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Monday, September 21, 2009

A Turbid Transformation

This time in my life finds me experimenting. No, not with drugs or the like, but more with things like appearance, sense of self, and dare I say it, obesity. Ok, that last one was just a note on how much weight I’ve put on. But it’s been an interesting transitory step in this journey called life. I sought to take a break from the whole “life” thing, and I have to say that I’ve been pretty successful. How have I been successful? Well, I think that requires a set of stated success measures that you can evaluate your results on. Since there haven’t been any results to speak of, except tranquility of mind for the most part, it’s hard to say. Let me say, it “feels” successful. There. But I digress from the change that was the purpose of this post.

It all started a couple of months ago, when I decided to give the Gillette Mach 3 and Old Spice shaving cream a rest. Sure they’re inanimate objects, but it only seemed fair to let them have a breather too. What resulted was a bit of a full beard. I say “bit of a” because there was a lot of mixed opinion about the rate of growth of my facial hair; mostly me going “Oh My God” in various patterns of vocal intonation on different days when I thought that it was growing at either an excessive rate or not fast enough. Sure enough, however, there it was. A face full of hair. And it was fun for a while, but then that while ended, as all things must. Now, “faced” with the question of what to do next, I decided to adopt the old French beard that I had become accustomed to, but without foregoing any of the accumulated length. This promised to be exciting, and truth be told, it was something I long imagined I would grow on my face one day. Before you look at the picture, let me arm you with the image that I have in my head about what I wanted to look like. If you’ve ever seen images of Babylonian kings, with their long but amazingly straight beards, that was what I had in mind. In fact, I wanted to go so far as to be able to put a couple of beads in it, all other things like weight of beads and strength of hair permitting, of course.

Now, I’m not going to say that I imagined growing a beard like this was going to be a walk in the park, because I didn’t. But it did take me a while to figure out how to give it some shape and get it to all stay together, along with how many time I had to comb it so it looked more like the menacing beard that I had in mind, and not a frayed and mangled paintbrush. I tried to take good care of it too, getting rid of any split ends that showed, oiling it before a bath in typically Malayalee hair care fashion, and putting it in a rubber band so that it kept its downward pointing shape. It was hard work, but I liked maintaining the end of my face. I would constantly remind myself that I had made good move, feeling more and more smug with each self-reminder. However, this was pretty far from what the people at home thought of the hairs on my chinny chin chin.

“What nonsense!” was an almost minute-to-minute update from my uncles, mother and grandmother, deathly repetitive though it may have been. And this ignoring-the-constant-and-consistent reminder game went on for the better part of two months. They wouldn’t let up with their comments like “You look like Bin Laden.” And me? I wouldn’t relent either, flaunting not one but two rubber bands in garish red and yellow, holding this apparently spawn-of-the-devil beard in place. It was a war of attrition, and it was on.

With each passing day, the battle grew in intensity. It never came to blows of any kinds, but the quips gained more of an edge. Sure enough, the rubber bands gained in terms of aesthetic hideousness. It seemed like there was no end in sight to this “cold war” over Rohin’s beard. But there was more at stake here, or so it seemed.

When I first began growing and grooming the beard, it started with more of a “well, whatever” than a “by hook or by crook.” It was something that I entertained notions of doing but wasn’t particularly serious about. Like many things in life, and even this blog, there is a lot of scope for change to occur. And so it did, one fine morning. I woke up feeling like I didn’t want to do this anymore. It wasn’t about rebellion, or lost youthful madness or anything, it was just something I felt like doing. And suddenly, I didn’t feel like doing it anymore. That was all. So, I got my seriously unshaven self down to the barber on the corner, in a manner of speaking, and asked him to have at it with his most vile and treacherous clipper setting. Sure enough, and it was almost like he was waiting for someone to walk in and say this very thing to him, he did as he was asked. Thankfully, for whatever reason, he started his assault with my head, leaving the beard intact for a moment, long enough for me to take an intermediate picture. Notice the scared expression that keeps me from smiling at the camera, constantly looking in the mirror over my shoulder to keep an eye out for the barber popping out of nowhere with a loud “Ah Ha!”

All of the people I’ve shown this picture to had one thing to say, and I think it’s really religiously intolerant of them: Muslim. My argument has always been, “So what?” But that never works. Not when your parents and relatives are filling you with horror stories of how you can get stabbed, or beaten to death just because you had a beard a couple of sizes too long hanging off your chin. Really? Well, according to them, I’d been tempting fate enough. According to me, everyone was nuts. My family was crazy for being so paranoid and living in some constantly Hindu-Muslim-conflict nightmare of a movie. My would-be attackers were crazy - or maybe I should say “would be crazy” - because they couldn’t let resting hairs lie. Also, because it meant they had too much time on their hands to chase down apparently non-regulation beards and dealing with them with force. I was crazy, for wanting to believe that tolerance of facial hair meant tolerance of it in whatever way, shape and form it chose to be maintained in. No, here was another set of rules that I had unwittingly encountered.

The barber momentarily distracted by a regular customer who thought it nice to just say hello at the door because he was on his way elsewhere, finally waltzed back over and took up his position behind me. He was back with his clippers, and now that the top of the head was all cleaned up, he proceeded to attack the bottom of my chin. Let it be said that although he was gentle in his technique, the look of glee was unmistakable, as disturbing as that was. It was painlessly quick. One moment the whirring blades made their way towards my face, the next moment I caught a glimpse of my meticulously groomed beard floating down, before it settled in a tuft on the floor. A single tear welled up in the corner of my eye, but it didn’t betray me by following this fallen comrade of sorts. Stifled, it slowly made its exit. Unmoved, the barber went about his business. Having done all the damage he could with the electric clippers, he began with his rhythmic with-a-snip-snip-here-and-a-snip-snip there. Before I knew it, he was done. He proceeded to use a towel to dust me off; much like one whips a dust-laden shelf to clear it of the dirt of yesteryear. And that was that. A couple of months of what seemed to be a curse on the end of my face, done away with in a single swipe.

And that’s me. The smirk? Well, that’s because I know. I know many things. Most importantly though, I know that all the nay-sayers are Islamophobic. I know that some of those who count themselves in this number would go so far as to assault a beard-wearing individual if they felt threatened, for they choose fear and retaliation over reason and understanding.

Most importantly, I know that this isn’t the end of the beard fiasco. It’ll be back, in some form or another. Like right now. Always there, but not there enough to garner the wrong kind of attention. Always waiting to make a last minute dash for the imaginary finish line. Always another whim away. Because the turbidity of transformation that explores and understands life from aspects previously unimagined, and stumbling along into and through barriers of the human mind is the only true transformation there is. It’s not about being unnecessarily abrasive, but to be abrasive enough to mirror the horror of conformity without a dialogue between all parties involved. It’s about perception, and looking beyond the exterior. That’s what I know. That’s why I smirk. Or so it seems.

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