Liton Chakraborty Mithun
Lungi has long been a prime sartorial preference for Bengalis and some neighboring communities from the countries located in the global south. Many men and women in South and South East Asia love wearing this comfortable attire and enjoy the many benefits doing so offers. In Bangladesh, Bengali men primarily wear it with relish. Of course, you have to discount controversial Dhallywood actress Porimoni's "lungi dance" as an exceptional case. But, women of many ethnic minorities here in the country wear this wonderful item with great delight in keeping with their age-old tradition. Not just in rural Bangladesh but also in towns and cities, lungi enjoys an ubiquitousness making it part of our national identity. Our Father of the Nation and the greatest Bengali of the millennium, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had a special fondness for this largely Bengali attire. You can see a lot of pictures of Bangabandhu relaxing himself sporting a lungi. Our great leader Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani always wore lungi as we can see him in many photographs. Many of our lungi-donning heroic freedom fighters fought the heavily armed uniformed servicemen of Pakistan and registered victory. It all shows how integral a clothing item lungi is to our cultural tradition. I wonder why lungi along with panjabi is not yet declared our national dress rather than the one promoted by Moshtaque the quisling.
Contrary to our collective love for lungi, it has suffered stiff challenges from certain quarters on more than one occasion. In recent times, lungi has grabbed headlines for a few of its wearers being wronged or denied entry to and service at different places. The most recent case is that of one Saman Ali Sarker who was flatly denied entry to Star Cineplex's Mirpur branch as the lungi-wearing old fellow went there to watch "Poran," an ongoing box-office hit. As a 35-second video went viral featuring him as telling how he was denied a ticket for his attire, the netizens, especially the youngsters took on the cineplex authority for its apparent elitist bias against an indigenous Bengali practice. In the face of unprecedented social media criticism, it promptly apologized for the "unfortunate misunderstanding" that took place between Mr. Saman and the cineplex people. It also maintained that it does not discriminate against people based on their dress choice.
The bearded old man got a golden opportunity to watch the movie along with the lead actors, Sariful Islam Razz and Bidya Sinha SahaMim. The cineplex authority also invited Mr. Saman's family members for a free viewing of the movie. The male members garbed in lungi enjoyed the movie along with many more lungi-clad youths. Thus, lungi has apparently won the battle between the neo-colonial cultural snobbishness and the Bengali tradition. However, will it gain the deserving prominence and pride of place in our cultural discourse, which is getting heavily westernized?
The lungi hullabaloo generated by the cineplex guards versus Saman Ali episode has spotlighted yet again the now legendary poem "Ode on the Lungi" by Bangladesh's leading English language poet Kaiser Haq. Being his direct students is a matter of great joy and pride for me and many of my fellows, seniors and juniors. We, the students of batch 6 of the English Department, Dhaka University are especially lucky to have joined the last official class of Dr. Kaiser as a DU professor. To make the occasion, simultaneously joyful and sad, memorable we arranged a lungi-wearing program on May 26, 2016. As per the plan, chalked out by some of my friends from both streams of MA program, a lungi would be gifted to the poet-professor. He was pleasantly surprised as soon as he entered the corridor leading to our classroom at Lecture Theater as all the male students were wearing lungis. We gave him a guard of honor as he was walking to the classroom to give his swan song of a lecture. Professor Haq donned the lungi gifted to him over his trousers and gave a short lecture on the famous poem. He also reminisced about his journey as a Dhaka University teacher.
After the class, we surrounded him to take a whole lot of individual and group photos. It was an absolute photo opportunity and we didn't miss one beat. Out of youthful zeal and enthusiasm, we declared May 26 as the International Lungi Day taking a cue from his seminal poem "Ode on the Lungi." Of course, our declaration had no official value, but I am now resolute to draw public attention to such a wonderful issue. If our culturally conscious government headed by Bengali nationalist leader Sheikh Hasina takes up the cause, it can raise Bangladesh's image to a brand new height. The question is: Will the government make a repeat of the precedent of making a national day an international occasion as exemplified by the global recognition of the mother language day obtained back in 1999?
Now let me focus on some aspects of the poem "Ode on the Lungi" vis-à-vis our contemporary cultural trends. Kaiser Haq ponders how hypocritical it is to say "All clothes have equal rights" while in practice, "some are more equal than others". He is never up against "the jacket and tie required in certain places" on certain occasions. He never denigrates formal, westernized outfits. But he asks us to take into cognizance that
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
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
Yet, the great champion of democracy Walt Whitman will not make it in White House wearing a lungi. The poet asks if it is due to a "clash of civilizations" and an "us vs. you" kind of binary configuration. The poet then lashes out at the ruling elites and aristocrats of former European colonies, that include Bangladesh, holding onto colonial mindset and disparaging the sartorial choices of their less fortunate countrymen. He says,
Think too of neo-imperialism
and sartorial hegemony,
how brown and yellow sahibs
in natty suits crinkle their noses
at compatriots (even relations)
in modest lungis,
With the glorious exceptions of Sri Lanka and Myanmar, which is again a global pariah yet to fully open up to globalization, lungi does not enjoy an official patronage. In Bangladesh, the brown sahibs with their west-inflected cultural moorings time and again spew venom at lungi and such other local attires, which violate their sophisticated sartorial sense and sensibility. The question of class division comes to fore as lungi-wearing people often associated with lower (economic) class are thought to be not culturally educated enough to gain access to certain places, such as cinema halls, literary fests, posh restaurants and elite neighborhoods. For example, the English newspaper The Daily Star on April 03, 2013 ran a report that rickshaw-pullers wearing lungi were barred from entering Baridhara, one of the posh neighborhoods in Dhaka where diplomats and affluent people live. Then a 'Lungi March' was organized to protest such an unconstitutional decision by the Baridhara Housing Society, and the High Court had to intervene (bdnews24.com, April 16, 2013). The recent Saman Ali episode is a testament to the fact this colonial mindset is still deeply rooted in certain sections of our countrymen.
Therefore, it is time we shed some of the colonial layers piling on our mind and paraded our proud cultural legacies to the world at large. The poet makes an appeal thus:
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
To conclude, time is ripe for discarding our colonial trash into the dumpster of history and for promoting our very own cultural practices. It does not mean that we have to breach our ties with finer western customs, conventions, trends and traditions. Nor does it mean we have to be unwelcoming to anything western. Rather, we should embrace the best of both east and west as recommended by the great Rabindranath Tagore. For example, I will not wear a lungi to attend my office as it is not compatible with the (unwritten) dress code my institution maintains. I will wear the dress as permissible in my workplace. Having said that, I will champion the rights of people wearing any decent clothing as long as they are not employees bound to maintain certain sartorial standards. Let me wrap up by hoping that Kaiserian optimism for sartorial equality will be materialized to a great extent in the wake of the recent lungi uproar.
The author teaches English at Central Women's University and can be reached at [email protected]