Dhaka’s “tristate area”: Elitism, Self-Hatred, and Lungi War as Class War

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© Dhaka Tribune

The naming of Banani-Gulshan-Baridhara as the “Tristate area” indicated a winking nod to the American “tristate” (NY-NJ-CT), and the elite bubble nature of the B-G-B triangle.

MK Aaref wrote: “Dhaka scene, especially what is now jokingly termed as the tri-state area of Gulshan/Banani/Baridhara, is rife with parties. Go to any of the shin-digs, and it is apparent that money is not lacking. Between the Louis Vitton bags and the sophisticated diamond necklaces, and not to ignore the Hermes ties and the Cuban cigars, the potential is there. Somebody needs to tell them that the energy spent on all the preening and pruning and putting together these events can be channelled towards a cause.”

Now Baridhara has turned gentle satire into black comedy with its ban on lungi-wearing inside that gated enclave.

The protests against the lungi ban have been so far humorous, or at least provoked humor. But underneath the battle lies an important issue– the need to push back against a nasty streak of elitism, disdain for the subaltern, and self-hatred for local forms. The ultimate colonial hangover is the demand to wear pants instead of lungi.

To be “civilized.”

We must not obey.

Dhaka Tribune has a photo story on this week’s protest, where young Baridhara residents defied the ban and went on a lungi march ad bike ride. The police stopped then and a day later the High Court issued show cause notice demanding Baridhara withdraw the ban: “The humble lungi was thrust into the news on Saturday when a group of Dhakaites organised a ‘lungi march’ in protest at reports that the Baridhara Society had prohibited the use of the traditional wrap-around garment for rickshaw-wallas in the neighbourhood.”

Photos: Tania Rashid and MRK Palash  for Dhaka Tribune

© Dhaka Tribune
© Dhaka Tribune
© Dhaka Tribune
© Dhaka Tribune
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© Dhaka Tribune
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© Dhaka Tribune
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© Dhaka Tribune

Photos: Tania Rashid and MRK Palash  for Dhaka Tribune

Alal O Dulal: The Lungi Menace Resurfaces!

14 comments

  1. i wrote this on my FB and i think it’s worth mentioning here…this piece really does not do justice to what happened – the ban on lungi is just tip of the iceberg. the rickshawpullers had to pay out of their pockets to purchase the “safety gear” in addition to wearing pants to peddle their vehicle. in addition, the day that my friend Rubaiya (Baridhara resident) and I went to talk to the Society Office personnels, they assured us that the ban was removed. Later on we found out that was an eyewash and that the ban was very much in place with rickshawpullers getting harassed and mis-treated quite openly. Later when asked, Mr. Firoze, the head of the Baridhara Society denied everything and stated that it was just the guards mistreating. This is not exactly a lungi war but rather class war at its best/worst.

    To add to this what seems like an elaborate WTF moment, at the lungi march, some 30-40 riot police were stationed smack in the middle of Kemal Ataturk road to control a bunch of students and professionals, not more than 150-200 at tops. Discussions between the organizers (no formal organizers as such) and the police officers went back and forth for hours, at which different pieces of information came out such as, Firoze Shahib had spoken to high authorities in the police force to mobilize the riot police. Baridhara itself was completely blocked by police (the protestors were planning on walking from Kemal Ataturk/Banani park to Baridhara at 4pm of 13 April). In the midst of it all, news came in that few of the marchers were arrested/taken into the station. They were released in a few hours but the whole point of it was to scare off these “bhalo ghorer chhele-pele”.

    During the extensive conversation/negotiation with the police, it was apparent that even they agreed with us that (a.) this many riot police or riot police in general were not needed and (b.) there were gross misuse of power in terms of mobilizing the “North Dhaka” police force for a high-level request. These are of course unofficial statements for which I am not going to state the police officer(s) who said this.

