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Why this 'sarkari' fetish for Turkish towels?
Tuesday August 12, 2014 12:20 PM, Arvind Padmanabhan, IANS

It is a striking feature at Indian government offices and followed rather unfailingly by a minister down to the gazetted officer. But so commonplace this practice has become that one often tends to let this fetish pass by unnoticed: that of a sparkling white Turkish towel draping the 'sarkari' (official) chair.

White Towels

The chair in question can be among the most cozy ones with expensive Italian leather as part of its upholstery or the heavy iron ones with inter-woven plastic cane for the backrest and the seat. But none seems complete without that Turkish bathroom towel.

This fixation even bumped the funny bone of Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah recently. "Why is it the order of things to sit on a chair draped with a towel in govt offices? Are the chairs not clean? Do the towels hide stains?" he tweeted.

One wonders if there is a protocol behind it.

These various warrants of protocol, as the term is called in officialdom, can be quite elaborate when it concerns the VVIPs. An example: "The bushes around the helipad shall be cleared up to 10 metres and on either side of the road on which a VVIP is travelling."

But none of these protocol manuals cares to mention anything about a Turkish towel on chairs, let alone specify what colour it should be or of what length and width or the minimum grams per square metre (GSM) it must weigh.

Yet, this is practised without fail almost to a standardised format -- and none of these VVIPs seem to mind, either. Little wonder Turkish towels are also quite a common item for which tenders are floated regularly by ministries and departments.

It was also a matter of coincidence that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, with ministers ready to occupy these garnished chairs, was inaugurated a day after people, mainly travel enthusiasts, celebrated the "Towel Day" that fell on May 25.

It's a tribute to writer-humorist-dramatist Douglas Noel Adams, who in his book "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" exalted the virtues of a towel and how, besides being utilitarian, it has immense psychological value and brings many perks with it.

So when ministers like Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley, Ram Vilas Paswan, Sushma Swaraj, Uma Bharati, Maneka Gandhi and a host of others took charge of their allocated portfolios, what was common?

You guessed it: The towel was right there.

There were, indeed, some exceptions such as M. Venkaiah Naidu and Ashok Gajapathi Raju as well as Sushma Swaraj, whose staff draped her chair in the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs at Akbar Bhavan, but gave it a miss at the foreign office in South Block.

But such exceptions were not many.

So why this strange practice?

Some say it's a legacy of the Raj Era. The British, according to them, found the Indian towel, or gamchha, too thin to be able to absorb the gush of perspiration that summer in the subcontinent can squeeze out of a human body and that something more robust was needed to insulate the chair from the sweat.

Others feel it gives a sense of importance to the high seat -- and, in turn, its occupant, vis-a-vis those who come to occupy those laid out in front. For the tongue-in-cheek answers, one can refer to the responses Abdullah's tweet evoked.

But one fact, perhaps, seems certain. Even the 759 million Internet sites, or the 14.3 trillion Web pages, on the World Wide Web, can't give the right answer -- one has to throw in the towel on this one!

(Arvind Padmanabhan is executive editor with IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at

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