I understand that the days when my mother or my aunt used to wear their sarikinis not just when they went for their midday dip in the kitchen pond in Dhaneshkhali, the ancestral hellhole, but everywhere, such as when cooking hilsa fish in mustard in the kitchen or teaching philosophy – Kant & Hegel, no less – in a rather conservative girls college in north Kolkata – long breath! – are finally & irrevocably over. My mother lived to the age of 84 without ever having worn so much as a salwarkini and my aunt – wonder what she thinks of the whole debate over bikinis & burqinis?
That subtle q goes all the way back to Omar Khayaam & Lawrence of Arabia, or to the days of Orientalism and Edward Said – it’s not what he said, Edward said lots of things but his name was Said, Sa-yid, poor man, it’s like being called Thus Spake Zarathustra. So Spake is your middle name? Orientalism was such shit, I think at times, that they had to do away with it. Imagine a whole new romantic vocabulary based on mispronunciations – such as burqini, or bikini, for that matter.
Let’s go to the online etymology dictionary or what’s the Internet for? The bikini is apparently a French coinage, from 1947, named after the American A-bomb test of June 1946 on Bikini, Marshall Islands atoll. Apparently the ruddy place was called pikkini in the local tongue, pik meaning surface and ni meaning a coconut – eh? The analogy is with the explosive force of the bomb & the impact of the bathing suit style on men’s libidos, the dictionary tells me. It doesn’t have to. I know.
So there I was, a nicens little Bengali boy from the land of sarikinis suddenly transported to the land of – wait! I saw all those women in Germany & elsewhere in their dresses and thought, shouldn’t they have something like an aanchal or a dupatta draped over a certain part of their torso? Until Kasia looked at me in this self-knitted dress of hers and said – not Said or Sa-yid – “You want me to?” I thought she said, “You want me too?” And Occidentalism was born, more by accident than intent.
I’ve been to lots of beaches since then & seen what the uninitiated eyes of an LMC Bengali boy were never meant to see – until I got bored & curled up under the parasol behind the wind screen & went to sleep while all those delectable women pranked about in their – khair, however, as we Indians say. It’s as with the house dust allergy, I got immune.
I am, of course, immune to burqas and burqinis, or to burkas and burkinis, for that matter, even if they remind me of medieval knights & their armour in the days of yore. On the other hand, you could place me on a beach in Brittany or a beach on the Baltic coast among women sporting any and every kind of swimwear and I wouldn’t bat an eyelid. I acknowledge that there are still women in this world who would make any man feel like chewing up the bath towel but that is neither their fault nor ours. Let me put it this way. It was in New Delhi. Two DTC buses had managed to rub shoulders with some minor damage to both; the two irate Jat bus drivers were having it out verbally, mainly by calling each other the choicest of names in the one language really suited for that purpose viz. Punjabi! ‘It’s all your fault,’ one of them was saying. ‘No, it’s your fault, you such-and-such,’ the other countered. This went on for some time, both buses, complete with passengers, waiting for the outcome. And then the Jat drivers said – not Said/Sa-yid – ‘Kasoor bus-da!’ Which means, in Punjabi, it’s the buses’ fault. And they parted as buddies. And I hope that’s what mankind & womankind will do at the end of The Great Burbiqini Debate, unless it turns into a battle!
The great thing about the burbiqini debate is the general unease it has created in the minds of most, from the most liberal to the most conservative – on both sides! Am I right or am I wrong? Is a woman in a bikini sinful or not? Is a woman in a burqini an insult to human/modern/rational/western civilisation or not? And it’s not the woman but the effect the infamous piece of apparel has on men, on Man, on me, for that matter. Is there a thermometer for the libido? Does the temperature of my libido go up by several notches when I see a woman in Exhibit A instead of in Exhibit B? And what about Exhibit C or the sarikini? There is not a Hindi film from the sixties & the seventies in which the heroine does not get wet in the sarikini, she falls into a pond or a puddle if it’s not raining. And it has the same unsettling effect as the bikini or even the burqini, with the right kind of figure (sexist, yo!). Indian painting boasts any number of water-pot carrying beauties in clingy, wet saris. As for the west, just go and check up on all the Venuses and Aphrodites and garden nymphs in general who were surprised in their marble drapery – and still managed to look quite sexy! Readings on the libido thermometer for bath- and beachwear from past centuries show the same thing: water boils at 100 C°. So what do we conclude?
It’s the buses’ fault – as the Jat bus drivers deduced. As with the Delhi traffic, the moment you put men and women together, things start happening… Segregation! That’s it! That’s the solution! If the women have their own beaches, their own country and their own world, in short, they can go and wear whatever they like… what? They don’t like it? What d’you mean? They want us to watch? Well, well, well.
We are barking up the wrong tree in the Great Burbiqini Debate, I realised while watching a report on the MTV Video Music Awards of 2016. What Beyoncé, Britney, Rihanna &co. were wearing on stage could only have been the product of centuries of research on the libido, how to bring it to the boil & keep it on the boil! And I won’t even talk about Kim Kardashian or Nicki Minaj, bless ’em. Looking at those ladies shakin’ their booties pack’d in the most suggestive & imaginative popkinis, while the audience went wild, it became clear to me that the question is not what women wear when they go swimming, but what they wear when they go singing! Or to award functions, for that matter.
So while the rest of us are stroking our salt-and-pepper beards or unfurling our good old burn the brakini banners, the younger generation is being raised on sterner stuff. Thirteen and fourteen year olds now inhabit a planet on which sexuality is a game & a plaything – and like all games & apps, available for download – but it is no longer the life-and-death issue, the matter of cardinal importance that it used to be. And who’s to say they aren’t right?
I asked the Creator about it. This is what He said: ‘I created the atom but not the A-bomb. I created sex but not sexuality. So it’s all yours. Don’t come whining to me about it.’