    By the end of the day, the guards who misbehaved with the rickshawpullers and the cops who stopped us for more than 3 hours are all doing their “jobs” – their jobs being instructed by this all powerful Mr. Firoze. It almost feels like being stuck in a Bangla movie – instead of the rich evil Mr. Chowdhury Shahib who has thugs and goons at his disposal to separate his daughter who has fallen in love with a gorib’er chhele, in this case its a Mr. Firoze who is pals with the police to mobilize an entire unit at the height of Pahela Baishakh shopping spree and madness! When I asked the cops if they agreed that they are on MY tax payments and therefore they are accountable to services of security and protection for ME and not block us out of the favor of some rich Baridhara man, the cops smiled sheepishly and had very little to say. We all knew what was going on. As I said earlier on FB, screw becoming PM of Bangladesh, I want to be the President of Baridhara Society!

      • it’s a figure of speech. but yes, the unbelievably small number of ppl who pay taxes – we do contribute to the revenue of this country. yet we never hold our public service providers accountable for the services they are suppose to give us. it is important to ask where my taxes are going, no?

      • My last comment was too flippant. Please strike it.

        My concern is that overall, the state machinery, and its coercive organs like the police (and especially the police) are very much at work protecting the interests of the one million odd people who have TINs, at the cost of the 159 million who don’t pay taxes. So, the charge of “I pay for your salary through my tax income, why aren’t you protecting me” doesn’t resonate with me as much in the context of Bangladesh overall.

    • @Shahana,
      Thanks for the additional detail.

      This post wasn’t trying to “do justice” to the overall issue. The post was a commentary on the politics of elitism in Dhaka’s tristate area. That is only the tip of the iceberg, I agree, and therefore, thanks for the additional detail.

  2. There were a lot of foreigners that also attended – in SUPPORT of WEARING lungi’s. Where is the picture of that? Don’t paint all the foreigners out to be bad or elitist…many are here in Dhaka with NGO’s, or have brought business and jobs here. They have left their family and friends behind to be here. None of the foreigners I know are opposed to the lungi so Baridara Society – ‘Who asked you to ban them????’

    • no doubt about that “deejay”. in fact, that’s something i forgot to mention – most of the foreigners we know either through work or association, whether they live in Baridhara or not, are as confused about this ban as the next person. ppl like mr. feroze have a strange perceived notion on what “phoreners” like and do not like. it has more to do with ppl like mr. ferozes having their own complexes rather than actually getting first hand accounts from his “phorener phrends” on whether they came to a third world country to see rickshawpullers in pants!

  3. Full of mis-representation of facts & very provocative…When the country is burning, you come up with this non-sense ? No wonder Dhaka is rated worst city in the world to live in. Come on,… you can do better than that. Look up yourself in the mirror before you judge others. Drop that sloppy act…!!

    • your perception of this ban and therefore the march being nonsense is quite nonsensical. 🙂 everyday on an average we, the development practitioners in the urban areas say that about 5000 people come into Dhaka. internal migration folks will tell you that it is a myth that of that 5000 are all poor folks. many are middle income family people moving to dhaka for work, education, medical care, etc. yes, a large portion of that daily 5000 folks coming in are that of those in the lower income strata. but that can be because the number of people below the 2 dollar a day poverty line is still in the majority of the total population so at any given point in time and place anywhere in Bangladesh, there are more poor people than affluent ones. (i don’t know if i phrased that right – but you get the point, right?). these folks drive our taxis, CNGs, buses, work at our homes, offices, schools, hospitals. Part of the reason why Dhaka city land owners have been able to become overnight millionaires is because of the cheap labor we have – of course property prices are soaring high but it is also because given the low cost of workers in the city, developers are able to build apartments, business centers and so forth in almost record breaking time, generating more income for the upper and middle class. Yet, these poor residents of the city are deemed as “illegal”, “miscreants”, “dirty”, and so forth. as if they are the ones ruining the city, they are the diseases of the city. because they live and provide services in such sub human and dirt low rates, respectively, we can afford our middle and upper class lives in the city. but look at the way we treat them – a first generation middle class family moving to dhaka will never be seen as a non-dhaka resident – why? because they live in a dalan-kota, a building. on the other hand, three generation of dhaka slum resident will always be seen as living illegally – why? because he/she live in slums. the jobs avaialable are limited and most are hazardous occupation. so, no, i don’t see the pants issue as a separate one from the unbelievable blatant classist structures and practices that are well established in dhaka city. this is part of an on-going discriminatory practice against the poor people of dhaka. be it in the form of demolishing slums or making them wear pants to enter an area of the city, it’s all part of this larger classism and anti-poor philosophy we harbor in the city. you are right, those kids who came out that day did not eradicate poverty or end violence against poor people. but it was the genuine solidarity to the poor man that was heartfelt. we complain that our youth are not getting involved in community services (i don’t want to bring in shahbag here because that will take this conversation completely off track) – this was a demonstration of their support to a community they live in. let the young people get involved in their communities – maybe that is the way we will see better, fairer communities that may have spill over effects on the larger nation, right?

