I have been looking for a darji, a tailor. I could not find one for so many days. Finally I got one after much searching in a place which was absolutely new and strange to me. The search started like this; I found a couple of shirts with broken buttons. Normally I would mend it. The problem then is that the whole balance of the shirt goes with my mending. These shirts being ‘new’, I decided to give it to a professional. It took me four days to trace one. I asked around in the place where I live. Everyone knew there was a darji, a tailor sitting under the tree. I went to the tree and I did not find him there. I asked a cobbler who was sitting nearby. He told me the darji had moved to another shop and he pointed to one direction. I went that way but in vain. In a couple of kilometers, I could not find any tailor, which I found scandalously strange for a suburb.
At night before sleeping, I started rolling the word ‘darji’ in my tongue. Tailor is a word that comes natural to me. In any village you find a couple of tailors; hunched to their machines they make clothes for the people in the village. Then with the globalization there came the readymade clothes. Still there are hardcore purists who like their shirts to be stitched by a local tailor. I grew up in a village where we had well known tailors. They literally ruled the fashion sense of the village. If a half pants was made like a bag, however we protested he got away with his fashion statement, which for us was a statement of our aesthetic backwardness. As we were growing we found out young tailors in the neighboring villages who could stitch shirts and pants in the trendiest ways and mostly our trend was decided by the regional cinema, which itself was a watered down version of the Hollywood via Bollywood.
In Delhi, I was asking for a tailor. But few knew the word. Then I used my school time knowledge of Hindi and used the word ‘darji’ for tailor and it worked. There were so many words in Hindi that started with the letter, ‘d’ which had attracted me in the school. They were, Darwaza (door), Deewar (wall and a famous Amitabh Bacchan starrer), Dawai (medicine), Davat (ink pot), and Darji was one of those magical D words till all of them were overpowered by the name ‘Dawood’ of the D Company. The moment I used the word darji, people started showing me directions to the darji’s dookan (tailoring shop). But this mysterious darji was permanently absent. I started wondering why there is an absolute dearth of tailors in the streets these days. Is it because of the readymade revolution that has taken over the clothing industry in India?
New industries have rendered many traditional crafts and cottage industries useless or non-functional. When one could get easier, cleaner and value for money stuff through mass produced readymade consumables why should one go for the hand crafted, time taking and tedious products which could in anyway claim a match with the perfection of the readymade stuff? Many craftspeople therefore have migrated to other industries or started something new altogether. This actually has sent these craftspeople or skilled laborers several rungs down in the social ladder. A darji who has been an integral part of the village life like a cobbler, an umbrella repairer, a knife sharpener, a barber, a potter and so on, suddenly has gone useless and is casted away from the newly established intricate economic relationship between the urban and the rural.
The absence of tailors from the streets of Delhi’s suburbs made me think further about the change of roles and relevance of these craftspeople in our daily lives. So long as we use a stitched clothe whether it is made in London or in Ludhiana, there must be someone stitching the pieces together. That means the darjis are still at work and they are still doing their jobs. Very few might have gone out of work and most of them might have found jobs in the readymade garment industry. I ran a search in the Youtube to see how readymade dresses are made. As far as a decent dress is concerned more than stitching, cutting plays a very crucial role. In the traditional clothing industry, the master tailor is the one who does the cutting on a high table and does the stitching of the main body. The apprentices are given, stitching of cuffs, hands and buttons to begin with. A tailor becomes a master tailor and is called so by his apprentices only when he cuts the cloth in the right proportion.
The Youtube search sent me gasping for air. There is one master tailor who does the ‘cutting’. How does he do it? If you are making four hundred shirts of the same print, that many layers of the cloth are laid and a stencil cut and is stapled on the upper layer. Along the stencil lines a machine runs and cuts four hundred shirts in ten to fifteen minutes. Once the master and the quality controller check the ‘cut pieces’ to their satisfaction, these pieces are bundled out to various contractors who run sweatshops in different parts of the country. This is where I see the lost darjis again. Here you find thousands of tailors, old and young, men and women sit in rows like assembly line machines and stitch the given pieces together. They do not know how the final shirt would look or feel like. This is what exactly Karl Marx had said about the assembly line workers in the factories as alienated laborers.
