Jawahar jacket and Gandhi cap
By Narendra Luther
Culture is mimetic. We not only live but also survive by imitation. A child would not learn to speak – and hence hear -- if it did not have the company of people who spoke to it day in and day out. Keep a newborn child in an isolated closed room and he will grow into a dumb and deaf person. This imitation is both conscious and unconscious. The fashion advertisers exploit this human trait. We imagine ourselves to be looking like the models we see and copy -- if use the products they hawk.
Our Role Models
In the days of my youth we wore ‘Jawahar Jacket’ and ‘Gandhi Caps’. The jacket was the same old one that generations of our ancestors have worn. But when Nehru made it his trademark, it acquired a new name and became a craze. The cap that Gandhi made fashionable was worn by the coolies in South Africa on whose behalf he fought against the regime there.
It was not the external vestments they popularized. They stood for certain ideals, and people of that age – my parents’ generation -- and their children -- my contemporaries also imbibed those ideals in varying measures. Some seniors burnt their normal imported clothes and gave up their vocations. Youngsters too emulated them in their own way and learnt to live frugally and to sacrifice some of their wonted luxuries. We read the books and articles of our revered leaders and heard their speeches. We fasted when they asked us to do so. We joined processions and shouted slogans. The atmosphere was charged and we felt ennobled in a life of voluntary deprivation. There was a promise of Churchillian ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ -- and of the reward of freedom. Subhash Chandra Bose exhorted the Indian POWs handed over to him by the Japanese in Singapore: ‘Give me blood and I will give you freedom’. In response, a famished and under-equipped soldiery buckled up and launched on a long march to Delhi to unfurl the tricolour at the Red Fort. People in their thousands went merrily to jails and underwent torture without squealing. People die for ideas and ideals given to them by their idols.
By way of a quiz, I asked some youngsters if they knew what ‘Jawahar Jacket’ was. They hadn’t heard of it. I showed them one that I have and they laughed. ‘It is a normal jacket. What is so great about it?’ ‘Gandhi Topi’ – yes that is what some ministers – and some attenders in offices wear. They are unaware of the history and the emotions of two generation associated with these items of quotidian wear. Some of them had seen Nehru’s photograph with his jacket, but there are very few photographs of Mahatma Gandhi with the cap that he made famous.
These items made many give up their jobs under the British and give up flourishing practice of law. They exchanged them for years of privation and even prolonged spells of imprisonment. They inspired hundreds of youngsters to do so. Some died, others were hanged, some became disabled for life. Because of them we are free today.
Handicap of peacetime
The present breed of political leaders provides no such inspiration. They have had no drama in their lives. They did not give up anything. They joined politics as an alternative profession. There were rewards to be had there just as anywhere else. How many joined politics with the aim of improving the lot of the poor, for removing tears from some eyes?
They are not to be blamed. Normal peacetimes offer little scope for drama. Freedom struggles, revolutions, and wars – these provide situations and opportunities for heroism, for drama, for exhibiting capacity for sacrifice, for demonstrating qualities of leadership. To show leadership in peacetime, in normal, routine situations is hard. One must have issues to fight for.
But in peacetime, conventional politics, must one indulge in favouritism, jobbery, and corruption? These unfortunately are the traits that can be seen aplenty in our political leadership. They do not inspire except in the wrong direction.
It is not as if there is a void. There are role models still aplenty. But they are a different breed. We have film actors, cricket players and now tennis players who become national heroes and thus role models for the youngsters. Film actors have made drug taking and philandering popular, to say nothing of other minor lapse of character, which they glorify. They make conspicuous consumption a virtue, which youngsters will do anything to acquire. Cricket is no longer a gentleman’s game. Match fixing has made it into a big international industry in which scamsters, smugglers and dons are actively involved. It is another matter that cricket by its very nature of being a most lucrative sport has killed all other sports in India. A victory in an international match is celebrated as a national triumph and the highest dignitaries congratulate the wining players. Recently during the course of the selection of a new captain of the Indian cricket team, an office bearer of the Board of Control of Cricket declared proudly that it was more important than the constitution of the Union cabinet! That reflects the current values of our society. Even for government campaigns for vaccinations or for timely payment of taxes, it is these heroes who are brought into the media. Not unoften it is the selfsame people against whom cases of evasion or nonpayment of taxes are pending. Power, whatever its nature, corrupts. And the power of our new idols is no exception
Thanks to the wide spread and reach of the media, particularly the electronic, there are more exposes now than ever before. We find wolves in sheep’s clothing everywhere. We find crooks and debauches in places which were held to be beyond reproach. We find them amongst godmen, religious leaders, teachers, high officials, and political leaders – in every conceivable place. We find gods with feet of clay. We find double standards practised as a matter of course. We encounter daily instances of moral turpitude and we have ceases to be shocked by them.
Uses of calamities
What is missing today is integrity. That faculty which makes you distinguish between right and wrong, fair and unfair, black and white. That quality marks a man of character from one who lacks it. We imbibe that quality from our early life at home, from our schools, from its demonstration in our leaders in various walks of life, from our heroes. We emulate our role models. But that brings us back to the conundrum. Where are the role models?
It is ironic that human exploitation, aggression, wars, riots – and natural disasters bring out the best in human beings. They shake us out of our ordinary life and bring out some of the best human qualities in us. They also throw up role models for us to emulate. Strange, isn’t it?