  4. Aren’t we always campaigning for devolution of power? Then why is everyone so upset when a local body makes a decision?

    • Because even local bodies can’t make decisions that infringe on the rights of other people. Plus, Baridhara society doesn’t own the streets of Baridhara. If they had, that would be a different issue. Next thing you know they might want to ban all dari-tupis to make the area safer. Where will we draw the line?

  5. This will be incomplete without this seminal piece of poetry by one of Bangladesh’s most important English language poets.

    “Ode on the Lungi”
    by Kaiser Haq

    Grandpa Walt, allow me to share my thoughts
    with you, if only because every time
    I read “Passage to India” and come across
    the phrase “passage to more than India”
    I fancy, anachronistically, that you wanted
    to overshoot the target
    by a shadow line
    and land in Bangladesh

    Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot
    about sartorial equality
    How far we are from
    this democratic ideal!
    And how hypocritical!
    “All clothes have equal rights” –
    this nobody will deny
    and yet, some obviously
    are more equal than others
    No, I’m not complaining about
    the jacket and tie
    required in certain places –
    that, like fancy dress parties,
    is in the spirit of a game

    I’m talking of something more fundamental
    Hundreds of millions
    from East Africa to Indonesia
    wear the lungi, also known variously
    as the sarong, munda, htamain, saaram,
    ma’awaiis, kitenge. kanga. kaiki
    They wear it day in day out,
    indoors and out
    Just think –
    at any one moment
    there are more people in lungis
    than the population of the USA
    Now try wearing one
    to a White House appointment –
    not even you. Grandpa Walt,
    laureate of democracy,
    will make it in
    You would if you
    affected a kilt –
    but a lungi? No way.
    But why? – this is the question
    I ask all to ponder

    Is it a clash of civilisations?
    The sheer illogicality of it –
    the kilt is with “us”
    but the lungi is with “them!”

    Think too of neo-imperialism
    and sartorial hegemony,
    how brown and yellow sahibs
    in natty suits crinkle their noses
    at compatriots (even relations)
    in modest lungis,
    exceptions only proving the rule:
    Sri Lanka, where designer lungis
    are party wear, or Myanmar
    where political honchos
    queue up in lungis
    to receive visiting dignitaries
    But then, Myanmar dozes
    behind a cane curtain,
    a half pariah among nations
    Wait till it’s globalised:
    Savile Row will acquire
    a fresh crop of patrons

    Hegemony invades private space
    as well: my cousin in America
    would get home from work
    and lounge in a lungi –
    till his son grew ashamed
    of dad and started hiding
    the “ridiculous ethnic attire”

    It’s all too depressing
    But I won’t leave it at that
    The situation is desperate
    Something needs to be done
    I’ve decided not to
    take it lying down
    The next time someone insinuates
    that I live in an Ivory Tower
    I’ll proudly proclaim
    I AM A LUNGI ACTIVIST!
    Friends and fellow lungi lovers,
    let us organise lungi parties and lungi parades,
    let us lobby Hallmark and Archies
    to introduce an international Lungi Day
    when the UN Chief will wear a lungi
    and address the world

    Grandpa Walt, I celebrate my lungi
    and sing my lungi
    and what I wear
    you shall wear
    It’s time you finally made your passage
    to more than India – to Bangladesh –
    and lounging in a lungi
    in a cottage on Cox’s Bazar beach
    (the longest in the world, we proudly claim)
    watched 28 young men in lungis bathing in the sea

