The baleful influence of colonialism on the psyche of the colonised is a topic much written upon. From Edward Said to Ashish Nandy to Gandhi, the way our minds have been colonised has been discussed, dissected, and lamented. To use Pavan K. Verma’s analogy (from his brilliant Becoming Indian), due to the Raj, “an entire nation and its people became the object of an external curiosity, brown fish swimming around in a bowl held in white hands”.
Despite this intense scrutiny, however, one area where colonialism has wrought the greatest destruction in India has, by and large, escaped the notice of our intellectuals. Ladies and gentlemen (but mostly gentlemen), I speak of the invasion of India by that modern abomination—pants—and the concurrent death of the noble, 100% desi lungi.
Nothing epitomises ‘casual’ more than a free-flowing lungi. Photograph by Troy McKaskle.
Ah, yes the humble lungi. Think about when you last read that term in print. “Never” would be the answer, I’m guessing; unless of course you’re reading this in Bangladesh, in which case, never mind. Think about the last time you went to office and saw a colleague presenting the quarter’s financials in a beautiful bottle-green, checked lungi. I’ve worked in three organisations and all we wear are pants, pants, and more pants. No lungi, ever. Not even on (so-called) casual Fridays.
This is a shame.
It is a shame, ladies and gentlemen (but mostly gentlemen), because nothing epitomises ‘casual’ more than a free-flowing lungi. For the uninitiated, the lungi is a simple garment: it is, like a sarong, a tube of fabric wrapped around the waist. All you need to do is slip into it, gracefully like a mermaid, tie a knot around your waist and you’re good to go. That’s it. There are no cumbersome buttons, no belts to search for frantically in the mornings, and, most important of all, nothing which can lop your man-parts off if you aren’t careful while zipping up. It amazes me that even though there are a number of places to place a zipper (with jagged metal teeth, perfect for trapping and cutting flesh), trouser makers prefer to put them right where they could potentially end it all. I’m not a Khomeini fan, but you know, this does rather reek of Great Satan behaviour.
Of course, safety and ease of wear is just the beginning when it comes to the lungi. The real joy begins once it’s been worn. Putting on a lungi is, well, like stepping out onto a cushion of air as nymphs feed you grapes one by one and a harp plays itself magically in the background. It is comfort which is beautiful, surreal and well… airy. It’s just science, is what it is. Pants are the equivalent of a prison cell for your boys. You’re putting them into a closed, dank, damp jail. For the entire day. But that’s not what boys like. Boys like to be free, to frolic and to gambol about. And the lungi let’s them do just that. The garment breaks the artificial barrier between nature and your boys. It airs you out, through and through and allows things to just be themselves. The lungi, gentlemen, is freedom.
We Indians knew this for thousands of years before pants made their insidious entry into our country and took over our land. Indians might be divided by language, caste, and religion, but the lungi unites us all. From the green rice fields of Bengal to the golden wheat fields of the Punjab, it’s the lungi all the way. Biharis wear it to work in the fields, while Malayalis pair it up with bright purple silk shirts to bling the shit out of that wedding. Much like the saree, the lungi is India.
But, of course, nowadays we’re too good for it. Too good for comfort and airiness and being good to ourselves, content to trap our most beloved possession inside polyester cages of our own making, stifling the very life out of them. All we do with the lungi nowadays is make pointless songs about dancing in it, as if that’s of any help. The horror, the shame, the stupidity of it all makes me want to scream.
Take my advice and throw out those sweat pants and those shorts. Come back from a long day at work and slip into your favourite cotton lungi. Feel the difference as you sip on your adrak chai. Do it for the nation. More importantly, do it for your boys.