Today I discovered that I still possess an alternative to the pajama I wear to bed every night. I found a lungi in my closet. Which proves beyond a shadow of doubt that I am from one of the Southernmost states of India, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. (Those who know me personally are aware that I happen to be from both states, but I digress.) I daresay lungis are common in other territories as well, but in these aforementioned places they are ubiquitous. Male students of Trivandrum engineering college for instance never have pajama parties; they only have lungi parties.
Not many have read that obscure chapter from one of our great Hindu epics that describes how the lungi was born. In the days of yore, men of India dressed in the purity of white and the soberness of subdued colors, much like men of the Western world do today. Bright colors were for the womenfolk. The lungi was fortutiously designed by the third of five brothers, who was roaming the land in search of adventure thousands of years ago (so the epic goes). One evening he rested for a while on a river bank, when what should catch his eye but three sarees folded neatly and placed on a rock. “Aha, abandoned clothes,” he thought. Little did it occur to him that they might belong to three hapless damsels who were bathing in the river. The onset of twilight had probably obscured any visual clues to that fact. Had he known that, his upright moral values would have kept him from changing the course of fashion history. But as it happens, he tucked the three sarees under his armpit and trudged home. All three were brightly colored. Perhaps they were purple, orange and green; or one of them might have been bright yellow or red, and a couple of them may have had a floral pattern. You get the idea.
The three bathing damsels came out of the water and were shocked to discover the loss of their garments. Reluctant to trust their modesty to the cover of darkness on their way home, they prayed in unison to Lord Krishna. Promptly coming to the rescue, he blessed them with the gift of the garb. (Astute readers are no doubt noting that this was not the only instance in Hindu mythology when Lord Krishna has imparted this gift to women in distress.)
Our intrepid hero meanwhile reached home and greeted his widowed mother. “Look ma, see what I have brought!” His mother, immersed in her evening prayers, merely said, “Arre Arjun beta, whatever it is, please divide it and share it equally among all you five brothers.” (Once again, astute readers will point out that this is not an isolated incident of fraternal sharing thus inspired.)
Never one to disobey his mother, our hero promptly cut each saree into five and gave a piece each to his brothers. What were they to do? With a brightly colored cloth of that size, there aren’t too many ways you can put it to practical use. Thus was the lungi born.
The story of a modern-day lungi begins in a textile mill somewhere in the textile manufacturing haven of Tiruppur in Tamil Nadu, which is the Paris of lungi fashions. From there it finds its way neatly folded and packed in plastic to Mallu and Tam wearers in all corners of the world, from Alappuzha to New Delhi, from Toronto to Dusseldorf and Pollachi to Melbourne. Industry newsletters estimate that seventy percent of the lungi trade takes place at Coimbatore and Erode railway stations when trains are halted there.
Kerala’s TV viewers of the early nineties will fondly remember the Kitex lungi ads that used to run just before the nightly news. Compared to its monochromatic cousin the mundu (or dhoti), the lungi projects a different personality on the wearer. While the white mundu bestows a degree of understated class and suave refinement, the bright pink lungi with yellow flowers when sported in public conveys a certain daring and a playfulness of character that few other forms of attire can accord to men. Both these garments also provide an unparalleled utility of function, subtly cloaking the contours of the lower half of the body while providing the luxury of ample ventilation that wearers in humid tropical climes need. They also have the distinction of being the only convertible garment for men; I am referring to the ability to fold it up to any length required by the situation. Show me a pair of trousers that can convert to shorts in two seconds flat! This foldability is very handy for fighting villains on the street, as Mohanlal and Mammooty and other worthies have demonstrated on the silver screen. It is also handy for wading across large puddles of unknown depth, as wearers in Kerala’s capricious monsoon rains will testify.
Of course there are downsides too. The time taken for repeatedly retying the lungi has seriously affected worker productivity in Kerala; witness the lack of industrial enterprise in that state. And if you are a Mallu student trying to escape from the authorities by way of jumping out of a third floor balcony onto a neighboring balcony, a lungi can be a hinderance. Nevertheless there is a certain Mallu friend of mine who has accomplished precisely this feat at IITB and lived to tell the tale. He lives only a hundred miles away from Austin, so I must be careful what I say here. More about him another time, I think.