    But what is this thing
    (my learned friends,
    I’m alluding to Beau Brummell)
    I repeat, what is this thing
    I’m going on about?
    A rectangular cloth,
    White, coloured, check or plaid,
    roughly 45X80 inches,
    halved lengthwise
    and stitched
    to make a tube
    you can get into
    and fasten in a slipknot
    around the waist –
    One size fits all
    and should you pick up dirt
    say on your seat
    you can simply turn it inside out

    When you are out of it
    the lungi can be folded up
    like a scarf

    Worn out it has its uses –
    as dish rag or floor wipe
    or material for a kantha quilt

    Or you can let your imagination
    play with the textile tube
    to illustrate the superstrings
    of the “Theory of Everything”
    (vide, the book of this title
    by the venerable Stephen Hawking)

    Coming back to basics,
    the lungi is an elaborate fig-leaf,
    the foundation of propriety
    in ordinary mortals
    Most of the year, when barebodied
    is cool, you can lead a decent life
    with only a couple of lungis,
    dipping in pond or river
    or swimming in a lungi
    abbreviated into a G-string,
    then changing into the other one
    Under the hot sun
    a lungi can become
    Arab-style headgear
    or Sikh-style turban
    Come chilly weather
    the spare lungi can be
    an improvised poncho
    The lungi as G-string
    can be worn to wrestle
    or play kabaddi
    but on football or cricket field
    or wading through the monsoon
    it’s folded vertically
    and kilted at the knee

    In short
    the lungi is a complete wardrobe
    for anyone interested:
    an emblem of egalitarianism,
    symbol of global left-outs
    Raised and flapped amidst laughter
    It’s the subaltern speaking

    And more:
    when romance strikes, the lungi
    is a sleeping bag for two:
    a book of poems, a bottle of hooch
    and your beloved inside your lungi –
    there’s paradise for you

    If your luck runs out
    and the monsoon turns into
    a biblical deluge
    just get in the water and hand-pump
    air to balloon up your lungi –
    now your humble ark

    When you find shelter
    on a treetop
    take it off’,
    rinse it,
    hold it aloft –
    flag of your indisposition –
    and wave it at the useless stars


  6. http://www.thedailystar.net/beta2/news/for-the-men-in-lungis/
    Tuesday, April 16, 2013
    Perspective
    For the men in lungis
    By Osama Rahman

    The Baridhara Housing Society’s ban on lungis is an instance of a society imposing itself more than necessary. Since when did lungis, our traditional garb, become a blemish on the modernisation of Dhaka? It is interesting to note that a group of like-minded individuals have decided to stand together and protest this insult.

    Since news of the ban spread, there has been an outcry among the general public. To make the statement that the people will not stand for such discriminatory policies, a Lungi March was observed on the 13 April, from 5pm. At the time of writing, the march had already attracted 14,000 people who confirmed their attendance on Facebook. The march started from Kemal Ataturk Avenue and made its way towards Baridhara. A stern message was sent.

    The land on which Baridhara and so many other residential areas stand on, was once owned by the people some among us are now trying to disown. The very lands sporting posh buildings and pavements lined with trees and shops were the lands snatched from men in lungis toiling day and night to make an honest day’s living.

    The men in lungis will now find solidarity from where least expected; from the men and women of a generation moving away from the traditional garb. The long march has attracted a lot of supporters,

    including Farah Ghuznavi, The Daily Star, Korvi Rakshand, BDCyclists, Rubaiya Ahmad, Amit Ahmed and Chowdhury Saheb of Moja Loss fame. Those confirming attendance and those showing their support from wherever they are help to exemplify that our nation shall no longer stand by

    and let others dictate the terms of our lives. No man or nation has gained anything by prostituting their identity for the pleasure of others. We shall be no different.

    We, the people, are the definition of freedom and we the people, wearing our lungis, are the definition of identity. Tupac Shakur said, “The greatest loss is what dies inside while still alive; let us fight to preserve our identity and our freedom before we succumb to the two actual greatest losses in life. Let’s all march towards unity.”

  7. Those who want to ban lungi from Baridhara or any part of Bangladesh are waging war against our tradition and cultural identity. They should leave Bangladesh before it is too late.

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