Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Hat Tricks


You, who are afraid that patriotism might slip your mind, or terrified that non-patriotic thoughts could make their way into your brain, always shroud your head with a cap – Bhupi Sherchan, 1970. 

My father can hardly part with his Dhaka topi. For much of the past seventy-five years, he has chosen the same colors and design; a pattern of green, white and gray strokes, interspersed with reddish bright diamond-shaped spots.

I am not good at telling the difference between an original and fake Dhaka fabric, but my old man dons his favorite headgear proudly, slightly titling it to an angle, and covering the parting and upper limits of his forehead, just short of touching the temples. Never mind if it isn’t genuine, or if it does not matter to anybody else.

In contrast, I am not a hat enthusiast. As a child, I remember wearing a skullcap in purely white or blue cotton. I marked only two milestones with the Dhaka; not for its inherent feel as the comfiest hat, but for getting photographed with the cap, mandatory for the citizenship card. And then, to culturally accommodate myself with the ritual, when I married my wife.

I must say, however, that my parents never forced me to wear the striped, fez-shaped head wrap with a creased top, or any other types. The Dhaka felt decorous, and I would not invest extra care in its formalities. I was not fond of elaborate designs, including the beret, with its bulging top, or the bonnet on infants or little girls trying to look like butterflies. I would rather settle on a woolen beanie, occasionally, in winter. And I remember wearing a tam at my graduation ceremony.

I don’t know why, I felt comfortable with my naked head; it must be simply personal choice, not social rebellion or anything like that. I guess an open top offered a sense of freedom, without the slightest burden over my gray matters. These days, I sometimes wear baseball cap for the shade its beak offers, but I mostly remain topless even if it means going around with my fast-balding capitulum!

Now I realize I have been a utilitarian, all these years, and I doubt if my father is any different, although some people will argue he has maintained constancy in the matters of his hat, despite the fact that things have changed over the years, and the draconian dress code from yesteryears has ceased to exist in this new republican dispensation. I would concur, though, regardless of the politics of nationalism or identity, his steadfastness, his freedom of choice, not necessarily his hat, should symbolize something more than everyday efficiency.

The confines of my home, however, are far more relaxed than the controls of my government over its citizens’ choices. The new liberal laws remain mute. Everyday attitudes appear more enduring than those mighty political structures of the past. Some people still carry the bogey of “one language, one dress”. A few weeks back public officials in Dang just wouldn’t let up on their obsolete rules. They refused to sign the citizenship card of journalist Gyanu Adhikari simply because he did not submit a photograph wearing a Dhaka topi, which, according to them, is mandatory as a symbol of national identity.

In the past, the idea of sameness, a kin to identical, from the root identity, gave us an illusion of a collective “we”, clobbered through the political and social engineering of the Mahendra and Birendra eras. And yet, with “bad hats” gone and the so-called “white hats” in, trumpeting a new model of pronouncing and processing public interests, our social scalp continues to numb and thicken.

Fortunately, for those who would like to see the self-correcting capacity of a democracy in practice, there was some public buzz over this issue. How could a cap, traditionally worn by hill people, symbolize nationalism for Madhesi or other communities? This week the Supreme Court is hearing the writ petition filed by Adhikari, who has maintained the refusal is unconstitutional; it is discriminatory towards certain communities, and it infringes on his freedom of personal conscience and choice.

Thinking more about this issue, I can only see Nepal as hat-full of identities. Besides the new avatars—proliferating baseball caps and hoods fashionable among the youth—we can still see the resilience of our headgear culture, from pagris in the Tarai to topis in the midhills to perings in the highlands. And here come Rautes, folding their long locks of hair in miitiyaos, their Neanderthal-style head-shades. Now, if variety and numbers have some meaning in a democracy, Sherpas, with their phingsha, ri-nga, sashing, shanag, sogsha, tsezha, washa, and more, offer the widest choice in defining any identity.

However, despite Bhupi Sherchan’s sweeping verse, there is more to human head wraps than just government decrees or popular emotions. Topi also serves to project social status, attend to the habits of our head, to our ritual needs, and more subtly and pervasively to the demands of the marketplace. Each of these functions, I think, is shaped by how well we think we know an individual wearer.

It’s the make. Why else some topis reign while others remain obscure? The Dhakas, the Bhadgaules are in a losing battle with baseball caps. Despite Dhaka’s officially privileged standing, many of our cultural and political leaders have embraced Bhadgaonle.

No, it’s the color: The brightest and assorted colors with sparkling designs remain with the working class, the elites prefer refined, toned-down versions. Watch this election season, many netas, even those who hate the hats, will appear in their constituencies donned in colorful Dhakas, or turbans or skullcaps: Namaste, brothers and sisters, you see, I am your next-door cousin!

There is the treatment, too: Your identity also depends on how you treat your hat, how you make that little dent on the top and give it an angle.

Timing matters: The force of fashion and currents of time can be baffling. Baseball cap, once considered undignified in the US, is chic today.

Turbans or even Mao-style caps could replace our topis any day. Leaders play with public emotions. In the traditionally hat-loving Britain, Queen Elizabeth I impressed hatters with an imperial decree making hats mandatory through the last quarter of sixteenth century. But to the chagrin of our district officers, the American historian Bruce Watson writes that hats have been more often banned than mandated.

In China, Manchu headgear was outlawed during the 1911 revolution, whereas, later, those deemed enemies of Cultural Revolution were forced to wear gao mao zi (tall paper hats). Hats off in disgrace. We love our kalo moso, the black soot.

Don’t forget location: Even self-declared revolutionaries, who have shunned topi publicly, cannot withstand the weight of location, official, public, foreign or virtual. Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai, once in Singha Durbar, donned the elite Bhadgaunles; they could not bet their hats against the supposedly feudal relic.

The power of location is such that it even vanquished the self-esteem of our Vice President Paramanand Jha. Location also forces change in the color of our leaders’ hats. The nearer they reach a village, the more colorful their hats; the farther they are in foreign lands, the barer their heads.

In today’s economy that prizes itself in manufacturing likeablities, some preferred topis get rebranding opportunities, for instance, on the wavy locks of Rajesh Hamal. Opportunities extend beyond national borders, into virtual spaces. There, you don’t have to wear the topi much, you only have to flash it, in parties, in social media networks. Some even like to fabricate photos, forcing our identity on others. And so, as we speak, a picture of US President Barak Obama, showcasing him in a Dhaka topi, continues to circulate, and recirculate, in cyberspace.

Finally, home, sweet home. I believe my father knows his location, whatever that entails. But I am becoming a bit restive these days because more choices mean more temptations. If our topis are to flourish, I feel they must become symbols of youth culture, not nationalism or something very abstract.

Published in Republica, July 31, 2013