There are many reasons why visitors fall in love with India: its beauty overwhelms them, its optimism and enthusiasm invigorates them, its paradoxes keep them searching for answers. India has produced some of the greatest literary writers of our age, reason enough to draw travellers and to captivate them. Not so often documented is the sense of humour simmering away beneath all that charm and those polished manners.
The legendary lungi
Just as the national bird of Kerala is Mosquito, her national dress is ‘Lungi’. Pronounced as Lu as in loo and ngi as in mongey, a lungi can be identified by its floral or window-curtain pattern. ‘Mundu’ is the white variation of lungi and is worn on special occasions like hartal or bandh days, weddings and Onam.
Lungi is simple and down to earth like the mallu wearing it. Lungi is the beginning and the end of evolution in its category.
Wearing something on the top half of your body is optional when you are wearing a lungi. Lungi is a strategic dress. It’s like a one-size-fits-all bottoms for Keralites. The technique of wearing a lungi/mundu is passed on from generation to generation through word of mouth like the British Constitution.
If you think it is an easy task wearing it, just try it once! It requires techniques like breath control and yoga that is a notch higher than sudarshan kriya of AOL. A lungi/mundu when perfectly worn won’t come off even in a quake of 8 on the richter scale. A lungi is not attached to the waist using duct tape, staple, rope or velcro. It’s a bit of mallu magic whose formula is a closely guarded secret like the Coca Cola chemicals.
A lungi can be worn Full Mast or Half Mast like a national flag.
A Full Mast lungi is when you are showing respect to an elderly or the dead. Wearing it at full mast has lots of disadvantages. A major disadvantage is when a dog runs after you. When you are wearing a lungi/mundu at full mast, the advantage is mainly for the female onlookers who are spared the ordeal of swooning at the sight of hairy legs.
Wearing a lungi Half Mast is when you wear it exposing yourself like those C grade movie starlets. A mallu can play cricket, football or simply run when the lungi is worn at half mast. A mallu can even climb a coconut tree wearing lungi in half mast. It’s not good manners, especially for ladies from decent families, to look up at a mallu climbing a coconut tree — Confucius (or is it Abdul Kalam?)
Most mallus do the traditional dance kudiyattam*. Kudi means drinking alcohol and yattam, spelled as aattam, means random movement of the male body. Note that y is silent. When you are drinking, you drink, there is no y. Any alcohol related festival can be enjoyed to the maximum when you are topless with lungi and a towel tied around the head. “Half mast lungi makes it easy to dance and shake legs” says Candelaria Amaranto, a Salsa teacher from Spain after watching kudiyaattam .
The Lungi Wearing Mallu Union [LUWMU, pronounced LOVE MU], an NGO (Non Government Organisation) which works towards the upliftment of the lungi, strongly disapproves of the GenNext tendency of wearing Bermudas under the lungi. Bermudas under the lungi is a conspiracy by the CIA. It’s a disgrace to see a person wearing burmuda with corporate logos under his lungi. What they don’t know is how much these corporates are limiting their freedom of movement and expression.
A mallu wears lungi round the year, all weather, all season. A mallu celebrates winter by wearing a colourful lungi with a floral pattern. Lungi provides good ventilation and brings down the heat between legs. A mallu is scared of global warming more than anyone else in the world.
A lungi/mundu can be worn any time of the day/night. It doubles as blanket at night. It also doubles up as a swing, swimwear, sleeping bag, parachute, facemask while entering/exiting toddy shops, shopping basket and water filter while fishing in ponds and rivers.
It also has recreational uses like in Lungi/mundu pulling, a pastime in households having more than one male member. Lungi pulling competitions are held outside toddyshops all over Kerala during Onam and Vishu.
When these lungis are decommissioned from service, they become table cloths.
Thus the humble lungi is a cradle to grave appendage.
If the local vocabulary threw you, here is an explanation:
Mallu: someone from Kerala, aka a Malayali.
Bandh / Hartal days: when Kerala’s politicians or unions close shops, offices and almost every other kind of establishment. This happens often, and life comes to standstill.
Onam: harvest festival.
kudiyattam: ‘Kutiyattam’, according to UNESCO World Heritage, is Sanskrit theatre and “one of India’s oldest living theatrical traditions. Originating more than 2,000 years ago, Kutiyattam represents a synthesis of Sanskrit classicism and reflects the local traditions of Kerala”.
Toddy shop: a place to drink palm toddy, a mild to dangerous concoction made from palm tree sap.
NOTE: Articles, definite and indefinite, are regarded as superfluous by many in India.