Thanks for masking

Of masks, undies and other sundry items

mask Illustration by Job P.K.

Said Bertie Wooster to Jeeves: “There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter?’” The paragon among valets replied: “The mood will pass, sir.” So it was with masks. People thought masks did not matter, but that mood has passed.

In fact, there are quite a few similarities between trousers and masks. Both can be a hindrance… while making love, for example. The mask’s bands do bite you in places which were bitten only by lovers and mosquitoes. And an ill-fitting pair of trousers, too, can bite you in other such places. In the family jewels, so to speak. If pant bite comes, can mask bite be far behind? Sorry, Shelley, mad times these.

Anyway, we digress. The topic is masks, and not pants. Not that pants are unimportant. For example, pants…. Sorry. Where were we? Ah, masks. See, masks have been great levellers. Only superheroes, doctors and certain south-Asians wore them. Now, it is international couture. They come in cotton, synthetic fibre, pastels, prints, casuals, formals and whatnot. No other article of clothing has had such a loyal following across gender and geographical lines. Except pants. Underpants, too.

Speaking of underpants, a wise friend tells me that they, too, have much in common with masks. For example, just as you must not take off your undies in public, masks, too, should stay on. It is common knowledge that masks (and undies) must be changed daily. One does not share undies (and masks) with others. And, size matters. Also, it is bad form to leave home without either. He went on, but I will stop.

Masks have also changed our outlook. The masked man was a thief, a rioter, a chain-snatcher…. Now, he is a gentleman and the unmasked one is the boor. Covid-19 also standardised masks. In the upper-face-mask club, Zorro wore one with eye-slits, the Phantom covered his ears additionally, and Batman his nose. Superman is a bad boy; no mask. In a hat tip to the subaltern, coronavirus moved the mask to the lower half of the face. Welcome, égalité and fraternité. Sorry, liberté.

The home minister approves of the mask for reasons financial. No, not the one you are thinking of. True, it is easy to get confused because our ministers often hold forth on everything else and clam up when it comes to their own portfolios. Like the one who says “goli maro…” when he has nothing to do with ordnance, pharmacy, confectionery or marbles. To be clear, the home minister of my humble home is the one in reference. The lady reckons that she has saved a fortune on lipsticks, chap sticks and threading. Masks cover many an iniquity.

Before you accuse me of toxic mask-ulinity, let me add that men’s grooming, too, has changed. Stubble, like stubble burning, is a regular feature now. Public hair is back as the Bulganin, the long stubble, the handlebar, the full beard…. Shaving foam has a new use—to wipe spectacles with, to stop mask-breath from fogging them up.

Coronavirus has also proved Cicero right: “The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter.” In fact, the eyes are the only interpreters left now. Gone is the grimace, the beaming smile, the leer, the wince, the pout, the stuck out tongue and the long face. The mask hides them all. All that remains are the rolling eyeballs, the dirty look, the wink, the hooded eyes, the sidelong glance and tears.

Certain masks have slipped, especially on social media. Did you know that our culture espoused untouchability to ensure that epidemics could be kept in check? The whites with all their hugging and tongue wrestling will not understand this ancient wisdom, mind it. Also, now everyone and his grandmother is in PPE, yet you wonder why we insist that all women should be covered from head to toe? The diaspora which quit the land of milk and sambar for the lands of Big Mac and bigger steaks now lecture us on why we must shun meat and materialism. Keep the masks on, folks, your real face is quite ugly.

Masks became political, too. No, not the ones printed with symbols ranging from bat to banana and briefcase. Trumpistas saw the US president as a superman who shunned masks. So did Jair Bolsonaro’s legions in Brazil. In the US, 28-year old Tomi Lahren, a conservative political commentator, gave president-elect Joe Biden, 77, one below the belt: “Might as well carry a purse with that mask, Joe.” How civil and sagacious, I say.

Closer to home, a clip from the Bihar elections went viral. A TV journalist, who was talking to a man in a crowd, said, “Sir, you are not wearing a mask?” Suddenly, two hands and a purple mask entered the frame and the speaker pulled the mask on. The thunderstruck journalist asked the giver, “You gave him your mask!” First man: “Toh kya hua, dost hai hamara (So what, he is my friend.)” If that is his understanding of masks, then we should forgive him his other choices.

As we began with Wodehouse, let us bid farewell in his presence. In Barmy in Wonderland, actor Mervyn Potter says: “There are moments when one needs a drink. Are there moments, indeed, when one doesn’t?” True that, Potter. There used to be moments when one needed a mask. Now, there is hardly a moment when one does not.

Mask mutiny

In Los Angeles, performance artist DaVida Sal posed in front of Trader Joe’s in a bikini made of masks. “If the MASKS work, WHY the 6 feet? If the 6 feet works, WHY the Masks? If BOTH work, WHY the LOCKDOWN?” she asked. Go on, answer her. In Kiev, Ukraine, a local post office told a woman at the head of the queue that she would not be served as she was not wearing a mask. The lady took off her panties, and put it on her face. Talk about problem-solving skills.

In London’s busy Oxford Street, a gent sallied forth clad in nothing but a mask converted into a G-string.

He was protesting the imposition of masks, apparently. And, in Melbourne, “Sue from St Kilda” used a pair

of red, silk undies as a mask. They were a gift from her to her mother and were unused. Sue had bought them in China 10 years ago. Talk about beating the Wuhan virus with undies made in China!