Not sure about bees, but if Aesop’s Fables is anything to go by, birds have certainly done it — preening themselves in borrowed feathers. Human beings too, are no exception. Long before drycleaners and laundromats registered their presence in Indian cities, the neighbourhood dhobi , who took care of your washing needs, was often suspected of letting his customers’ clothes out on hire before eventually delivering it to them duly washed. That a job interview, or the wedding in the boss’ household could always be embellished with something borrowed for the occasion — even if it is not quite out of a Rohit Bal collection — is a given.

I suppose there existed a grey market sufficiently large enough for it to have become the subject of innumerable jokes and stand-up comedy shows.

“Do you know how much this blazer costs?”


“Ten rupees a day.”

That is one such. And then, there is a skit that I recall which is constructed on a more elaborate scale. The stand-up comedy routine involves a man requesting his friend to accompany him to meet a girl’s father to seek the latter’s approval for marrying his daughter.

The deal is that the friend would extol the financial virtues of the prospective groom to the girl’s father. He would speak of how his friend owns a hundred acres of farm land; a bungalow in the city’s upmarket locality; an estate in the hills; a car and so on.

After giving such an elaborate build-up, he would spoil it all by blurting out that the blazer that the groom-to-be was sporting was, however, not his own but one hired for the occasion! At which, of course, the girl’s father would stage a walkout. The routine has many iterations and on each occasion the friend messes it up with all kinds of gaffes, with the same disastrous result each time.

The neighbourhood dhobi

With the exception, perhaps, of the convocation gown, the concept of hiring clothes is not much in vogue. I guess, dhobis themselves have contributed to the process.

They have reinvented themselves as providing a service of just ironing clothes rather than offering end-to-end ‘reuse solutions’ (if I may call the act of washing, ironing and neatly folding as that) in apparel!

The neighbourhood dhobi was engaging in an act of subterfuge in letting your clothes out on hire without your knowledge. That is awful. More so, as we have come to regard clothing as something intensely personal. But should it be so?

Body and soul

I mean, just imagine for a moment that the shirt you wear is not something that is intrinsically personal to you but just another piece of appendage that you present yourself with to the outside world. One day, you are the CEO of company X and the next day the stock exchange notice would say you have quit to pursue other interests. As an ancient Tamil siddhar (The Attained One) once said:

Kayame idhu poyyada; verum kattradaitha paiyada’ . (Hark! This body is nothing; a mere bag stuffed with air.) At one level, the statement is taken to mean that the soul (the real thing) is distinct from the astral body (an illusion) in which it resides.

But at another level, the claim is also taken to mean that the body is like a shirt that we wear today and discard in favour of another the next day. So, too, the spirit that lives on in its eternal journey of cycles — birth and death. Now, this is my point. If it is possible to assume an air of total detachment with regard to something that is so intrinsic to our existence as the body, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see one’s clothing as not quite constituting our persona.

‘Shared economy’

If the whole community of adult males threw its wardrobes into the hotchpotch of communal property, a whole new possibility of ‘shared economy’ emerges.

It is, of course, difficult to conceive of a thriving rental economy for plain shirting costing Rs 100 that is picked up from a street vendor off Flora Fountain in Mumbai. But a market in Brooks Brothers suits might well be conceived of. Certainly, Indian women have on occasion been known to exchange their brocaded Banarasi or Kanjivaram silk saris with friends or siblings though more on a whim than for reasons that are commercial.

But the point is this. Thanks to technology, the culture of shared usage is being extended to areas hitherto not seen as possible.

A US company, Airbnb, has created a platform for people to put their houses or parts of it, at least, for short durations of time. Someone desirous of an accommodation for an identical period can make use of it, on payment of a fee, of course.

Zipcar is another US innovation, this time for shared usage of automobiles. If you think of a community of registered Airbnb subscribers, a proportion of whom are constantly on the move, what the arrangement implies is that it effectively knocks off the demand for a certain number of hotel rooms.

Ditto with Zipcars. Shared usage reduces the overall demand for goods and services.

Cannibalistic behaviour

I sometime wonder if the consumerist economy that a globalised world has evolved into is not making us cannibalise on stuff that we use. Take automobiles, for instance. To a large number of people, automobiles are an extension of their own personalities.

I recall, a colleague of mine from my days at Tata Motors back in the early 80s, owned a Premier Padmini. Though he would use it only on the weekends, he was so devoted to it that a greater part of Thursday mornings — the weekly day off at Tata Motors — would be spent in giving the car a vigorous rub down and a wash. His wife had once complained to me, half in jest and I suspect, half in annoyance as well, that the car was his first wife and she, only his second!

Marshall McLuhan, Canadian scholar and communications expert was rather prescient when he said: “The wheel is an extension of the foot, the book is an extension of the eye; clothing, an extension of the skin, electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system.”

In the context of your attachment to your car, you are not so much a human being as a hybrid science fiction personality that is part living tissues and part machine.

If thanks to Zipcar, the per capita usage of automobiles comes down by half, this community of hybrids (half live tissues and half cars) has devoured a section of itself in an act of cannibalistic behaviour.

The consumerist model of growth that the modern human society has adopted contains, unfortunately, the seeds of its own destruction.

The information technology and the software that drives it are the tools with which such cannibalistic destruction is achieved.