My father began to prepare for Christmas long before Santa Klaus. He planned every Christmas detail: the clothes – down to the most insignificant piece of raiment, the decorations – even the tiniest streamer, and the food – every item of the lunch and dinner smorgasbord; there was not a detail that he did not take into account. He covered everyone and everything. Every item in every category had a hierarchy. And at the very top of his list of priorities were the Christmas and New Year clothes for his two sons: my elder brother, sixteen and me fourteen.
“Pa, it’s too early to go shopping for my clothes,” I would argue.
“Much you know. Diwali season is the time that you get the best varieties and the biggest discounts,” he would counter.
“Any later than this, you’ll only get the leftovers,” he would add.
He was right. Who will not agree that Diwali is the best time to shop for clothes?
And so on a Saturday towards the middle of October, we would set off on a mission in which my father tried his best to maximize value for money. Buying the cloth for just two shirts and two pants for each of his sons took the better part of the forenoon. Why?
He dragged us to every shop he fancied would have what he wanted. But a majority of the outlets he took us to did not satisfy the attributes that he had subconsciously set; if the cloth was good, the price was not right; if the price suited his budget, the cloth fell short of his expectations; when both seemed right, he would place his hands on his hips look up at the ceiling and go into a sort of trance, trying to imagine what we would look like in clothes made of that material. If he smiled it meant that the fabric had met his approval.
He took us to swanky shops with glittering expanses of floor space, run-of-the-mill one room outfits, shops that had fabric stacked from the floor right to the roof, stores with just a few bales, outlets that had slick sales personnel, to ones where the service was indifferent, he treated the glib talkers and the charlatans with equal disregard; the ambience, the sales pitch and the sycophancy did not influence him in any way; the quality of the fabric and its price were the only factors that mattered.
The lunch that followed shopping was something to look forward to. Unlike the cloth stores there were no alternatives to choice of hotel: it was always Arya Bhavan; it was decidedly the best. And unlike the choice of fabric where we had little or nothing to say, we were given a free run about the choice of menu. Arya Bhavan had a mouth-watering array of sweets, and a competing assortment of savories. My only regret always was that my stomach could only take just so much and no more. And as usual my brother couldn’t care less; food was the least of his interests.
After a relaxed sumptuous meal, we would set off to the tailor we always went to: Akbar. Akbar, I understood, was my grandfather’s tailor, then my father’s, and now he made clothes for us. The only problem was that his shop was located at the other end of the world.
“I certainly will not trust such costly cloth with anyone else,” my father reasoned, when we cribbed about the distance.
Akbar was well past 65. He was a lean-faced man with flowing white hair and a beard to match. There was a tangle of white eyebrows above his round eye glasses that hung low on the bridge of his nose. And when he wanted to look at someone, he lowered his head and looked at them above the lenses. A measuring tape was always slung around his neck and a pencil tucked behind his ear. Elegantly dressed and too distinguished for a tailor I thought.
You could never tell whether things were good or bad for Akbar, because anytime you saw him, he had a cheery smile. And when we went there the smile was always brighter.
“Hello my son,” he greeted my father.
“Hello sir,” my father would respond making it obvious that his relationship with Akbar was more than just a tailor and his patron; he has known Akbar from when he was about our age, when he was dragged there by his father.
“Christmas clothes, I suppose.”
“I wish all fathers were like you. Come well in advance. Makes life easier for us tailors…”
“No. They must come at the last minute and make life tense for everyone. The same customers. The same routine. I’ll never understand them.”
Then Akbar would open the bags of cloth my father gave him, feel the texture of each as he closed his eyes and savored the fabric with the intensity of a wine-taster. His fingers worked like a snake’s tongue feeding information to its Jacob’s organ. He saw in each fabric something we boys did not see and perhaps even my father did not know. But the more Akbar fussed with each fabric, the more praise he had for it and the more my father would compliment himself for his ingenious choices and feel elated.
“You boys are lucky,” Akbar would say and then add, “I am sure this is the best material that money can buy.”
And then he began to take measurements. After each measurement he called out a figure and his assistant – a boy about my age – noted it in a register that looked as sturdy as it appeared soiled with age and wear.
“It has a page in it for each of my customers,” Akbar said with a sense of pride. “It still has a page for your grandfather,” he added his chest sticking out like a frigate bird attracting a female.
Akbar first took the measurements for my brother – about 10 – 15 measurements totally. And through all this my brother never said a word.
Next it was my turn. Akbar began with the bottom of my trousers: 18 he called.
“What?” I grimaced, before his assistant wrote it in the register.
“Pa, all my friends wear trousers with 8 at the bottom,” I pleaded.
“Ridiculous,” my father promptly rejected the idea. “Even your foot won’t go through,” he added as explanation.
“What about 10 ten then?” “Twelve?” I negotiated.
“What do you say Mr. Akbar,” my father asked.
“12 should be alright. That’s the fashion these days,” Akbar came to my rescue.
Every measurement was a bargain. And at every opportunity Mr. Akbar reasoned that the materials were costly and I should be able to wear those clothes for at least two years to justify the expense. At every opportunity my father would add, “You are a growing boy”.
After all the measurements were taken, Mr. Akbar gave us a receipt for the materials on which he noted the delivery date.
“Is the 15th of November alright? I would have completed the Diwali rush and work on these clothes at leisure.”
“No problem at all. In any case it will still be more than a month for Christmas,” my father agreed.
When the formalities were completed we left thanking Mr. Akbar in chorus.
On the 15th of November I went to Akbar’s and collected the clothes.
That night I tried on my clothes after my father came home from work.
The bottom of the trousers was no where near 12. It was closer to 18. The waist was not 28. It was more like 30.
“How is the fit,” my father asked knowing very well that my clothes were a size or two bigger.
“They are way too big,” I complained.
“Big?” my father asked with pretentious surprise. And then after a second appraisal added, “They look nice on you.”
“But they’re big,” I continued to complain.
“I don’t know why Akbar does not follow instructions,” he said. “I think he’s getting old”.
“In any case you are a growing boy. You’ll grow into them soon.”
I wasn’t surprised either with the oversized clothes or with my father’s explanation. That had been the routine for the last couple of years and that was the routine for the next couple of years.
And every year my father came up with the same explanation “After all you are a growing boy.”
Then suddenly this routine came to a halt. No Christmas shopping, no Akbar, no money; my father unexpectedly died after a brief illness. I did not make any new clothes for the next 6-8 years. I wore the clothes I made when my father was alive, all through the remainder of school and through post-graduation. They were a little baggy at first and then they fit me perfectly.
My father was right: I was a growing boy.
Now Akbar’s son makes clothes for my two boys. He understands that they are growing children.