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A man who made money out of lingerie

February 14, 2009 11:07 IST

Examine your brand new pink panty -- if you haven't bought one you're not with it -- and spot the letters 'SRS' stitched inside the waistband. No, it isn't a red herring like 'USA' which famously meant Ulhasnagar Sindhi Association.

Nor has it anything to do with the Pink Triangle which denotes an even greater Western peril than Valentine's Day. But the maker's initials do recall the enterprise of the American firm that made a fortune from badges with two clashing slogans, 'I Love Elvis' and 'I Hate Elvis'.

You can look at the matter from two principal (not to be confused with principle) angles. One is to make the most of a situation that can't be changed. The other is to create a situation that can rake in a tidy profit. Sometimes there's a bit of overlapping, as with prohibition.

It can't be denounced but is frequently denied, and rare is the chief minister who doesn't exploit it. Rajasthan's Ashok Gehlot, for instance, a pious man who condemns his royal predecessor's 'liquor culture' and strongly disapproves of 'boys and girls going hand-in-hand to pubs and malls for drinking', can make money out of morality.

He has promised to punish bars with a more costly operating licence. He will also increase excise duty on drinks. Piety and prohibition will be satisfied while exchequer takings swell gratifyingly.

Being devoutly committed to prohibition, India refuses to export whisky, rum and gin. But there is no violation of conscience in exporting 'potable alcohol'. Or un-Indian 'IMFL'. Only the inquisitive few know the letters spell 'Indian Made Foreign Liquor'.

Whisky, rum and gin may be made in India but India disclaims responsibility for beverages that are as foreign as Valentine's Day. In any case, exports are consumed by mlecchas abroad.

The British are also masters of dissimulation. They wouldn't have built an empire otherwise.

A Lancashire mill manager once told me he made coarse dooties (as he pronounced dhoties) to resemble khadi for export to India when Gandhi was making bonfires of foreign cloth.

He added with a chuckle that the Indian importers were fully aware of this fraud on swadesi sentiment. When the political craze for indigenous fabric spread to West Africa, his mill switched to producing bales of cloth with rough printed designs whose gaudy colours spilled out over the outlines.

"They had to look as if they had been printed inexpertly by hand with rather a crude wooden block!" With a little help from the natives, Lancashire's lucrative textile industry thus turned freedom movements to its advantage.

Not that ingenuity and acumen are Caucasian prerogatives. Our trading ships scoured Suvarnabhumi before theirs. Our merchants and mariners created the great trading empires of Srivijaya and Majapahit.

If we can tie up something in red tape, we can also snip the tape so artfully that no one knows it's still not tied. A ship waits outside territorial waters while a law is quickly and quietly passed legalising its contraband cargo.

The ship docks and unloads, the old law is restored and no one is any the wiser. Another legislative innovation allows a favoured diplomat to import the car of his choice. Few notice the business permit for an even more favoured son concealed in a raft of liberal reforms.

Cleverness lies in responding with alacrity when opportunity knocks. It's cleverer still to slip out, knock, slip back in and respond.

Get publicans to promise a 10 per cent commission and start a vigorous Pub Bharo Andolan. Provoke women to righteous wrath, encourage them to launch a Consortium of Pubgoing, Loose and Forward Women in response, and sell them the pink panties they seek.

It's a question of creating demand and providing supply. We know now that sharp cookies in the American lingerie trade incited unsuspecting feminists to launch the Bra Burning Movement to get rid of old stock when business was sluggish so that a new line could be marketed. Vintners can't be dissociated from the belief that red wine helps the heart.

The Hidden Persuaders, citing Vance Packard's fifties bestseller, are everywhere. Whoever expected the National Congress Party to sell thousands of Valentine's Day cards supposedly in protest against the Sri Ram Sene? The marketing moles must also have burrowed into the NCP.

Celebration and opposition being two sides of the same counterfeit coin, theirs is the last laugh.

Helped by radio and TV, a conspiracy of printers, confectioners, jewellers, shopkeepers and other traders are taking Indians for a dizzy Valentine's Day ride.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray