Vijay Khanna is a good conversationalist if there was one. It is great fun to spend an evening with him if convivial company is in attendance. With the golden liquid that restores the jangled nerves setting the mood, he can regale you with hilarious real-life stories. That evening, the public sector veteran, articulation lubricated and hang-ups dissolved by the amber fluid, was reminiscing of his early days in the institution he later headed as Chairman.
It was the in the early part of his career. Khanna was posted in the factory in the North Indian state. The industrial township had hardly any scope for entertainment other than the film show in the factory club on the 16 mm screen on Saturday evenings. If you had watched the films for a year, you had seen it all, for it was the same fifty films that was being recycled. It was therefore not surprising that the middle level executives of the company looked for other diversions. What could be better than a get-together of a small group of close friends?
Over time, a pattern emerged: they would meet in the house of one of the group by rotation. Often, the conversation would invariably be reduced to talking shop. In order that it does not happen, it was decided that every time anyone of those present talked shop, he would be fined the princely sum of a rupee. The money thus collected would go into a piggy-bank fashioned out of a small earthen pot which they nicknamed ‘beer-belly’. When full, it would go to fund a get-together where beer would flow.
The year was 1972. It was winter. That Saturday evening they had met in the house of Dibyendu Chatterjee and his wife Debjani. He had a guest staying with him: Kumar, the only brother of Debjani. The country head of a large multinational corporation, he talked with a clipped accent. Nattily dressed, not a strand of hair out of place, spit-and-polished pointed shoes, a scarf in a rich burgundy around his neck, he was fashion personified.
The conversation that evening inevitably drifted to men’s fashion: how ‘solid’ colours and bold checks had replaced pastels and subtle stripes in shirts and how complementing shirts and jackets had given way to contrasting combinations. Casual shirts had, at different times, sported dog-collars, long collars, pointed collars, short collars, and no collars. Over the decades, the trousers had changed from drainpipes to bell bottoms to parallels and the lapels of coats had shrunk and become broad.
Chatterji, our host for that evening, was a soft-spoken man. Suddenly, he spoke up. ‘Would you like to see my wedding suit?’ He was on the wrong side of forty and his only daughter was about thirteen. Which meant the suit would be about fifteen years old, give or take a couple of years, Khanna estimated. Was it double-breasted with side-slits? Was it a solid ink-blue or one with bold stripes? Were the lapels broad or narrow? Everybody was eager to see what was fashionable in, say, the late 50’s or the early 60’s.
Encouraged by the over-whelming response, Dibyendu went into the house. It was strange, Khanna noticed, that he went in the direction of the kitchen but soon he emerged and called out to Debjani, ‘Ogo, Debu,shey chaabi-tta kothai?’ As soon as she went in, an argument in muffled voice and sounds of a minor scuffle could be heard. Apparently, the wife surrendered after the initial resistance, for Dibyendu re-emerged, a large shining stainless steel dekchi in hand, ending speculation on the reason for the domestic strife.
Debjani had exchanged the wedding suit, which the now portly frame of the lanky young man she had married could not get into, for the kitchen utensil the bartanwala itinerant vendor of vessels on barter terms, a common sight those days, a tribe which seems to be fast vanishing.
This confirmed Khanna’s vague feeling that he had overheard Chatterjee one morning on the telephone talking to someone in an agitated tone about the bartanwala.