Published: Saturday, April 6, 2013

Lungi and that liberating feeling

A lungi clad rickshaw puller stopped at the entry of Baridhara  on the UN Road in the capital on Tuesday. Security workers do not let rickshaw pullers in lungi into the posh neighbourhood following instructions from the association of Baridhara home owners. File Photo

A lungi clad rickshaw-puller stopped at the entry of Baridhara on the UN Road in the capital on Tuesday. Security workers do not let rickshaw-pullers in lungi into the posh neighbourhood following instructions from the association of Baridhara home owners. File Photo

Life for us revolves around the lungi, that rather liberating attire men in Bangladesh have so assiduously loved for ages. Of course, you find lungis in places as diverse as Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. And then there are places in India, Bihar and West Bengal for instance, where lungi is part of the socio-economic culture.
But certainly the lungi has had a long, even grand presence in Bangladesh. There are, if you were inclined to listen, quite a few stories too about the lungi. The thing being what it is, the lungi must be securely fastened around the male waist if you are not to be caught with your pants (oops, lungi) down. The story of the young man who went visiting his mamabarhi in the season of Bangalee mellow fruitfulness comes to mind. Sitting down to a mouth-watering repast of steaming rice and succulent fish curry and lentils and, finally, jackfruit, he decided out of his considered wisdom that a loosening of the lungi would make the intake of all that food easier. He was right, except for a slight embarrassment: at the end of the meal, he stood up, stretched his arms, thanked the hostess profusely, before realising that the wind was playing between his youthful legs. The loosened lungi had dropped to the floor.
Yes, now that some Bangalees for whom Baridhara is home have decided that rickshaw-pullers doing business in the area must not be seen in lungis, you realise how the attire has again taken centre stage. To be sure, someone in the Baridhara Samity has tried to explain matters. That hardly matters. What does matter is that today, you will find poor rickshaw-pullers pedaling away furiously in ill-fitting, uncomfortable trousers in Baridhara. So, what is special about Baridhara? Well, for one thing, most diplomats have their offices and homes there. For quite another, our very own affluent Bangalees are righteously concerned that a sight of the lungi in the locality can only expose our poverty to the outside world. That is a well-meaning concern, indeed. But why did it take those Baridhara homeowners so many decades to stumble on the “truth” that the lungi is demeaning and an affront to national dignity?
Strange are the ways of those to whom tradition is sometimes a reason for low self-esteem. But proper self-esteem is what you spot in Kaiser Haq, indeed in his well-known poem, “Ode to a Lungi”. That the lungi only spurs you on to bigger shades of imagination comes through in that poem. That the lungi only adds to the romance of man and woman comes alive in the poignant and deliciously powerful lines of the ode. And contrary to what those gentle people in Baridhara might think, the lungi is no sign of poverty but a mark of national expression. What the pyjama is to an inhabitant of Lucknow and a dhoti is to a Banglaee in Kolkata, the lungi is to us here. Think of this: the lungi is easy to wear, if only you know how to tie it securely around you. It is easy to get into and get out of. A lot of air flows through it. It has something of the airconditioner about it. When a man in trousers or pyjama sizzles in the summer heat all the way from his feet to his hips, the lungi-wearer relaxes in the liberal flow of the winds in his nether regions. When you have that itching feeling in your legs, the lungi helps you to scratch away long and cheerfully. It’s your itch, it’s your lungi.
By tying the lungi in a knot around your hips, you can climb that tall coconut tree faster than any other creature you know. Once you are on the ground again, let the lungi roll out of that knot. You know then that there is a certain versatility about the lungi that you do not come by in more formal (read Western) attire. Lie down in a lungi, a book in hand. A sense of freedom is at work in you. And by far the most attractive quality of the lungi is that you do not need a tailor to have it approximate your physical specifications. Simply buy it and wear it. And who cares if in the middle of the night, as you go through those bizarre, beautiful dreams in deep slumber, the lungi keeps shifting, until you find at dawn that it covers you where your kurta or shirt should have been?
Never underestimate the aesthetic value or the power of a lungi. If the lungi is under threat in Baridhara, it is time to proclaim, “Lungi-wearers of the world, unite!”