The Great Lungi/Dhoti Divide

(How do you pass off a veshti, alternatively called dhoti, in a laundry which doesn’t have the traditional attire in its list of washable garments? Well, that’s a million dollar question I had often been confronted with, here at Jindal. Left with little choice, I include it under the ‘Bed sheets’ column. Bed Sheets. To all the Dhoti patrons and ‘staunchists’, I concede you might not be impressed, but can’t help it!)

Now, having confessed to my ‘unearthly’ deed, I shall shift the focus of this blog post towards a raging debate that warrants my personal interdiction. It’s what I refer to as the Great Lungi/Dhoti divide.

Last summer, I returned to the university with a crisp new dhoti. Truth to be told, I knew I was in for quite a reception from friends and hostel mates, as and when they ever caught me in one. After few weeks, freshly emboldened with desire, I wore it with a sattai (shirt). Venturing out of the room, I immediately ran into a neighbour. “Arey.. Kya baat! Lungi huh?” “Dei, Dei (with a exasperated groan), this is, for your information, not a Lungi. It is called A DHOTI!”

Been in this situation before, I engaged him in an conversation aimed solely at his enlightenment. The fundamental distinguishing factor between the two, I painstakingly clarified, is the presence of a partition in the Dhoti, unlike in the Lungi for which one would need to ‘step in’. Then, there are other less significant differences like; Dhoti comes predominantly in white, whereas the Lungi, is what one would call, a bit more extravagant with its colourful patterns. While the latter is primarily a domestic garment, for common usage within home confines, the Dhoti is seen as an symbol of propriety and virtue. Having listened patiently, his impassive face soon broke into a wide grin. “Ayee, I was just pulling your leg.” “Of course, you were.”

This particular incident happened many months back and lest I forget, the then newly released Chennai Express certainly didn’t help matters. If Yo-Yo Honey Singh wasn’t famous enough, his crooning of “Lungi dancu” firmly entrenched the name in my mind. If “Why this Kolaveri” had people, in IIMC, badgering me to do a karaoke, now, worse still, I had to ward of a substantial number of them pestering me to do a Lungi dancu!

On Monday evening, travelling in the metro after office, a colleague at The Caravan enquired, “Hey. You said that you were writing a article on Lungi, right? What’s up with it?” It came across as an genuine query. “Oh yeah, I am. Hoping to post it anytime soon.” Slightly encouraged, I sheepishly asked whether he knew the Lungi/Dhoti difference. “Yes. I did see Chennai Express, didn’t I!” (Face Palm)    


The Story of the Languages

He picks up the phone, dials a number and waits for the receiver to pick up his call. Confidently speaking, he utters “Namaste”, and proceeds with a conversation that completely caught me off guard. “Kya aaj aapke pass Mutter Paneer hai kya? Teek Hai, two plain Naan… nahi.. two parantha, deliver kar do. Haan Bhaiya, and Oh, the name is Adam.. and the address is as follows.” This last line was spoken with an obvious American accent. “Shukriya!”

Agreed, it’s not more than two-three lines of the most basic Hindi phrases once could ever speak. Even a four year old child can do it, but of course, that child must have been raised in a Hindi speaking family. Nevertheless, it was surprising to hear Adam speaking the language that I am still not confident about.

Fighting the urge to turn back, I just stare into the screen of my computer for the next few minutes. Having failed; I turn around, “Not Bad Adam.” Slightly grinning, he says it is nothing. Nothing? “You know, I myself couldn’t have done a better job than you.” Really? Yeah!

I prodded him further. The details emerge. He is here, at The Caravan for one year, on a fellowship from America. Six months has passed since he first set foot in the country and his Hindi has progressed from scale one to scale three.

My thoughts instantaneously verve to my own trysts with learning foreign languages. One particular incident, back at Madras Christian College, happens to be favourite recital to anyone who is willing to lend a ear. In the first semester, when we were asked to give our language choices, I picked German. The Dean of Student Affairs asked me, “Why?” “Sir, it is because I have no knowledge about it.” He replied, “That’s precisely why I am asking you to reconsider your choice.” A little later, a friend walks up to him. She was from Kerala and had given Malayalam as her first preference. The same guy who counselled me not to take up German said to her, “Why Malayalam? Do something new!” In the end, we both ended up in the same German class.

At Jindal University, I was a student of French for a year, and at the end, I passed in each of the two semesters, not that I was proficient in the language but because the instructor was kind-hearted. A year wasn’t enough for me, and in all earnestness, even ten years wouldn’t have been enough. I didn’t try. There were other motivations in play, persuading me to take these languages.

Adam is one among the many who made me realise, learning a language is something which you have to attempt honestly. Nobody forced him, but here he is, in a foreign land, learning the tongue of its masses. I asked him whether he picked it off the ground or went to classes.

He nonchalantly said, “Oh, thanks a lot for reminding me about it. I need to call my tutor and setup sessions for the coming weekend. It’s been a while since I had language classes with her.” He made the call, “Can we schedule the class this Saturday? Perfect.” While, I turned back to my computer, he was left alone with his Hindi classes.