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Knickerbocker glory and Emperor Patel’s new clothing regulations


Ashwin Desai is Professor of Sociology at the University of Johannesburg and author of ‘Reverse Sweep: A Story of South African Cricket Since Apartheid’.

We can only hope that government changes direction as regards the Kafkaesque absurdity into which it has forced us.

“The price we pay for our liberty is contingency, which is never very far from absurdity” – Terry Eagleton

I have always had a love for cropped bottoms. They cover a lot, but also reveal just enough to keep a person interested.

Their origins lay in the Isle of Capri. Capri men are born with calves puffed out sideways like crabs, which sit on thighs reminiscent of twisted twigs after an Australian bushfire. It is rumoured that Franz Kafka’s brilliant opening in Metamorphosis was inspired by Caprese men.

‘When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from troubled dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect. He was lying on his hard-shell-like back and by lifting his head a little he could see his curved brown tummy, divided by stiff arching ribs, on top of which the bed-quilt was precariously poised and seemed about to slide off completely. His numerous thighs, which were pathetically thin compared to the rest of his body, danced helplessly before his eyes.’

The description, as author and entomologist Vladimir Nabokov pointed out, does not quite make sense. If his belly is arched, then, when he crawls, how do his little legs reach the ground?

And so were born crop bottoms, to simultaneously cover and uncover the Capri body. It was my bottom of choice during the winter months, but my present ones, bought three winters ago at the local Bangladeshi Fair Trade Market, were frayed and one leg fell off as I tried to put them on.

And then, Minister Ebrahim Patel released the details of which clothes we could purchase. I scanned the list with the intensity of a shopper looking for a bat in a Wuhan wet market:

“Adult outerwear categories: …short sleeved knit tops (where promoted and displayed as worn under cardigans and knitwear), short-sleeved T-shirts (where promoted and displayed as undergarments for warmth), leggings, crop bottoms worn with boots and leggings, shirts, either short- or long-sleeved (where displayed and promoted to be worn under jackets, coats and/or knitwear), golf shirts, one-pieces such as bodysuits.”

I could not mask my joy when seeing that crop bottoms were included. I zooted down to the local and joined the queue. I needed a pee, but held it in for it seemed that everybody had gone bonkers over knickerbockers.

All the crop bottoms had been snapped up. I spied a pair of Bermuda shorts. I thought if I took a large size they would creep over my knees; with the right tights and Doc Martens boots, it would have to do.

I was so excited. With a skip in my instep, I waltzed home. I hardly slept and by dawn I was quickly into my outfit. Leggings held tight. Boots laced.

It was a glorious winter’s morning. The sun pierced the gaps in the trees as the street danced between light and shadow.

I turned the heads of the badges with walkie-talkies as I joined the queue for the supermarket. The tights tingled my sensitive spot just between the calves and the knees. It always made me giggle a little.

And then two badges asked me to step out of the queue. They were very polite. Those are not crop bottoms. No choice but to write out a fine.

I tried to talk them out of it.

Are not one person’s crop bottoms another person’s long pants? Did you see Thabo Mbeki when he tried to step into Mandela’s boxing shorts? Should I tell them about Exodus 28:4: “And you shall make them linen trousers to cover their nakedness from the loins to the thighs.” Is this not the prototype of Bermuda shorts? But you know the routine. As you talk, the fine just gets written out; Camus’ “wine of the absurd and the bread of indifference” springs to mind. The Fashion Police as a new department derive all their revenue from fines, the badges finally apologise.

In The Trial, Kafka warns, “Logic is doubtless unshakeable, but it cannot withstand a man who wants to go on living.”

Has Patel been reading Orwell? Remember how the Ministry of Plenty handed out “nonsense”? As Winston Smith explains: “…it was not even forgery. It was merely the substitution of one piece of nonsense for another.”

As I complained to a wizened addict in my building about my morning, brandishing my fine, he told me “not to despair, Zol Aunty really cares”.

The law is an ass but it is the law. Kafka shows in story after story how stifling bureaucracies vomit an infinite number of prescripts whose requirements you can never meet.

In A Little Fable, he warns

“‘Alas’”, said the mouse, ‘the world gets smaller every day. At first it was so wide that I ran along and was happy to see walls appearing to my right and left, but these high walls narrowed so quickly that I’m already in the last chamber, and there in the corner is the trap into which I must run into’.  ‘You only need to change your direction’, said the cat, and ate it up.”

We can only but hope that government changes direction, neither eating us up nor forcing us into bottomless shorts. DM


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