Monday, May 5, 2008


“Business casual? Now what the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“Dress formally, put on your tie and for good measure, your coat too. If you realise you are over-dressed on arrival, you can just take your coat off!”
“Hmm… I was hoping more like polo-tees and comfortable shoes”
“No dude! The word “casual” should be omitted casually. Like when someone says I am a casual smoker, I figure he is just a smoker looking to give his nasty habit a presentable appearance.”
“So, I can’t ditch the tie?”
“Nope. You won’t take yourself seriously without a tie at those cocktail parties, let alone others. Besides, it is a good ice-breaker to say “nice-tie”, and you don’t tend to say that unless you have one on yourself!”
“Oh so that’s the purpose of ties? They provide meat for cocktail party conversations?”
“You know I am vegetarian! But yes, a tie provides substance to conversations as well as to the people wearing them.”

“Is that really true?” I asked myself at the end of that conversation. Thinking for a bit about it, I realised that I have three problems with ties:

1) They are bloody expensive

2) They are difficult to maintain

3) They really have no business on our necks

My experience with ties started with school. Our worldly burdens were yoked to our necks in the guise of discipline. It was just as meaningless then, but at least they were simpler! Not only was it the same tie everyday, I had it really easy with a tie held up at the Adam’s apple by shoe-lace-like thread. The new tie had shiny metallic buckles (needless attachments to needless attachments?), but these dropped off with time, and you would usually get someone to tie it at the back of your collar in a neat shoe-lace knot, so that you could at least undo it yourself.

High School saw the emergence of the proper tie. I never knew how to knot it then, (truth to tell, I still suck at it), and I would get it knotted once at the beginning of term and would slip in and out of it (even if it slid across in the wrong direction!). I remember a line from a speech on the occasion of a graduation function in school. It went something like this: “This school has watched the growth of the people who stand before you today from immature imbeciles who couldn’t knot their ties properly to self-assured young gentlemen and ladies.” I remember thinking then how inapplicable it was to me… I stand today on the verge of my corporate career and still can’t knot my own tie decently! Yet, wearing a proper tie marked a special transition in my life… It was in grade eight that I first had to wear one and I do recall a pride associated with the school emblem on the pocket of my blazer and the nice blue tie, separating us men from the boys.

Unfortunately, the pride associated with a tie inevitably depends on the label on its back. The famous brands are inexplicably and atrociously expensive. I mean, you could choose the silkiest silk and cut and stitch it with utmost care and precision, but at the end of the day, it’s just a scrap of cloth, right? I mean, what manufacturing cost could justify a price that could as well buy a couple of good shirts and a pair of neat trousers? I’ve often had this secret desire to buy ties of the footpaths in Majestic or at the Mumbai local train stations – they look just the same to me. I know, I know… I am no connoisseur! “Ah, the feel of this nice Gucci tie… Heaven!”, my friend says while (window) shopping. Beats me, this sophistication.

While a nice classy red designer tie aids its wearer to put his chin up and cock-a-snook at lesser ties, more often than not, a tie is a symbol of conformity and servility. Waiters in hotels wear stupid black bow-ties to help finger-snapping customers identify them in the crowd. Door-to-door salesmen in Indian cities wear borrowed ugly large ties with floral patterns on them as they try to put their biscuit packets and magic massagers past you. Exposing your neck is not taken very kindly to in corporate culture. “Where’s your tie?” tie-less souls are oft-asked, the question toned with aghast, derision or surprise depending on the relation with the enquirer. One school teacher who resented our school’s policy of compulsory ties as a sissy western affront to his traditional masculine brahmanical values remarked, “What is a tie but a device to cover shirts with buttons of varying colours?!”

You might agree or disagree that when put around the neck, a tie does to one’s spirit, what Yama’s noose does to a person, but ties invariably have some symbolic significance. A red tie stands for a romantic flame, a riotously colourful one for the animal in us, a dead-black one for the sombreness of a funeral, and so on… they all have their hidden messages to tell – the striped tie, the checked tie, the dotted tie and the plain tie. How one wears it could give away the story of a person’s fortunes and the time of the day – a tie firmly in place, almost squeezing the breath out of the trachea and ramrod straight down to the leather belt at 9 in the morning, is likely to be stray a bit under the effect of gravity and the afternoon sun. By end of day’s play, it is even more likely to be dangling loose mirroring a tongue hanging down from a gasping mouth.

Ties tell us tales, but how did they become so integral and important? It’s surely not a passing fad - they’ve been around for centuries - but there’s so little reason for this fashion accessory – I mean they don’t keep you warm or hold your pants up, right? Everyone would be comfortable without this suffocating length of fabric. So, why don’t we all just drop the tie?

I recently read that women wear high heels to make themselves look taller, which translates to more attractive. But if everyone does that, no one gains a comparative advantage. They do it anyway, I guess. Kinda like the prisoners’ dilemma situation. Or like people watching a cricket match in the stands. They stand up to get a better view, but when everyone stands up, the view is no better, and they are all expending energy unnecessarily.

The tie is a similar dilemma. Undoubtedly, it can add some colour to the drab shirt dressing your slightly pot-bellied torso. The effort and the expense, though, don’t seem worth it to me. However, people have little option, especially in the corporate world. We sell our souls, buy expensive ties. I saw this on a t-shirt once. “Success is when you never need to wear a suit”. It seems equally applicable to ties.

So ties have no practical purpose? Well, now that people do have them on, why not put them to good use? Domineering wives seem to have perfected one particular application of the invention. They yank their husbands off to quiet corners with ease when they desire to give them a good piece of their minds (but don’t think I missed the romantic possibilities). Mr.Bean, a personal favourite, employs his brown tie to amusing effect often, not least among them, to shut out undesirable smells and sounds by tucking the tie-ends into various facial orifices. Of course, it can be brought into play as a substitute handkerchief as well… but moving on from hanky-panky to the sinister, a tie is a handy tool to strangulate someone; however, I have not come across any murder mystery which make use of this plot yet. Beware, don’t try this at home - the copyright for the idea rests with me anyway!

I’ll try and end this with a joke, like Khushwant Singh does in his columns. In a crowded bus (or should I russsh bus? – a Kannada expression for a crowded bus, with the degree of emphasis on the last syllable indicating the extent of claustrophobia), a pretty woman boarded the bus and as she made her way in, I made place for her next to me, though I was being jostled myself. What happened next was somewhat unexpected. She took my breath away, and I felt an urge to make conversation to her. I offered her the strap I was hanging on to politely. “Oh that’s all right”, she said with a smile, “I have one already”. “Excuse me”, I smiled back, “But that’s not a strap, that’s my tie you are holding on to…”

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