On my recent trip home, a good friend of mine who was a classmate in high school presented me with a necktie. This was no ordinary tie, it was the tie that we wore on special occasions when I was in high school. In keeping with my school’s colors, it has alternating stripes of navy blue and white. While this tie was meant for special occasions, our regular one was a navy blue tie. We showed up on the first day of school in fourth grade, our knots tied by older brothers, fathers, mothers or sisters. Perhaps by grandfathers and grandmothers. In my case, I sought the help of my dad or my older brother who also studied at the same school.
We showed up with immaculate knots and ties of more or less uniform length. But as time went by and we started tying our own knots, our appearances changed. Some ties extended below the waist while other struggled to reach the belly button. The knots varied too. An equilateral triangle was ideal. Isosceles was not bad, but alas our knots were definitely scalene in shape! Well, these are all planar descriptions, my friend said that a good knot would resemble the samosa that was sold at Widdys, our school canteen. I could relate to that.
Our school did have a European influence for the first hundred years or so of its existence. We had French and Italian Jesuit priests as well as English students. Any European sartorial pretensions were lost on us though. We looked at the tie more as a multi-purpose tool and less as a symbol of dignity or proper attire. For one, young boys are clumsy with fountain pens. Fountain pens leak. Blotting paper was not always available. We filled our pens with Bril’s Royal Blue ink and our navy blue ties were the perfect foil to wipe the ink off the pen or desk. Depending on the vintage of the tie and the state of the fountain pen in question, the tie would have splotches of ink that would show up on closer examination.
In times of battle, the tie was an effective weapon. Used as a whip, it extended the reach of the assailant. On the rare occasion, one could see a couple of schoolboys running on the field one chasing the other with the tie whirling around his head. It wasn’t used only for offense though. It was the first line of defense for nervous school boys who chewed on the ends of their tie. Usually, these were the fourth graders who had just joined the primary school. It was not all nerves though. Contented boys chewed on the tip, lost in their own thoughts much as a cow chews on its cud. The degree of nerves and mastication varied and so did the degree of fraying. Some were frayed at the tips but the more terminal cases found the fraying further up.
The ties were not all plain though. One could pin a house badge on it. These badges represented the school’s house colors, named after the saints of the British Isles. Andrews for blue, Georges for red, Davids for yellow and Patricks for green. These badges were circular in shape with a pin running along the back. The badge of choice though was the school emblem. I never owned either of these and I picked my house badge and school badge on my visit to the school this time. Though, now as I write this, I wish I had picked up the badges for the remaining three houses. There will always be another trip! The shape of the house badges have changed, but no matter, I now have the badges to go with my tie!
Once we knotted the tie, we seldom untied the knot again. We would just enlarge the loop and remove the tie when we got home. As time passed, the knot lost its shape, until one day, we would give in and unravel the knot to tie it again. If you were “knotically” challenged so to speak, you could go in for the ties that came pre-knotted with an elastic band to go around the neck. These were convenient and handy but woe betide you if your friends found out that you wearing one of these ties. You ran the risk of somebody yanking your tie and releasing it. The knot would spring back with vengeance and knock your Adam’s apple!
I really resented the ties in summer. Having to keep my collar buttoned up and secured with a tie in stifling heat was not fun. My school dropped the “European” tag in the seventies and along with the tag, the heavy blazer was also retired. It was required only for special occasions, to be worn with the striped tie. I was grateful for not having to wear a blazer in summer. However, as I sat in class on a hot day, I silently cursed the inventor of the tie and in my mind, it had to be some stiff upper lipped Brit. It turns out however that it is Croatian in origin. In the seventeenth century, King Louis XIII hired Croatian mercenaries who wore a cloth around their neck as part of their uniform. The French king took a fancy to this and adopted it for his royal gatherings. In honor of the Croatian soldiers, he called it the “La Cravate” after the military unit called “The Croats”. It then passed through different stages of evolution before taking on its current incarnation.
In my mind though, it is firmly associated with the British. Most British schoolboy characters were depicted in ties. Billy Bunter sported a bowtie in the yellowing pages of “The Magnet” available only at the British Council library. Anthony Buckeridge’s characters Jennings and Darbishire sported ties as part of their school uniform. Richmal Crompton’s William was depicted as a mischievous, scruffy rascal with a tie and a cap. Most of the characters in the books that I read as a young boy wore ties, and I did not think it was out of place. Indeed, as a former British colony, I grew up seeing pictures of Indian sportsmen, especially the cricketers in ties and blazers. My family albums are filled with pictures of men of the preceding two generations, smartly attired in ties and suits. I think most schools adopted it as part of their uniform to give themselves a veneer of respectability and sophistication. My school too went through different stages. The tie was retired for some time but it has now been reinstated. I guess the authorities have cottoned onto the ink blotting shenanigans. The navy blue tie has been replaced with the striped tie now. I wonder though if fountain pens are still in use.
After my high school, I’ve seldom worn ties. I had to wear it daily for my first job at a financial firm in New Jersey but after that, I probably wore it last for my High School Reunion in Washington DC in 2005. I still remembered the “samosa” knot but it did take me a couple of tries before I got the length right. I could not get the dimple in the knot, but given the passage of time, I was happy I remembered the technique. My friend’s gift sits in my study now along with other memorabilia from my school. My wife rolls her eyes whenever I return with these on my trips back home but she indulges the schoolboy in me. They are souvenirs no doubt, but they are more than that. They are reminders of my childhood and school days. Reminders of my school, teachers and friends. Reminders of my dad straightening my tie and my mother handing me my snack box while my brother waited patiently for me at the door so we could leave for school together. Reminders of a carefree life. These are the ties that bind me to my home.