Just as the national fruit of Kerala is coconut and the national drink is toddy, her national dress is the sarong-like lungi. An everyday lungi can be identified by its colourful floral or chequered pattern; while a white version of the lungi, sometimes embellished with a coloured strip as border, is called a mundu. The mundu is more formal, worn on special occasions, such as going to the temple, attending a wedding, celebrating the Onam harvest festival and Christmas. Perhaps the most important of such communal festivities in this part of the world, however, is the frequent and hallowed ritual of going on strike. A lungi is an ideal garb for this: simple and down-to-earth like the Malayali (or Mallu as he is known locally) wearing it; an egalitarian dress, a one-size-fits-all for socialist Keralites. No discrimination here, you see.
The technique of quickly donning a lungi is passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth, part of the ancient Indian oral tradition of secret knowledge. If you think it is an easy task wearing it, just try it once; it requires mastery of breath control that would leave even the most accomplished yogi gasping. A perfectly worn lungi won't come off even when there is a quake measuring 8 on the Richter scale. No tape, staples, rope or velcro are used; it's a bit of a Mallu magic which is as closely guarded a secret as the recipe for grandma’s legendary fish curry.
As Kerala’s national flag, a lungi can be worn at full or half-mast. Full-mast is when you wish to show respect, for example in the company of elders, but this style has lots of disadvantages. A major one is when a dog decides to chase you. But full-mast lungis do spare female onlookers from good families the embarrassing ordeal of swooning at the sight of unsightly, hairy legs. A half-mast style is more liberating, enabling games of cricket and football as well as running to avoid the forces of law or dodging the irate mother-in-law. A real Mallu can even climb a coconut tree wearing half-mast. And it is very popular when doing the traditional Kerala dance 'Kudiyattam' (kudi: ‘drinking alcohol’; yattam: ‘random movement of the male body’). Indeed, any alcohol-related festival can be enjoyed to the maximum when you are topless with just a lungi around your waist and a towel around your head.
The 'Lungi Wearing Union', a Trivandrum-based NGO which works tirelessly for the democratic empowerment of the lungi, strongly disapproves of the younger generation’s tendency to wear bermuda shorts under the native homespun cloth. This fashion is widely considered to be a conspiracy inspired by the CIA, especially if the bermudas sport corporate logos or right-wing political slogans.
A Mallu wears his lungi in all seasons and for all reasons. It provides incomparably good ventilation, so he can be said to be ecologically conscious of global warming. It doubles as a blanket at night, a day-time hammock, swimming wear, sleeping bag, parachute, shopping bag, and water-filter while fishing in ponds and rivers. It even serves as a facemask for the shy while they sneak in and out of those disreputable toddy shops. It is generally outside these dens that lungi pulling competitions – also a regular event in the halls of our hallowed parliamentary Assembly - are held all over Kerala during festival days.
And when a lungi has finally served its term of public duty, it is decommissioned with appropriate dignity and enters domestic service as a humble table cloth. Full-mast or half, plain or patterned, the lungi will surely survive for as long as Keralites exist in various parts of the world.
Long live the lungi!