I am talking about the time before the liberalization of India’s economy by Rajiv Gandhi in 1984— that was the time when I was in college. There were no “ready-made” garments that we bought off the shelves of a fancy shop then. We would go to Sector 17, our main shopping center and buy our “shirt piece” or “trouser length” from a “garment shop”. We would take a friend or two to help us choose. At these shops, reams of cloth would be stacked, and categorized in sections for trousers, shirts, and suits. Ladies would have their own section in the shop. We would come prepared with the length and width of the cloth we need for our shirt or trouser- - our tailor would have given us this information beforehand. The shopkeeper would then start his game of guessing our fancy. He would start by showing a color, a design or a pattern at random. He would pick a ream of cloth from the stack, and spin out the cloth with a flourish to us, standing across the counter. Or he would drape the cloth over his shoulder and extol its virtues. We would feel the cloth, discuss amongst ourselves if the check pattern or stripe pattern was in fashion, if the color suited our complexion, and a myriad of other things. The shopkeeper would attentively follow our expressions of pleasure or displeasure, our discussion about the item under consideration, for fine tuning the next ream of cloth he displayed, till we found one that caught our fancy. He would then take a long metal measuring rod, and with a huge set of brass scissors, snip away the exact length of cloth we needed, and fold it neatly. He would then insist on showing us “trouser-length” that would match with the “shirt-piece”, and if he was a good salesman, we would come out of the shop with multiple matching “shirt-lengths” and “trouser-lengths”.
The next step would be to take it to our tailor. There were all kinds of them: from the tailor who sat with his sewing machine under a tree, to the posh tailors with fancy shops in Sector 17, and all kinds in between. We all had our “regular” tailors, and all these tailors were extremely busy. They would give you an order completion date many weeks away, and more often then not, they would miss the date. Then, after a few missed dates, we’d eventually get our tailored shirt or trouser. Then, we would find that maybe the trouser waist needed to be taken in or its length increased; or, maybe the shirt was too baggy, or the collar too long. Then, after a few additional alterations, we would be a satisfied customer.
My papa was a very handsome man, tall and well built. He was often mistaken for the actor Guru Dutt. In his later years, he reverted to wearing the Pathani Salwar Kameez he used to wear as a youth in Lahore. This started a minor fashion trend in the small town we lived in.
My papa’s tailor had a small shop in Sector 28. He was an old man, who wore reading glasses as he peered over his Singer sewing machine. Papa would give him him detailed instructions for stitching his Salwar: the ghera (pleats) of the Salwar must flow like this, the Kameez should be this long, the naala (chord) to hold the Salwar up should be this long . This was my papa’s dress till his death at the age of 78.
My papa’s tailor became my tailor. I would take to him the oversized suits I found in the family trunk and he would cut, trim, tuck and shape them to fit my small frame.