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Etymology of dhoti: Hindi dhot , from Middle Indic * dhautta, *dhotta, cloth, probably from past participle of dhauvati, he washes, from Sanskrit dh noti dhau-, he shakes
Other men gird their loins, Southie men gird their dhotis. Underestimated by the rest of the world as a mere garment, a foolish extension of the loincloth, it’s only the Southie male who knows that the dhoti can be much, much more. (Bringing to mind the opening line of Love Story. “What do you say about a one-and-ahalf-metre tundu ….”)
Well to start with, the Southie’s dhoti is a piece of minimalist art. No clumsy acres of cloth to be feverishly gathered and pleated, no frenzied crawling between and around the legs. Just a pithy bit of pristine whiteness, enough to go around the waist once, with some left over for the two ends to overlap - barely. It’s also a free spirit, secured by just one firm tuck at the waist, the rest left to hang free, unrestrained. Because the Southie knows that a dhoti is not just something to wear but to wield, much the way a skunk does his stink or a bimbo her cleavage. And so as Time dawned on mankind (somewhere between Mohenjo and Daro), the art of dhoti rattling came to be, the art of how to swagger, strut, scare, conquer and tame - all with a piece of cotton as bland as your granny’s khichdi. Which is why, like Sharon Stone’s hemline, the Southie’s dhoti is built to have the unfettered freedom to rise or fall, fold over or flap across, even cleave open to lay bare the magnificence of Southie machismo.
Naturally, this means that the Southie dhoti spends very little time being full length - i.e modestly covering its wearer from waist to toe - and a lot of its time being folded up to reveal calves, knees, thighs (and sometimes – gasp! – even more) depending on how things are going. Now before you leap to any rash conclusions about the Southie male’s secret exhibitionist tendencies (“we’d have never guessed with all that vibhuti!”) let me tell you that without knowing how and when to fold or unfold your dhoti (while wearing it, naturally) there’s no way you can rattle it. (Nor diddle your mundu.) It’s a bit like trying to wrestle without a partner or to tango without feet. And depending on your dexterity and timing, you can deploy your dhoti to play popular male sports like mine-is-bigger-than-yours, my-daddy-can-beat-up-your-daddy-not-to-mention-what-he-can-do-to-your-mummy and you-can-take-it-and-stick-it-up-you-know-where.
Needless to say, the art of dhoti rattling has been stitched into the Southie’s Y chromosone and there was a time when every good Southie boy worth his weight in mulgai pudi learnt it much before he learnt how to manage rasam on a banana leaf. Alas, with the invasion of the pant and the pyjama, it’s now a dying art in the cities, but is still alive and well where paddy is lush, the coconut tender, the jackfruit ripens like prickly, pregnant hippos and the air is laced with the fragrance of black hair gently wallowing in coconut oil.
Now though it is said that there are as many ways of diddling a dhoti (or wiggling your veshti) as there are recipes to make your idli batter rise, here are the few basic moves common to all schools.
1. The Buffalo Bhoothalingam Draw (Inspired by the Bucking-Bronco Kick.)
Used to answer the Call of the Testosterone. And when the call comes, to the swelling of the chest and the quivering of the moustache, (maybe even the clash of a few cymbals), in one lightning motion, you shoot out a leg backwards to kick the lower end of the dhoti upwards into a waiting hand. And before anyone can say Karaikudi Kunjukunju Mudaliar, the dhoti will lie trussed up at loin level and you are all set to defend the honour of gramam, gotram or garage mechanic. Can be accompanied by dialogues like “Yenna da, rascal!” or words to that effect, but the more stylish practictioners prefer to let the dhoti do all the talking.
(If your dhoti is already folded up, just go in reverse making sure that when you unfold it, you don’t yank the whole damn thing off. It requires years of practice to know and find the location of that little bit of dhoti that will do the trick.)
2. The I’m-the-King-of-Kondalampatti Klutch. Equivalent to pissing on territory and therefore normally used to fix who is the dominant male in this part of the jungle. At the sight of a threat, shoot out leg (always backwards), kick dhoti (always upwards) and instead of folding the whole thing up around loins, just hold up one end (sometimes both if the threat is severe) in hand to part the dhoti like the waters of the Red Sea and make way for two hairy (hopefully), muscular (hopefully), mard-key-bacchey legs which will then proceed to walk all over everybody. In days of yore, this was much more effective when done striding through paddy fields with a minion scurrying behind holding aloft a huge black umbrella to protect your beautiful black complexion from being ruined by the sun.
3. The Gird-of-the-Loin. Used before the commencement of anything from climbing a coconut tree to signing that corporate merger. (Also very useful while riding anything with two wheels – other than a woman, that is.) It signals that you’re now open for and mean business. A variation the B. Bhootalingam Draw, minus all the thunder and lightning and how high you fold the dhoti is determined by the complexity and seriousness of the task at hand. (WARNING: To be deployed without underwear only when unaware of presence of polite/female company and/or when answering an urgent call of nature.)
Which leaves us with just a couple of unanswered questions. The first - if the Southie’s dhoti spends so much of its time aping a miniskirt, what comes to mind is a question has so often haunted humanity about the Scottish kilt. What underwear? Well let’s just say that it has never been Venky’s secret. Because the Southie, never knowing how high his dhoti may ride, chooses his under-the-dhoti-wear remembering the Girl Scout motto. “Be prepared”. Hence the popular choice – despite the invasion of the briefer VIP or the even more dashing Jockey - continues to be what is called “drayers” - knee-length kacchas in dashing stripes or shorts in basic khaki – covering all matters that must remain private no matter what your dhoti may do in public.
And the second question is…. You know what they say about the Southie’s dhoti - that it’s like a coconut. Known to fall off but no one has ever seen one do so. So the second question is - how does it stay up? There are many whispered rumours. (And there are those who have been known to use a belt, but they are charlatans really, shunned and denounced by the real Makappuwamis) Some say that it is coffee, strong enough to put the hair on your chest and keep your dhoti on. Some say a daily dose of rice and buttermilk, enough to just distend your stomach to the required rotundity. Others say it’s avvakai pickle, hot enough to sear your dhoti into your middle….The truth is no one knows. My bet? Testosterone…..
(FOOTNOTE: Now there may be some of you whose brow may be furrowed on account of my not having mentioned the lungi. I have just one word for it. Disgusting. A raucous, loutish, revolting genetic aberration that will never be recognized as a legitimate relation by any true aficionado of the Southie’s dhoti.)