The Economic Times - - Saturday Feature - Vikram Doc­tor

A brief­case used to mark a com­ing of age for men but with the ad­vent of smart­phones, peo­ple needed to keep their hands free to use the de­vice. Also, backpacks are uni­sex

As any­one who has trav­elled in Mum­bai’s crowded trains knows, brief­cases had of­fen­sive ca­pa­bil­ity. “The rail­way plat­form is a bat­tle­field, the com­muters are sol­diers and their brief­cases are the weapons,” wrote a Times of In­dia rail­way re­porter grimly in 1998. “Stunned vic­tims speak in shiv­er­ing dread of Brief­c­a­sitis Knock­outi­tis… A knock in the knee-cap can si­lence you for a few mo­ments, in­duc­ing a tem­po­rary loss of lo­co­mo­tory fa­cil­i­ties,”wrotean­ear­lierToI writer, in 1991.

It­didn’t end there. The seated com­muter spread the brief­case f lat, cor­ners push­ing into peo­ple seated along­side to gain a few more inches of bench space. If seated with friends, the brief­case be­came an im­promptu ta­ble for play­ing cards. “The brief­case has be­come the bane of the 90s com­muter,” groused one ToI writer. Ear­lier only First Class pas­sen­gers had them, filled with of­fice pa­pers, but now they were stan­dard across bo­gies, packed with “a tif­fin, news­pa­per, nap­kin, comb, etc.” To­day train com­part­ments are still crowded, but knees are safer. Brief­cases have over­whelm­ingly given way to­back­packs,which­stillserve a ter­ri­to­rial pur­pose, but in a less ag­gres­sive way. When worn in crowded com­part­ments they dou­ble the space the w e a r e r oc­cu­pies, even at the cost of squeez­ing oth­ers. Of­ten they are worn in front, help­ing them serve as a bat­ter­ing ram as their own­ers push through the scrum to dis­em­bark. Only the card play­ers re­main loyal to their brief­case-cum-tables. The rise in backpacks goes be­yond Mum­bai’s trains. It is one of the big­gest trends in lug­gage. “We are see­ing sales across our brands in­crease by 35 per cent each year,” says Anushree Tain­wala, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor – mar­ket­ing at Sam­sonite SouthAsia.And­whilethisatthe­costof­stag­nan­torde­clin­ingsale­sof­brief­cases,thel­ug­gagein­dus­try­isn’ttooboth­ered.“Back­pack sales have more than made up for slow­ing sales of brief­cases,” says Radhika Pi­ra­mal, man­ag­ing direc­tor, VIP In­dus­tries.

Get­ting a brief­case used to mark a busi­ness­man’s com­ing of age. From its solid con­struc­tion,the­leatheror­re­in­forced­plas­tic ex­te­rior and even the dis­tinc­tive clicks made as it opened, the brief­case sig­nalled se­ri­ous work. A brief­case was per­sonal – fam­ily mem­bers knew not to touch it, and its owner proudly car­ried it un­til that day when, in a clear sign of cross­ing into se­nior man­ager sta­tus, he (and the brief­case was a firmly mas­cu­line prod­uct) could have an as­sis­tant or driver to carry it. Some brief­cases ac­quired leg­endary sta­tus. Af­ter Lee Kuan Yew, the long-time leader of Sin­ga­pore died, one of his as­sis­tants wrote a trib­ute to his red box that, over the decades, held “com­mu­ni­ca­tions with for­eign lead­ers, ob­ser­va­tions about the fi­nan­cial cri­sis, in­struc­tions for the Is­tana­ground­staff,oreven­ques­tion­s­about some trees he had seen on the ex­press­way.” Af­ter re­cov­er­ing from an an­gio­plasty in 1996, Lee’s first re­quest was “Can you pass me the red box.” The brief­case had na­tional sig­nif­i­cance:“In­sid­e­thered­boxwasal­ways some­thing about how we could cre­ate a bet­ter life for all.” In From Rus­sia With Love James Bond was is­sued a weaponised brief­case that hid dag­gers, bul­lets, gold coins for bribes and poi­son gas that was re­leased if opened the wrong way. Erle P Hal­libur­ton, the founder ofthe­fa­mousoil­com­pany,was­sofrus­trated by brief­cases that failed in the ex­treme con­di­tions of his busi­ness that he got his en­gi­neers to de­velop a spe­cial range, later spun offin­tothe­high­tech­lug­gage­com­pa­nyZero Hal­libur­ton.It­makesthe‘Nu­cle­arFoot­ball’, the­brief­case­with­the­launch­codes­forUSA’s nu­clear ar­se­nal, now con­stantly ac­com­pa­ny­ing Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

But it was an­other, much smaller piece of tech­nol­o­gythat­slammed the­li­don­the­brief­case era. “A big rea­son for us­ing backpacks is smart­phones,” says Tain­wala. “Peo­ple are on their phones all the time, so they don’t have a hand free to carry a brief­case.” Man­u­fac­tur­er­shavetried­to­com­pen­sateby adding the shoul­der strap, but this makes for a lop-sided, un­bal­anc­ing prod­uct com­pared to the back­pack which sits eas­ily on both shoul­ders.

