utterly remiss in adding our own elements to the world-view of sophisticated behavior and it is about time we started to redress this imbalance.
Clothes maketh the man! The more difficult to wear, the more sophisticated the man. If you need a valet to get into your clothes, you are close to the pinnacle. If you actually need help to walk in them, you are at the top. Thus, Western Royalty used to parade around with outfits trailing half a kilometer making it necessary for an army of pages to trail behind keeping the train off the ground. Western aristocracy took recourse to what seems to me the bonsai version of the train – the tail coat!
Indian Royalty has, to my knowledge, not ascended the peak of actually requiring help to move around in their clothing. The Panchakaccham (a way of converting the dhoti into an instant pair of trousers), the madisar (does the same for the sari), the Mysore turban and the Pagadi of the North do admirably well for difficulty in wearing - either requiring a finishing school or a valet to ensure that they are worn properly. (For me, the dhoti is sufficiently difficult – even requiring a page to hold it around my waist securely - and I am sure that, were I a woman, a sari would prove equally so). It is to our eternal shame that we failed to add these – and many more like these from various other parts of the country – to the lexicon of global sophistication.
What the world of sophistication can do to the mundane acts of eating and drinking has to be seen to be believed. Every nation has its own peculiar set of utensils to eat with and even more peculiar restrictions on what and how to use to eat which dish. The west, of course, is the world leader with a multiplicity of forks and knives for multiple purposes and various arcane rituals about where to place which utensil on the table. China and Japan make do with chopsticks – not that wielding them is easy without sufficiently arduous training to rival the table manners of the west.
India has to necessarily concede to the West on this issue. That concession is apparent when you see Indians carefully cutting an idli into four parts; picking one up with a fork; dunking it in chutney which just slithers off the idli when it is lifted out; dunking it again in the sambhar which does the same as the chutney and conveying it to the mouth. If you need a more hilarious sight to spur your digestive juices you can take in the sight of someone chasing a masala dosa all around the plate with a fork; picking it up and losing all the stuffing to the napkin in his lap as he conveys it to his mouth. Ah! If only our ancestors had not been remiss in prescribing the appropriately sophisticated manner in which to eat these delectable dishes.
Not that we have it all easy, of course. Ever tried eating rasam rice off a plaintain leaf? If you see the flourish of the hand that is required to pick the rice along with the rasam you would not be taking eating with your hands all that lightly. Nor, indeed, has anyone else mastered the art of drinking piping hot fluids from stainless steel tumblers (unsophisticated to call them glasses). If we had only learnt to look appropriately down our noses at the gaucherie of people who cannot do either, Oprah would have been telling us apologetically that she was not sophisticated enough to eat with her hands!
I look forward to the day when we have exclusive clubs with dress code prescriptions of ‘Only Panchkachcham and madisar! No entry without Mysore turban’! In the sophisticated precincts of such an august club, connoisseurs of rasam could swirl their steel tumblers, savor the aroma, sip the rasam and laud the guntur chilli vintage of 2010 or the tamarind crop vintage of 2008. In between sips they could sneer at people who used tea-cups for drinking their rasam or ate potato chips with their rasam instead of the sophisticated appalam.
Then, indeed, will India take its rightful place in the world of global sophistication.