And the Lungi Shall Set You Free

And the Lungi Shall Set You Free

Illustration: Saachi Mehta/ Arré

This week, despite a naked monk and beef-eating Bolt, the conversation has been about clothes – the hemlines of skirts, the ban on burkinis, the cutting out of bras. This same week, the contestants on Arré Ho Ja Re-Gender take up the clothes vs culture fight against Sri Ram Sena, as their spokesperson stands in a college campus in Delhi and insists that women should dress with “dignity”. This same week, Megha Joshi, a mother of two teenage girls and an artist, wrote a beautifully nuanced essay about being a feminist and being fucked by context, when it came to raising her young daughters, who walk out of the house wearing tees with two top buttons undone in the savage city of Gurgaon. Button up, is her parental advice.

But I want to take a moment here to step out of the world of buttons, bras, burkinis, and hemlines, and talk about lungis.

In the years we were growing up, back in the ’80s, my father would potter around shirtless, after his office hours, in a colorful lungi. No, he wasn’t a village bumpkin. Why, he was a writer who boasted of a decent body of work in English, besides being an auditor with the CAG. But his Kerala genes made him wear exactly what 90 per cent of Mallus wear back home in the sweltering heat. The fact, that this was Nagpur circa 1985, didn’t really change much for him. He didn’t give a damn about what anyone thought.

I did.

Adolescence is never an easy time and believe me it gets much tougher when your father insists on walking around in a lungi, minus a shirt. I had friends from rich Marwari and Punjabi families who would put a premium on overdressing, even without an occasion, and here was my father, wholly willing to walk into a PTA meeting in a crisp, white lungi.

It took me a couple of decades to understand the ways of my father, but eventually I did. I began to understand that my father rejected the prevalent social mores in so many ways, personal and professional, and that clothes were only a small part of the non-conformist he was. He didn’t believe in being appropriate or socially conscious. He flat out refused to exist in “context” set by someone else.

My father wouldn’t have done well in today’s times. He wouldn’t have understood why an intelligent man like Dipankar Gupta insists that teachers must become “soldiers in black” and not “guerillas in jeans”. He wouldn’t have understood why skirts must have appropriate lengths or burkinis cannot be worn on the beach. To him, nobody must be made to conform. Not in their choice of profession, life partner, sexuality, religion, and certainly not in their choice of clothes, even given the context.

I’m not saying it’s easy. Far from it. Non-conformists across the ages have been bandied as heretics during their time, only to resurrect as reformists or revolutionaries later on.

Context is a dangerous thing, a slippery slope to a deep end. What the “context” argument does is essentially provide an opening for a “but”. You may wear what you want, but you must be careful of the place and time. You may drink, but not at family functions. You may dance your weird, hippy dance but not at office parties. Once you allow for context, where do you stop?

Once you allow for “context” you will have to allow for Sri Ram Sena to justify assaulting women for drinking in pubs on the basis of “sanskruti”. Aren’t we then condoning a world view that attempts to homogenise half-truths, conveniently guised in the garb of culture or whatever else is the most easy excuse to conform? If we allow for context, what we are essentially doing is handing over to someone else the power to define what’s considered “normal”, be it our behaviour, our clothes, our drinking habits, our hemlines, or our lungis. We are allowing then, room for picking out the “subverting agents” to be branded as heretics, to be burned or thrashed at stake.

I believe the right to non-conformity is really about wanting to do what you want, and be whatever you are, irrespective of the time and place. This right to not conform happens to be one of the most fundamental rights in a liberal society. For without this, there is very little breaking out, real progress that can happen, irrespective of material progress. You have to look no further than the oil-rich Middle East to understand where this pact to conform will take you. All the money in the world will never make up for the way they treat their women or the way they cling to Wahabi ideals.

I’m not saying it’s easy. Far from it. Non-conformists across the ages have been bandied as heretics during their time, only to resurrect as reformists or revolutionaries later on. Today’s anathema is going to be tomorrow’s normal. Allow for it. Seethe with it. Grin and bear it. Attend a wedding in a burkini or swim in black tie. Walk into the world with two buttons open or a lungi pulled above your knees. As long as you, a fully functioning free adult in a free nation, want to. Safety should hardly be the question here, since women with buttoned-up shirts have rarely been spared. The question should be one of shame. Nobody can shame you for being weird, brazen, provocative, uncool, backward, forward, or upside down.

My father still wears a lungi on the rare days he goes for an evening walk and I walk with him in a sea of synthetic track pants. It’s not the Nagpur of 1985, it’s the Mumbai of 2016, but he still stands out. The difference is that now I don’t cringe.

That maybe because he now wears a shirt.