“Backpacks are just used in more sit­u­a­tions,” says Pi­ra­mal, point­ing to how their far less weight gives them greater func­tion- al­ity. Brief­cases loaded with more than just pa­pers and a few other items be­come un­com­fort­ably heavy. But we are used to stuff­ing our backpacks from school and col­lege, and this car­ries over into the more in­for­mal­work­place­ofto­day.“Ourlifestyles ared­if­fer­ent­now.Manypeo­ple­go­toth­e­gym from­workan­dit’seasier­top­uty­our­work­out clothes in a back­pack,” says Tain­wala.

A big rea­son for boom­ing back­pack sales is that they are uni­sex. Few women ever car­ried suit­cases, pre­fer­ring to take large hand­bags or cloth holdalls to work. But a gen­er­a­tional shift is tak­ing place, at least in met­ros, and many younger women now use backpacks. “Women have nar­rower shoul­ders so we have spe­cially de­signed backpacks for them,” says Tain­wala. Some wom­en­still­car­rya­hand­bag,bu­tuse­aback­pack for heav­ier items, like food and wa­ter. Pi­ra­mal says that in the Far East skinny fash­ion backpacks are pop­u­lar, and this trend may catch on over here as well.

The tech in­dus­try, in gen­eral, has been the big­gest driver of back­pack sales, with its need for space for lap­tops and other de­vices, as well as a more in­for­mal work cul­ture. Just mov­ing away from suits and ties freed up shoul­ders for backpacks (though some trendy young busi­ness­men abroad, com­bine backpacks with suits – and bi­cy­clesthat,again,arenot­suit­ed­to­brief­cases). Tain­wala also points out that cheap backpacks are one of the most com­mon free gifts at­techin­dus­tryshows:“An­don­cepeo­pleget used­tous­ingth­em­for­work­theystart­think­ing of pay­ing for a re­ally good back­pack.”

Brief­case devo­tees still find rea­sons to re­sist the em­brace of backpacks. They point to their greater ef­fi­ciency in open­ing com­pletely – un­like the sack-like struc­ture of backpacks which al­ways seems to re­sult in users scrab­bling around in­side. And they ar­guethat­brief­cas­esare­morese­cure,their solid ma­te­rial less easy for thieves to slice into and bet­ter at pro­tect­ing the con­tents when dropped.

But backpacks are catch­ing up even here. “Our mod­els are re­ally well struc­tured in­side, with dif­fer­ent com­part­ments for dif­fer­ent de­vices,” says Pi­ra­mal. Keep­ing in mind the se­cu­rity re­quire­ments of air­line travel she says that some of their backpacks have sec­tions that open out eas­ily for lap­tops to be re­moved for se­cu­rity scan­ning. Its com­mon now to have open­ings for head­phones or ex­te­rior com­part­ments for power banks that can be ac­cessed with­out open­ing the whole back­pack.

Se­cu­rity and pro­tec­tion of con­tents re­main an ad­van­tage of brief­cases, but Tain­wala points out that they­havespe­cialmod­els­for se­cu­rity made out of bul­let­proofny­lon­that­can’tbeeasily cut into. She also points out­howradioscan­ningtech­nol­o­gy­hasal­lowedthievesto steal data from elec­tronic de­vices so their se­cu­rity mod­els have spe­cial pock­ets to block such scan­ners. One fi­nal rea­son for the fall of brief­cases is hinted at in those ToI re­ports from the 1990s. As long as they were a marker of First Class sta­tus they were se­cure, but when ev­ery­one had themtha­trea­son­va­n­ished.From be­ing a marker of se­nior man­agers, brief­cases be­came iden­ti­fied with door to door sales­men and med­i­cal reps, and their im­age suf­fered. It prob­a­bly didn’t help that they be­came syn­ony­mous with shady trans­ac­tions – as de­mon­eti­sa­tion re­minded us, with a spurt of sight­ings of brief­cases full of old, un­de­clared notes.

But here per­haps one can see a hint of the trend­turn­ing.As­back­packs­be­comeu­biq­ui­tous­they­may­al­solos­es­ta­tus,be­comin­g­less as­so­ci­ated with cut­ting-edge techies and more with the over­bur­dened de­liv­ery boys of our dig­i­tal econ­omy. And backpacks can be used for ne­far­i­ous pur­poses as well. The bombs that dev­as­tated Mum­bai’s Cen­taur and Sea Rock ho­tels in 1993 were left in brief­cases, but the bombers that blew up Lon­don’s un­der­ground sys­tem in 2005 used backpacks; it is a dark truth that their body hug­ging na­ture suits sui­cide bombers well.

“There will al­ways be a niche for brief­cases,” says Pi­ra­mal, and in­creas­ingly that might be a lux­ury one. James Bond’s deadly brief­case was based on a model made by Swaine Adeney Brigg (SAB), a Bri­tish firm fa­mous for its hand-crafted and very ex­pen­sive brief­cases. SAB sup­plied its brief­cases for Kings­man, the 2014 hit movie about a su­per se­cret and su­per stylish Bri­tish un­der­cover agency, whose sec­ond in­stal­ment is due to re­lease this year. As the world at large straps on its backpacks, a se­lect few might be tak­ing their brief­cases in hand once again.

Il­lus­tra­tion ANIR­BAN BORA

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