The Baridhara Society recently gave us food for thought and certainly much of amusement. It decreed that rickshawpullers operating within Baridhara or coming into it from outside must make sure they are clad in western trousers rather than the local lungi. One does hope, though, that the decree has been withdrawn, that indeed the lungi has made a rightful return to where it belongs, which is the waist and everything below it that is the property of the male Bengali physique. You simply cannot do without the lungi. And you can be pretty sure that those who issued that instruction in the first place are men who have at times, if not always, taken recourse to the lungi as a mode of comfortable attire. A lungi has many advantages, which advantages we might dwell on at some other time. For now, let the message go out that it is in a number of ways an infringement of citizens’ rights when you instruct them on what to wear and what to shed.
It is pretty intriguing that at a point in time when we in this country are properly worried about the future of our export-oriented garments sector, not just because of the stiff competition it is up against but also because of these exercises in anarchy that our political opposition tries to pass off as hartals, some men have come forth to protest the presence of the lungi in Baridhara. And why did they do that? Because Baridhara is where foreign diplomats live; it is where our affluent Bengalis have built their homes. That in a way is giving you the impression that Baridhara is a privileged locality, away from the chaos and hurly-burly of endlessly struggling men and women. But look deeper. In Bangladesh today, there is hardly any privileged class. You might say there is cloying poverty out there in the country. You might keep talking about a rising middle class. And then you might tell us in a whisper about a swiftly shrinking upper class. These distinctions do not exist any more. Or they are going out altogether, by slow degrees. Inadvertently, with due apologies to Marx and Engels and Lenin, we could well be on the way to creating a classless society for ourselves, of course a convoluted one.
There are all the naughty people who could now rise in unison, to inform us that the lungi is the hallmark of this classless society. That being the case, perhaps, we really have little way of pushing the lungi aside. Ah, but you could well make a point about the changes Bengali women have gone through where their attire is concerned. In the old days, it was refreshing for the eyes to behold women charmingly clad, in their various ways, in saris. A huge sense of beauty, an unmistakable aura of womanhood comes with that sari. It did not matter whether women were slim or corpulent, the sari made them look different, in that positive sense of the meaning. In a sari, every woman is transformed into poetry. With all that dash of lipstick, that certain ‘teep’ on the forehead and all that long hair aesthetically redone in a ‘khonpa’, you did not need paradise to enlighten you on the sensuous nature of feminine beauty.
But that is today a story of the past. Almost every Bengali woman you bump into today, here in Dhaka or there in Kolkata, is cheerfully lodged in shalwar kameez. Now, we have nothing against the shalwar kameez, except that it does not quite connect with the Bengali woman. Of course, as women tell me, it is a whole lot more comfortable moving around in shalwar kameez. One does not have any quarrel with that kind of argument. But then you raise the question, rather piteously: what happens to tradition? Why must the sari go into exile? It is rather a matter of inquiry as to how women have made this change from saris into shalwar kameez and how the generation following theirs has gone into dressing itself in western attire. But, to be sure, how one dresses is purely a matter of the personal. We will not be judgmental here. Our grief stems from our realisation that in our quest for modernity, in order to keep pace with other societies around the world, we might quite be pushing aside our own indigenous traditions aside. Our women look good in saris; our men are smart in kurta and pyjama. And then, yes, there is our ubiquitous lungi. Bring with that the old genji, together with the ageless gamchha. And what have you?
Idle thoughts, you might say. Perhaps you would be right. But look back at the Pahela Baishakh celebrations this year. There was a Bengali ambience at work, a revival of the spirit that took us back to the roots. That sends out a message: the Bengali returns to being himself when he goes back to his cultural underpinnings.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.