Pocket-sized stories

Bend down to fasten your footwear, and down they come, irretrievably.

Sometimes I muse on aspects of modern living we take for granted, trivial things perhaps, which nonetheless both serve a purpose and remind us how vulnerable we are in our over-confident urban hubris. One example is the sartorial convenience of the pocket.

Who invented it and when?  What did people do before the standard attire came into vogue, when they lacked lackeys to carry the oddments they needed, like little knives and cash?  We depend so much on pockets to keep money, tickets, vouchers, ID and credit cards, keys, pen, hanky etc. and yet we know how vulnerable the pocket is in safeguarding the contents.  Bend down to fasten your footwear, and down they come, irretrievably, embarrassingly.
The pocket as an adjunct of garments perhaps evolved from the pouch and the early handbag, which also demanded the user’s constant vigil. Our forbears, especially those helpless addicts to betel nuts and leaves or those enslaved by Lady Nicotine, probably needed disciples, assistants and novices to carry their boxes of carved silver or brass for access to their indispensables.  Traditionally, royalty and high-placed courtiers were free to go about without carrying currency notes and coins, or so we imagine. So the pocket was from the first symbolic of social or familial hierarchy.  

In India, the evolution must have been different.  Our climate dictated costumes which accommodated the body’s contours without stifling them with furs, allowing air to lend a lighter touch to the skin.  The pocket probably came into fashion after foreign cultures began to gain predominance over older native ways.  

There must have been a schismatic divide between the side-pocket and the breast-pocket.  The kurta or jubba or achkan or soldierly breeches or trousers could all provide capacious side-pockets without evident bulges to spoil their styling. But when shorts and tunics with hip pockets and later ones with flapped pockets down the trouser legs gained adherents who liked to stow away tools, nails and ill-gotten gains in their additional sartorial receptacles, the downside surely outgrew the advantages.  I once became the rueful victim who had to pocket both pride and prudence when I desperately climbed into a bus from Kushalnagar to Mysore and instantly realised that my purse had exited from my hip pocket.

A fellow-passenger paid my fare, though I was a stranger, saving me from ignominy and instant eviction.  A friend of mine, who had endured a similar predicament, wrote about it to a daily paper under the title, ‘Hip, hip, hurray!’.

“The apparel doth oft proclaim the man,” as Polonius in ‘Hamlet’ advised his son on choosing his outfits before departing for France. We tend to follow the dress-code that is standard for people in our position living in our current locale, whether in a rotten kingdom or a famed university, so that we blend with the locals and appear like normal folk going about their work or play without arousing suspicion or antagonism.

The pocket has become a symbol and metaphor in our global urbanity, with variants like secret pockets, deep pockets, pocket books, air pockets, lining pockets, burning a hole in one’s pocket, out of pocket, the pocket watch and the never-absent pick-pocket can all testify.

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