By Nishi Pulugurtha
On the way to get vegetables, I notice people all around me in masks. Various kinds of them: some colourful, some staid, some worn correctly, some hanging at the ear, some at the chin, some using a gamcha, instead. I myself use a duppatta in place of a mask. The heat bothers me and I decide to make one at home. I use a cloth bag and some rubber bands to fashion one out. There are lots of videos and tutorials telling one how to make one for yourself. I finally manage to get one at the local medicine shop, a colourful one at that. Seeing people masked makes me wonder of the masks that we always have on. I mean the ones we cannot see. We have always been wearing them on. We don’t seem to have any problem with them. We are not bothered how when those masks get stripped off they cause immense hurt and pain. However, now that we are compelled to use them, we find masks disturbing and inconvenient. However, we need them now, more than ever. The physical mask, that is.
I am so reminded of Lady Macbeth’s lines:-
To beguile the time,
Look like the time. Bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue. Look like th’ innocent flower,
But be the serpent under ’t.
It takes me back to my student days reading William Shakespeare’s Macbeth in college and then teaching the play for many years to undergraduate students. One of the themes I always discussed was that of appearance and reality in the play, the clothing imagery in the play and disguise and concealment. They were favourite questions asked in examinations and so very important in understanding crucial aspects of the play. I no longer teach the play, but Shakespeare is always there, more so in times like these. I am also reminded much of R.L. Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, not just in these times but often. In the way we put up different personas to mislead, to fool, to deceive. The very fact that we get to see the masks nowadays brings it so much more to the fore.
The vegetable seller who comes into the street wears a mask. It is difficult to recognize the face now. There are many selling vegetables now, the local pan shop owner is selling vegetables at the end of the lane. He tells me that since his pan shop is closed he has to find an alternate mode of livelihood. He asks me if I am doing well and when he sees I am having difficulty recognizing him, he reveals his identity. His mask conceals it. The vegetable seller who brings his cart in the other day takes off his mask as I look out of the window. He is Dilip, my driver who comes from the local driver centre. He tells me that now that he does not have any work, he is selling vegetables. There are many more doing that, selling vegetables, fish and fruits. The fruit seller has his mask and gloves on too. In the news on television, I see shops with new signs, hand-written – you cannot enter to buy unless you have a mask on.
A little humour helps in times such as these, though some of the jokes and memes seem bizarre. What am I laughing at, at a threat that stares me in the eye? Some do lighten the mood a little but in a strange way, a constant reminder of the way COVID_19 is now a part of our lives and thoughts. One such meme has an array of men’s shirts on display with a matching mask for each shirt just below each shirt. That day isn’t far when we will have to venture out to work, live life ‘normally’ but then the mask will be very much a part of our attire. This will probably be the new normal. Maybe we will get used to it. Our smiles will be hidden, our sneers too, but we need to be safe, to learn to deal with a known enemy that could just be about anywhere, invisible.
To all of us living in Kolkata, Durga Puja in autumn is a big festival. We look forward to it the whole year round. One meme that has been circulating bears pictures of different masks, one for each day of Durga Puja – one for Sasthi, one for Saptami, Astami, Navami. It shows me how all this will now be a part of our lives. It doesn’t matter if I do not like it, or if it disturbs me. My attention is drawn to an online site selling women’s clothing that showcases a model with a mask that goes well with the dress she is modelling. The tag line says that the company is using all leftover cloth to stitch masks. They would be the new fashion accessory and an essential one at that. Maybe there will be masks to match with sarees and blouses too.
An academic and friend posted this morning on Facebook that her one and half year old daughter has got so used to seeing people wearing masks that she thinks it is normal. She even gets upset when she notices someone on the street who does not have one on. She goes on to say that this is one of the ways in which “our children are internalizing this pandemic.” This is surely disturbing and sad, but the little one surely is not alone. There will be many like her for whom the mask will be a normal part of human attire.
Amidst all of this, I see news coming in of underprivileged children and women associated with an NGO tailoring masks to be made available for all. An NGO that works in rehabilitating and working with men and women with psychosocial disabilities is working in readying relief kits to be distributed to the vulnerable people in the city of Kolkata. These men and women, who have been cast aside by society, who have been abandoned by their family, are now making masks for the use of all. A little light in such trying times.
Dr. Nishi Pulugurtha is Associate Professor in the department of English, Brahmananda Keshab Chandra College and has taught postgraduate courses at West Bengal State University and Rabindra Bharati University. Her research areas are British Romantic literature, Postcolonial literature, Indian writing in English, literature of the diaspora, film and Shakespeare adaptation in film. She is a creative writer and writes on travel, Alzheimer’s Disease, film, short stories and poetry. Her work has been published in The Statesman, Kolkata, in the anthology Tranquil Muse and online – Café Dissensus, Coldnoon, Queen Mob’s Tea House and Setu. She has a monograph on Derozio (2010) and a collection of essays on travel, Out in the Open (2019).
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