The bicycle rode by, a middle-aged man astride. Or maybe he was slightly older than middle-aged. I couldn’t tell you because I was more focused on the white topi (cap) atop his head.
Everything about him was as ordinary as could be – gray pants, a full-sleeved buttoned-down, cream coloured shirt, and leather chappals. He looked like the Average Indian. Until I reached his head and saw the topi.
It infused him with an unexpected gravity, so much so that it thoroughly revamped the impression he gave off. From a non-descript nobody, he now looked like someone with a story, a back story with a lineage of sturdy ancestors traceable to a nearby village, where somnolent buffaloes mingled with nervous black goats. He was the descendant of a quietly resilient people, cajoling the grudging soil to yield a harvest. The topi’s whiteness sat brightly against his weathered, brown face, a jolting contrast and yet, natural at the same time.
The topi is typical of Maharashtra, the state that cradles Mumbai. The crisp, white, cotton cap is shaped like an upside down boat and is meant to sit lightly on the crown of the head. In the midst of a hyper-cosmopolitan frenzied metropolis, where people from every corner of India descend like eager house guests, a man wearing a topi brings forth the aura of a gracious local host.
I grew up with the topi on the heads of grandfathers and uncles. They were rarely without it, and in fact, did not leave home without perching it on top. On special occasions, especially weddings, a fresh topi was gifted as a sign of respect to the men in the family. Whenever we assembled for family photos, my grandfather ensured his topi was properly set, just so, because it represented so much about him and his achievements. It was like an act of self-respect, a subtle acknowledgement of one’s place in the world.
In the increasingly anonymous world, where identities are getting blurred, it is still gratifying to see such expressions of one’s cultural roots. Even though covering the head has gone out of fashion for the most part, the topi remains for many men, if not for daily use, certainly to mark special occasions. On this man, it gave him an identity, amidst the bustle of a big city.
For the few moments that my eyes rested on him, I felt a sense of kinship. I was taken back to my native place, to the summers of my childhood, when I ran between the tall legs of adults and was hoisted up playfully. I saw the elders, in their dhotis and caps, congregated, discussing serious worldly stuff, while I got pampered by aunts in the kitchen. Memories flashed by and I followed them, dreamily. Central to these past remembrances was the topi.
I pulled myself out of the reverie just as the cars started honking. As I drove past the man on the bicycle, I mouthed a silent thank you to him.