I ’ve always been a carrier of bags. I continued carrying and collecting small bags unselfconsciously until, at some point in the history of the West, they started to call them man purses. American men’s magazines nowadays ponder this with great seriousness. GQ declared in January that ‘The Man Purse Has Arrived.’
The man purse takes many forms: ‘camera bags’, ‘small cross body bags’, ‘flight bags’ and ‘small messengers’. Robert Lanham’s cult classic The Hipster Handbook includes it as part of the definition of hipster: ‘You carry a shoulder strap messenger bag’. I’ve bought bags because I’ve liked the kinkiness of shape, often without knowing what the bag is meant for. In college, an exchange student from Berkeley excitedly pointed at my really tiny rucksack and said ‘Wow, that’s a raver’s bag!’ I hadn’t a clue.
Of course, I was quite relieved when the exchange student identified my raver’s bag as such, for, before that, my classmates had dubbed it a ‘girlie’ bag. As it turned out, I consoled myself, it was a cultural misunderstanding.
A bag is a bag is bag. Some men carry bags, some don’t. To call it a purse is to see it as an extension of a female fashion accessory, which it is not. In the Indian context, the bearded intellectual with the jhola would qualify as the pioneering hipster. The jhola was unisex; the JNU jholawala was precursing the man purse trend by decades. One of my prized possessions is an A4-sized Bombay postman’s khaki bag, with separate sections for big and small envelopes. I’ve been trying to get hold of a BEST conductor’s bag for some years now.
I’ve carried bags for practical reasons, not for fashion ones. I presume if one carries a bag purely for the sake of fashion, then the bag, like the Queen’s handbag, would contain nothing. A man’s bag always contains something—and therein lies the difference. The contents change with age, but the changing contents determine what kind of bag one uses. One can’t be stuffing one’s pockets with objects (cell phone) and implements (pen, rolling bowl) — and so the need for a bag.
The coolest option for men is the small, green military canvas bag, not branded (and not easy to get). One has to find the odd army surplus store for it — I found one in Dehradun that had a drum full of these, including ones with a snuck for the holster. In fact, in America, when the iPad 1 was launched, a lot of men for the first time felt the need for a bag. It was army bags that filled the stop-gap need, before tablet cases became an industry unto itself.
Men are carrying man purses now because there are more gadgets and chargers to carry. Professional jackets have held a certain fascination for bag-buyers like me. The fisherman’s jacket or the photographer’s jacket allows one to go hands free — but with the rise of the man purse, I don’t see that many professional jackets around. It could also be the hot Indian weather, which isn’t jacket friendly.
The authentic man purse is a really small bag, enough to carry a book, a notebook, a hand sanitiser, a pencil or pen, keys, a spectacle case, pills, and a phone or a tablet. It’s come a long way from the briefcase that was carried by the safari-suited Indian office-goer, or the faux-leather rectangular case, tucked niftily under the arm, preferred by suburban rail commuters.
The woman’s handbag is of course another story. It’s another matter that on recent dates, I’ve found myself saddled with my dates’ handbag. It just happens. You can be walking around Khan Market, and the girl will dump her oversized bag on you. It’s a sign of trust on her part — but it adds a bag to one’s own, and one can end up looking like a bag mule. And when your date disappears into the women’s room or a store, you stand outside, saddled with two bags, feeling risibly self-conscious. I’ve found a simple solution to this. I put my messenger bag inside my date’s oversized couture bag — which is empty in any case – and carry on confidently.