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Come flap your lungis! All garments deserve equality!

  • Published at 06:00 pm April 18th, 2013

Little did I imagine, when I wrote the poem, that a dramatic opportunity to translate words into action would suddenly present itself, and that too amidst a continuing, nerve-wracking political crisis that has violently split the country into two definitive camps.

The Baridhara Society’s decision to bar lungi-clad “rickshawallas” from their locality could be just as divisive, though mercifully devoid of violence. At the very least, it too roused city youths to use social media to organise a lungi parade, if not a lungi “mancha.” It turned into a cheerful lungi sit-in and lungi fashion parade, but participants gracefully refused to engage the armed minions of the state.

I would have been there – if it weren’t for the sudden irruption of a tummy bug. In three days I lost five kilograms and in the process gained a renewed respect for the lungi. Had it not been for this versatile garment, I would not only have lost a dozen pounds but also would have soiled a dozen pajamas.

Of course I took part in the lungi parade, in spirit, while doing some Google-powered, lungi-related research. I discovered that the Baridhara Society is not alone among public bodies in its antipathy to the public use of the lungi.

Sharjah has long banned it from certain establishments – lungi-clad South Asians, caught unawares, have been hauled off by police. Some have pointed out the illogicality of it all: when it comes to sartorial “decency,” how is a lungi and kurta inferior to the local robe, called a “taub,” I believe? Analysed logically, the Sharjah ban amounts to favouring “one-piece” and decrying “two-piece” - it is clearly unfair and the sort of thing that has been definitively satirised by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels.

But if we graduate from cold logic to hot cultural studies, it becomes clear that prejudice is at play. We are the big bosses, we wear this, therefore it is refined, decent, civilised; you are servants, you wear that, therefore it is vulgar, uncivilised, and must not be seen. Needless to point out, it isn’t a question of a two-legged garment over a skirt-like one either. A kilt is fine. When we come to the kind of prejudice we are talking about, it can cut both ways. The ancient Greeks found trousers worn by Persians funny; Romans thought trousers smacked of barbarism.

What ought to happen is obvious: the lungi should be universally granted equality with all other garments, as it has been in at least two countries: Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Perhaps the leaders of these countries could act as the vanguard in an international campaign. Imagine what would happen if lungi-clad delegations from these countries arrived at Sharjah. Would the soldiers lined up to present a guard of honour point their guns at the VVIPs, and march them off to prison? The thought of it!

Perhaps we should also campaign to have an International Lungi Day observed worldwide. Just as, through the International Mother Language Day, the struggle in favour of Bangla has come to symbolise the struggle for survival of threatened languages, an International Lungi Day would come to symbolise the struggle of all forms of attire to be treated with dignity.  Let thousands of ways of covering our bottoms flourish. Vive la difference! l

Kaiser Haq is a poet, critic and professor of English at the University of Dhaka.