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  • We are all bound together by the towel

    Posted On September 17, 2017

    By Karan Thapar

    Have you observed how in government offices the back of the chair behind the desk is usually covered by a towel? You won’t find it on any other chair but the one intended for the most important person. Rare is the office where this isn’t the case.

    I have to admit this is something I unfailingly notice and each time it raises the same question: what on earth is the towel doing there?

    If it’s a very important person’s office the towel will be freshly laundered, sparkling white and visibly clean. But as you progress down the office hierarchy it’s quality and condition changes depressingly. White turns to grey, beige and often brown. The towel looks well-used and often well-worn. And there are even occasions when you wonder if you’ve walked into an office or a bathroom!

    Few are the people who aren’t subjected to this tyranny of the office towel. I’ve seen it on ministers chairs but also in the offices of their private secretaries. Indeed, it seems to be de rigueur in all babu offices. Even general managers and chief executive officers of public sector companies appear to be equally captive. And, of course, there are many who think the towel is an accepted part of office furniture. After all, that’s all they’ve ever known.

    Not, however, Siddharth Nath Singh. In one of his early press conferences as a minister in Uttar Pradesh – about the anti-Romeo squads, if my memory is correct – the first thing he did was remove the towel and hand it to an astonished attendant. More importantly, he did it instinctively. From this I conclude that he, at least, shares my befuddlement: why on earth is there a towel here? Let me now try and answer that question.

    In the ’90s, when I returned to India, I was told this was to ensure that you have your own clean towel. Because the one in the common bathroom is often soiled this is a perk for the privileged.

    However, it was when I discovered that minister’s chairs are similarly draped that I realized this answer was inadequate. They, after all, have their own bathrooms so why do they need a towel on the back of their chair? This time I was told it was to ensure their pristine clothes are not spoilt by dusty or dirty chairs.

    As explanations go this one was particularly odd. But, then, if the best Victorian homes could have antimacassars why should our dear ministers be denied the humble towel? Never mind if that raises awkward questions about cleanliness – theirs or the cleaners.

    Over the years I’ve grown accustomed to this sight. But it never fails to bewilder a foreigner. Their look of puzzlement is a joy to see. Most are too polite to ask and, therefore, never find out why it’s there. But I’m sure they have their own explanations and I doubt if they’re complimentary. Fortunately what remains unspoken can’t hurt or offend and thus our amour propre is unaffected.

    The bizarre thing is you’ll also find the ubiquitous towel in Pakistan. Indeed I’m prepared to bet it has an equally hallowed place in Bangladesh. So whatever else partition may have done, it hasn’t affected this strange habit! We maybe split asunder by faith but we’re bound together by the towel!

    Now Keats, as you know, wrote an ode to a Grecian urn. I wonder if anyone will write a sonnet to the desi toliya?

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