Friday, October 11, 2013

The Case for the Lungi (and Against Pants)

A slightly edited version of this was first published on Helter Skelter Magazine

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, the Raj caused “an entire nation and its people became the object of an external curiosity, brown fish swimming around in a bowl held in white hands”. (P.S: By ‘Raj’ I mean British rule and not Shahrukh Khan’s NRI films which is a topic for another day)

In spite of this intense scrutiny, though, one area where the colonial project has wrought the greatest destruction has, by and large, escaped the notice of our intellectuals. I talk of the invasion of pants, ladies and gentlemen (but mostly gentlemen) and the concurrent death of the lungi.

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 this quarter’s financials in a beautiful bottle-green, checked lungi. I’ve worked in three organisation and all we wear are pants, pants and more pants. No lungi, ever. Not even on (so-called) casual Fridays.

Which is a shame.

It’s a shame ladies and gentlemen (but mostly gentlemen) because nothing epitomises ‘casual’ than a free-flowing lungi. For the uninitiated, the lungi is a simple garment: basically a sarong, it’s 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 frantically for 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’s really amazing how, when you have a whole waist to put your zipper (with jagged metal teeth, perfect for trapping and cutting flesh), trouser makers put them right where they could potentially end it all. I’m not 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.  It is not for nothing that Floyd sang,
Did they get you to trade your lungis for pants?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?
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.

And you know what, we Indians knew this for thousands of years before pants made their insidious entry 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 the fields, while Malayalis pair it up with bright purple silk shirts to bling the shit out of that wedding. Much like the sari, 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 in polyester cages of our own making, stifling the very life out them. All we do with the lungi nowadays in 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 and feel the difference as you sip on your adrak chai. Do it for your boys. Do it for the nation.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Bhagat Singh's Last Petition

(First published on NewsYaps on Bhagat's Singh's birth anniversary)

Today is Comrade Bhagat Singh’s birth anniversary, an apt day to point you to his last petition written to the governor of Punjab before he was executed.

Bhagat Singh’s trial had created a furore. So much so that the British Government had to promulgate an ordinance which dispensed with the need for a defence counsel, defence witnesses and even the presence of the accused during the trial. To quote that brave crusader, Shri Rahul Gandhi, on another ordinance, this rendered the trial to be “complete nonsense” and little more than a farce. It was recently described by the Supreme Court as “contrary to the fundamental doctrine of criminal jurisprudence" because there was no opportunity for the accused to even defend themselves.

In spite of this obvious injustice (the technical term for it is, I believe, a British sense of fair play), Singh refused to ask for any sort of clemency or concession. In fact, the tone of his final letter—this is after he had been sentenced to death—is a cocky mixture of defiance and sarcasm. He mocks the British Government by actually requesting to be shot dead as behoves a man who has been held guilty of waging war against the government. The last line in his petition reads:

“We request and hope that you will very kindly order the military department to send its detachment to perform our execution.

Notice the “kindly order”. I mean, wow. This man is on death row and he’s not above requesting for a kind order to shoot him dead.

The only time bitterness creeps in is when he’s discussing the activities of the Congress. Gandhi, who was in discussions with the British at the time (which would eventually lead to what would be called the Gandhi-Irwin Pact),  comes in for criticism for doing nothing to help “even the homeless, friendless and penniless of female workers who are alleged to be belonging to the vanguard and whom the leaders consider to be enemies of their utopian non-violent cult (ouch!)  which has already become a thing of the past” .

And, of course, let me highlight parts of the letter in which Bhagat Singh strives to point out the fact that his vision for India is that of a ”Socialist Republic” since it’s amazing and bewildering how comrade Bhagat Singh of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association has become a right-wing hero, of all things:

Let us declare that the state of war does exist and shall exist so long as the Indian toiling masses and the natural resources are being exploited by a handful of parasites. They may be purely British Capitalist or mixed British and Indian or even purely Indian. They may be carrying on their insidious exploitation through mixed or even on purely Indian bureaucratic apparatus. All these things make no difference...But that war shall be incessantly waged without taking into consideration the petty (illegible) and the meaningless ethical ideologies. It shall be waged ever with new vigour, greater audacity and unflinching determination till the Socialist Republic is established and the present social order is completely replaced by a new social order, based on social prosperity and thus every sort of exploitation is put an end to and the humanity is ushered into the era of genuine and permanent peace.

In case this is not strong enough, please also note that Bhagat Singh sent this telegram to the Third International while in prison:

On Lenin Day we send hearty greetings to all who are doing something for carrying forward the ideas of the great Lenin. We wish success to the great experiment Russia is carrying out. We join our voice to that of the international working class movement. The proletariat will win. Capitalism will be defeated. Death to Imperialism.

Of course, the fact that there is an organisation called the Bhagat Singh KrantiSena which takes up solidly Leninist causes such as protesting against the shortening of the duration of the Amarnath yatra would have surely warmed the cockles of Singh’s heart were he alive. As will the fact that Narendra “Hindu Nationalist” Modi invokes his memory without having the faintest idea of what he died for.

This corruption of Bhagat Singh’s ideals does not stop at Socialism but extends even into his personal faith (or the lack of it). Singh was an avowed atheist and his pamphlet Why I am an Atheist, written a few months before he was murdered, is a crisp read which ends with a guarantee that he will remain a non-believer till the day he dies.

“One of my friends asked me to pray. When informed of my atheism, he said, “When your last days come, you will begin to believe.” I said, “No, dear sir, Never shall it happen. I consider it to be an act of degradation and demoralisation. For such petty selfish motives, I shall never pray.”

By all accounts, he lived up to his promise. And ever since he seriously entered politics he had given up even the external vestiges of his original Sikh faith. He didn’t wear a turban or sport facial hair. Yet, so many stylised drawings of Singh today have him both wearing a dastaar as well with a beard. It’s like modern India is uncomfortable with the idea of an irreligious man, so it’s trying so hard to make Singh into something he was not; a rather unfortunate state of affairs. You might not agree with Bhagat Singh’s irreligiosity, his Socialism or any of his the other ideals that he died for, but given the extreme bravery and sacrifice that he displayed, the least you can do is to not distort his life.