The village tailor knew what he was making or what he made. He cut the cloths, he did the stitching and he saw young children wearing it to schools and their father wearing it to the offices or workplaces with a lot of pride. Like a cobbler knows the client by looking at their boots, the village tailor knew which shirt now seen in the street on a man or a boy or a girl was made by him. He was not an alienated worker. He was a craftsman who made a crafted aesthetic consumable object. He rendered his cut and personality and touch to it. In the sweatshops, he loses his touch, cut and personality. He becomes the extension of the machines that runs the thread. His mind is benumbed. His legs no longer move with the waving pedal. He just needs to control the speed of the ‘machine’. Cut pieces come to him and he makes the stitches on it and they are passed off to the next assembly line for whatever work left on it.
Once upon a time, his space was right there on the side of the street. He had a decent shop with his works hanging from the hangers. He commanded a lot of respect from the people in the village who treated him as an integral part of their lives. They read newspapers in his shop, they shared political news, they even used their shops as the hub of information. Indian postal department indirectly used to use the tailoring shops in the villages as the drop points. People going to the market could pick their letters from the tailor. He was a reliable person. A school boy like me whose mother came only late in the evening from her office work, could sit in a tailoring shop in my village and could read all those magazines and children’s story books that came for selling. I could read all of them free of cost listening to the buzzing music of the sewing machine created by the rhythmic movement of the tailor’s legs. It was a day care center in that sense with no such tags attached to it. It was a reading room with no convention of a library. It was a news hub but never an editor’s room. Today, in the sweatshops, like thousands of works he too has lost his face. He has become a cog wheel the giant machinery of the readymade industry. From the street side prominence he has relegated into the ignominy of the sweatshops.
Today, a street without a darji’s shop looks like a street incomplete. It is like a beautiful advertisement with a glaring spelling mistake. It is like a blank in the sentence that demands urgent filling in but none cares to do so. When a sentence makes apparent meaning without a letter or a word, people could get on with it. A street loses its music when the hawkers, peddlers, tailors, cobblers, potters, barbers and so on are chased away into the backyards. A street loses its charm of being a people’s place when such absences are made so pronounced. Today streets have become the places where people walk with a purpose, bully the others with a purpose and rush in order to reach. A street becomes a street when people walk aimlessly just to enjoy the feel of it. The magic of a street cannot be regained or a new magic could be created if the street is demarcated from innards of a shop well lit, with a huge glass windows with very attractive displays. A street can never be a street when life itself is mutilated, marinated, fried, packed and sold like chicken wings and legs.
One thing I noticed, each time they pointed a place where the possibility of seeing a darji was suggested, I found each of those places was a dingy little hole with an iron shutter. The rust on the shutters and the absence of a signboard tell me the stories of the exodus of all the tailors from our country’s suburbs to the distant sweatshops. The streets now dons a new glamorous look. One supermarket is flanked by a spa and a fashion saloon. Along the streets, I see so many unisex parlors. I see gyms advertising their services for ‘Mens and Womens’. The wellness industry is at work here and everywhere. When wellness takes the front seat, somehow goodness has gone to the backseat. At times, I feel, it has left the vehicle itself. Finally, I meet a darji in a faraway alley. Many hawkers had sent me in different directions on a dusty evening. Finally, in an alley, I saw a woman sitting in the open with a sewing machine and mending a whole lot of second hand clothes. She was no longer making dresses. I asked her whether she could mend my shirts. To my shock she said, she could if I get buttons for my shirts, myself. I have never heard such a thing in my life. A tailor who does only mending jobs no longer feels the need to keep any necessary items for making a new dress. In due course of time, she too has become a patch worker in her mind’s sweatshop.