Hand Me Up Hand Me Down

Published: Oct 27, 2019, 07:00 IST | Paromita Vohra |

There is something practical, even truthful, about the term hand-me-down, with its implication of connectedness and wear and tear

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Paromita Vohra

Lately it is fashionable to call things "pre-loved" or zyada se zyada "pre-owned" and when clothes and objects change hands to say they are being "re-homed." Why don't we just want to call a hand-me-down a hand-me-down?

An Indian childhood once—and I'm sure even now in many strata—routinely featured hand-me-downs. Baby clothes, of course, are always given to the next oncoming baby. There are surely photos of you in the family album, during that dreadful phase when you were growing fast, and it was not considered worthwhile to buy you new clothes, wearing a slightly ill-fitting too grown-up salwar kameez from an aunt's youth, a didi or bhaiya's sweaters whose shoulders flop over not-quite-fashionably, the pedal pushers meant for someone taller. Where surplus income was as unlikely a concept as sushi, handing down and repurposing clothes was the norm in middle-class households.

However, hand-me-downs tended to circulate within families, because the middle class need to economise was equalled by the middle-class desire for genteel appearances.

Partly as a revolt against this sartorial oppression, partly from the euphoria of financial autonomy, when we grow up we buy our own clothes with gay abandon. When we give them away, it's often to charity. We do this clearance around Diwali or the year-end. Some people now call it Marie Kondo. I call it living in a tiny Bombay flat.

I'm not sure why, around 10 years ago, I decided to ask my friends if they wanted some of my clothes. Perhaps it is because we were all jointly broke, and as intimate about this as family, and I thought it would be nice to give a kurta a friend loved, which no longer suited me, to that friend. This meant that whenever they visited me, I would do a double take, feeling it was a parallel dimension version of me at the door for a minute. Over time, friends of these friends, who liked my clothes, would express interest in receiving any such hand-me-down when the time came.

Now, it's a bi-annual ritual. I clear my closets periodically. At the end, there is a suitcase full of trinkets and garments and all are invited to come with their friends and see if they want something before it's donated. I have sometimes suddenly seen my earrings and scarves on strangers at a party and smiled.

The hand-me-down was handed on. What was once a need has now been married to desire and is a lovely indicator of more expanded notions of chosen families and communities we now acknowledge.

As we worry more about climate change, this very routine practice has become a bit of a hot house topic, acquiring exotic labels like pre-loved. Though threaded with pious implications of sacrifice and asceticism, this precious phraseology seems to elevate objects almost fetishistically, paving the way for a fresh capitalist enterprise of designer up cycled and 'sustainable' objects . Any sustainable politics acknowledges desires as much as it considers needs—for humans are made of both. But to camouflage the word used, is to be uneasy with the idea of re-using. (as an aside, how come no one says their lovers are pre-loved?).

There is something practical, even truthful, about the term hand-me-down, with its implication of connectedness and wear and tear. These seem useful ideas in the quest for a more sustainable culture.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at  paromita.vohra@mid-day.com

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