Kaiser Haq
ASIAN ART
 
Ode on the Lungi
   (for Shawkat and Baby Osman)


Grandpa Walt,
allow me to share
my thoughts with you,

if only because
every time I read

“Passage to India”
and come across

the phrase
“passage to more than India”
I fancy,

anachronistically,
that you wanted
to overshoot the target

by a shadow line
and land in Bangladesh.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot
about sartorial equality.

How far we are from
this democratic ideal!

And how hypocritical!
“All clothes have equal rights”—
this nobody will deny

and yet, some obviously
are more equal than others.

No, I’m not complaining about
the jacket and tie
required in certain places—
that, like fancy dress parties,
is in the spirit of a game.

I’m talking of something more fundamental.

Hundreds of millions
from East Africa to Indonesia
wear the lungi,

also known variously
as the sarong, munda, htamain, saaram,

ma’awaiis, kitenge, kanga, kaiki,
or the variant dhoti.

They wear it day in day out,
indoors and out.

Just think—
at any one moment

there are more people in lungis
than the population of the USA.

Now try wearing one
to a White House appointment —

not even you, Grandpa Walt,
laureate of democracy,
will make it in.

You would if you
affected a kilt —
but a lungi? No way.

But why?—this is the question
I ask all to ponder.

Is it a clash of civilizations?
The sheer illogicality of it—

the kilt is with “us”
but the lungi is with “them”!

Think too of neo-imperialism
and sartorial hegemony,

how brown and yellow sahibs
in natty suits
crinkle their noses

at compatriots
(even close relations)
in modest lungis:

exceptions only prove the rule,
Sri Lanka, for instance, where
colourful sarongs are party wear,

or Myanmar
where political honchos
queue up in lungis
to receive visiting dignitaries.

But then, Myanmar dozes
behind a cane curtain,
a half pariah among nations.

Wait till it’s globalised:
Savile Row will acquire
a fresh crop of patrons.

Hegemony invades private space
as well: my cousin in America

would get home from work
and lounge in a lungi—

till his son grew ashamed
of dad and started hiding
the “ridiculous ethnic attire.”

It’s all too depressing.
But I wonít leave it at that.

The situation is desperate.
Something needs to be done.

I’ve decided not to
take it lying down.

The next time someone insinuates
that I live in an Ivory Tower

I’ll proudly proclaim
I AM A LUNGI ACTIVIST!

Friends and fellow lungi lovers,
let us organize lungi parties and lungi parades,

let us lobby Hallmark and Archies
to introduce an international Lungi Day

when the UN Chief will wear a lungi
and address the world.

Grandpa Walt, I celebrate my lungi
and sing my lungi

and what I wear
you shall wear.

It’s time you finally made your passage
to more than India—to Bangladesh—

and lounging in a lungi
in a cottage on Cox’s Bazar beach

(the longest in the world, we proudly claim)
watched 28 young men in lungis bathing in the sea.

But what is this thing
   (my learned friends,
       Iím alluding to Beau Brummell),

I repeat, what is this thing
I’m going on about?

A rectangular cloth,
white, coloured, check or plaid,

roughly 45X80 inches,
halved lengthwise

and stitched
to make a tube

you can get into
and fasten in a slipknot

around the waist—
One size fits all!

And should you pick up dirt
say on your seat
you can simply turn it inside out.

When you are out of it
the lungi can be folded up
like a scarf.

Worn out, it has its uses—
as dish rag or floor wipe
or material for a kantha quilt.

Or you can let your imagination
play with the textile tube

to illustrate the superstrings
of the “Theory of Everything”

(vide, the book of this title
by the venerable Stephen Hawking).

Coming back to basics,
the lungi is an elaborate fig-leaf,

the foundation of propriety
in ordinary mortals.

Most of the year, when barebodied
is cool, you can lead a decent life
with only a couple of lungis,

dipping in pond or river
or swimming in a lungi

abbreviated into a G-string,
then changing into the other one.

Under the hot sun
a lungi can become
Arab-style headgear
or Sikh-style turban.

Come chilly weather
the spare lungi can be
an improvised poncho.

The lungi as G-string
can be worn to wrestle
or play kabaddi

but on football or cricket field
or wading through the monsoon

it’s folded vertically
and kilted at the knee.

In short
the lungi is a complete wardrobe
for anyone interested;
an emblem of egalitarianism,
symbol of global left-outs.

Raised and flapped amidst laughter
it’s the subaltern speaking.

And more:
when romance strikes, the lungi
is a sleeping bag for two:

a book of poems, a bottle of hooch
and your beloved inside your lungi—
there’s paradise for you.

If your luck runs out
and the monsoon turns into
a biblical deluge

just get in the water
and hand-pump air

to balloon up your lungi—
now your humble ark.

When you find shelter
on a treetop
take it off,

rinse it,
hold it aloft—

    flag of your indisposition—

         and wave it at the useless stars


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