I hope the critics who constantly carp that this column does not take up matters of serious substance will be happy with the choice of subject this week: Men’s underwear.
That it is an important topic that I should write about became apparent to me when a shop assistant in a dress mart that I had gone to buy a pair of pants recently sidled up to me, and without any preamble, said that there have been plenty of new arrivals this season and the highlight has been the “checked ones in bright attractive colours”.
“Checked ones? I didn’t see any,” I replied casually even though my curiosity was piqued that checked pants for men were now available at normal consumer level. Otherwise I have seen only golfers wear them. And that is the toughest part of their sport.
“Have you not put them on the shelves?” I asked.
“It is there only. Did you look in the underwear section?” the shop assistant said.
“In the undergarments section? But why there?” I understand that checked pants are not something that one can be proud of or would want to flaunt on a shop showcase. But putting them in the underwear section was carrying abashment to a whole new level.
“But where do you expect us to put the undergarments, in the footwear section?” the shop assistant said sharply.
“Undergarments? You are talking about them? And they come in checked patterns now? In bright fluorescent colours?” I involuntarily smacked my forehead not because I had misunderstood the whole thing all along but because of the thought that shopkeepers are now accosting unwary customers and hard-selling undies to them.
I belong to a generation that bought its innerwear with a furtive carefulness not seen anywhere outside of drug-peddling. When we went to pick up undies we wouldn’t even make eye contact with the shopkeeper. Neither would he. It was as if we were buying stuff meant for satisfying some lurid kink and not one that serves a rather mundane purpose.
Also, left to ourselves, it would never occur to us men that we are in need of a new set of undergarments. It could be totally riddled with holes as if Olympic shooters were target-practising on it all day, but we would still continue to wear that undie on the extremely commonsense logic of ‘who is gonna see it?’ But one fateful day, the wife or the mother, as may be the case, would spot it in the cupboard and casually ask “what is this floor cleaning cloth doing here?”
“Those are my undies,” you reply with pride for some unfathomable reason.
“Don’t tell me you wear them,” the mom or wife will shriek in shocked disgust and fear that women otherwise exhibit only when they see an extremely violent and dangerous creature like a household cockroach. The point is it is only with that shrill squeal it would seem to us men that something might be wrong with those undies.
Another reason for our unease with underwear-buying is we men are never sure of what size we should go for. Don’t think naughty. It is because undies don’t come in units of measurement that normal humans can understand or figure out. It is always in a unit that one is not sure of. Men’s pants are usually in sizes of 28, 30, 32, 34 etc. Most of us know that it represents our waist even though we can’t say for sure whether it is in inches, centimetres or kilogram. But when we go looking for undergarments for the waist-size of, say, ’30’, we are usually told to check out undies in the size of ’90’ or ’95’.
“90 or 95? what is this measurement of?” We won’t ask but would wonder silently. But if this does not stump us then there are stuff that come with the ‘XL’, ‘M’ ‘L’ type of measurements, which, of course, have no standardization and differ from brand to brand. Confused by this all there are stories of guys built to Hulk Hogan proportions coming home with undies essentially meant for Manobala types.
One more major problem with modern-day undies is — I want whatever Ministry is in charge to look into this — you can’t tell which side is front and which one is back. But in our times, undergarments had a recognizable front in the form of a big ‘Y’ beading — thick enough to be visible from outer space — and the one wearing it, even if he were just a 9-year-old, walked around as if he has had a boner.
Anyway, it is not for nothing undergarments are also referred to as unmentionables, and in my mother tongue, Tamil, there is actually no every-day word to specify what we make do with the borrowed colloquialism of ‘jetti‘. Though Tamil may not have an easy usable description for undies, it sure has given to the world what has to be the best, and the most original, brand name in the business: Sudarmani.
Still, I am not sure whether Sudarmani banians and jettis actually exist or not. I mean I have never seen (no, not in the literal sense) anybody wear Sudarmani stuff. For all I know, there are no real products from it, and it may be a spoof brand thought up just to help joke writers and humorists.
I would like to get this confirmed from the shopkeeper, but bloody damn, I still can’t make eye contact with him.