Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Towel-draped Chairs

Our little symbols have defied revolutions of all political shades. Our deeply entrenched images have not given in to change easily

Dharma Adhikari
Images are not what they used to be. They have become much more than a newspaper or a family photograph, or a Dhurmus-Suntali sitcom.

As our society, politics and ideologies increasingly conspire with the all-powerful digitally advancing economic forces that intrude into our lives, the difference between an object and an image practically ceases to exist.

Some of the uniquely Nepali rarities are simulated everyday by the mass media machinery and thus amplified, and others protrude from our minds as those imagified objects trigger flashbacks. One such supremely arresting experience that has pestered me for some time is the sight of towel-draped chairs in our officialdom. Now, those are more than objects. They are an image par excellence.

More familiar to us and, as a result, an invisible ground overall, include: netas in flower garlands and khada shields, prayer flag-like open air laundries, free-roaming cattle in roads, gentleman in tie and topi, children on tuin for aerial river crossing, Sherpas hauling gears, men paddling rickshaws, and, not to forget, people squatting for open defecation.

You don't need a photo for these to be an image. Even without the mediating technologies, they encapsulate our mettle, our tender spots, our self-pride. They persist, and now with the seemingly infinite social media simulations, they magnify. The attention economy thrives on global referrals, and we often hear about ourselves from others. That's when we find it hard to ignore how they perceive us.

The power of an image lies in rendering things familiar, which oddly means invisible. Our little symbols have defied successive revolutions of all political shades. Our deeply entrenched images have not given in to change easily.

Revolutionary violence may disrupt an order and alter structures, but the little particulars, as habits of the mind, hang tough. No measure of abrupt intervention has helped dissuade them easily. And the pace of evolution is slow to make a quick effect. Often, it is the economy, stupid! And sometimes, it is also a matter of moral choice, for instance, humans co-existing with cattle, as depicted in an iconic image of the 1960s Durbar Square by the late Swiss geologist Toni Hagen, on exhibit this week at Nepal Tourism Board.

The real question is: Do we want to be defined by such images, and if so, in what ways?


It took millions of years for the tree-climbers to begin on all fours, and then to squat, stand and walk. Something must have gone amiss in the chain of evolution; to some, we still look like we are crawling.

But civilization is tricky. Appearance can be deceptive. While "open societies" like to sanitize their media and human perceptions, we tend to be more open and spontaneous in our manifestations. Yet, that does not earn us any credit for openness. Are we chaotic and cluttered? Should we, then, attribute our open cremations and a rather zealous display of corpses in the media to our tribal instincts?

In his powerful book, The Image (1961), historian Daniel Boorstin wrote about the American "age of contrivance" in which false appearances and phony images replace real images, largely in service of market forces and the power elites. The sanitized and carefully choreographed image of a tourist destination, for instance, appears more real than the real place. What we see is not what we get.

The problem with our simulation is that in their pictorial power, objects as images—from tuin crossings to defecation to Sherpa porters—rarefy our realities, shutting us out from the knowledge of existing suspension bridges, flush toilets and Sherpa farmers or businesses.

Coming to the core of this article, some notice the towel-draped chair, a ubiquitous image in government offices, and, and for many, it remains largely invisible. There is more than meets the eye. Kursi, the chair, is itself a symbol of supreme power in Nepal, and when you cover it with a towel, you must be hiding something important.

Lest I get carried away by my own illusions, I could not help but dig into literature and talk to some colleagues in senior government posts about the background and implications of towels being draped over chairs.

It turns out that towel-on-the-chair accounts are more common in India, where this invention took place. However, our Indian friends themselves often lament that few people have bothered to understand its origin. Such towels were introduced there by the British to prevent the subjugated Indians from smudging chair covers by their oily hairs. The colonial masters themselves never covered their chairs with towels. Towels on seat frames were introduced as sweat sponge for human backs, according to another theory.

As imitation is in our DNA, perhaps we inherited this colonial culture from our brothers across the border. Now it is difficult to tell if our maharajas or mukhtiyars in the past ever fell into this 'refined taste'. I'm still looking for any visual evidence from our history that might confirm the speculations about the adoption of this bizarre culture.

And I can't help picture in my mind thousands of chairs decked with towels. The government bureaucracy employs over 80,000 and that's not counting the military. In my mental picture, I also see at least 70 to 80 million rupees changing hands annually simply because these towels aren't free. One senior official, who confides that he uses a colorful towel, says only adhikrit-level employees use it, as a status symbol. "It's a matter of prestige; a matter of maintaining hierarchy".

Personally though, he believes this is a needless practice, but this culture is deeply ingrained. As he put it: "I am telling you as a friend, without the towel on the chair, it is like something is missing—ke pugena, ke pugena".

Popular media representations cash in on this sentiment. It does not exactly look like a towel in episode 2 of the political television drama "Singha Durbar", but Gauri Malla is all for covering her chair upholstery.

Officials I talked to see both merits and demerits of this weird practice. In the old days, towels were handy to wipe hands, to wipe out dust and ink stains. These days, hardly anyone uses fountain pens, and increasingly, office places are vacuum-cleaned and bathrooms are stocked with toilet papers.

An officer says this topic would be considered a trivial issue in Nepal, but a profound issue, for example, in Europe. He was pointing out the government ambivalence on this archaic practice. There is no specific policy; however, he recalls receiving guidelines from his ministry on the use of office equipment, and vaguely remembers some reference to towels. One thing he is certain of is that draping towels over chairs is increasingly discouraged in officialdom.

Throw in the towel! No more race for status or false appearances.


Sociologically, the image of the towel is deviant. The real issue, it appears, is our towel mentality more than the towel draped over the chair. To end on a positive note, things appear to be heading for the better; the oversized Italian-style leather chair in the PM's office looks all bare and naked.

Published in Republica, 9 February, 2016