Masked meanings

Updated: May 31, 2020, 06:46 IST | Paromita Vohra | Mumbai

In contrast, a brusque and stand-offish woman I know has a gentle, vulnerable heart. One masks herself to attack others better, the other to protect herself

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Paromita VohraMasks are the new black. Masaba's making them, Chanel and Fendi are making them, a designer in Punjab is making them to match your lehengas, that overpriced boho website is making them with sequins on, the small non-essential shop with spider and skull motifs. Perhaps, the mask as fashion item, an accessory to our times, indicates we are accepting the new normal. If we must live with COVID-19, better live as a masked ball than a war of terror.

The origins of the word mask are appropriately, uncertain. One source possibly being the Arabic 'maskhara', or, the Fool, who seems to be fooling around, while revealing truths about power. Masks in the time of COVID-19 are certainly that. They symbolise that COVID-19 is a great leveller—except when it's not.

Once the people who needed masks were conservancy workers, rat killers, medical workers. They rarely had them and like the labouring poor today, we saw them with the triangle of handkerchief, the ninja wrap of chunni. Even now, even those who most need them. On the Instagram account, Behanbox you can hear Asha workers, reassigned to pandemic duties, say only the few brought before media, have masks.

Today, we may be anxious that people don't wear masks, but we have always been anxious that people do wear masks, whether they are really how they project themselves. Kottayam's Beena photo studio is making faceprint masks—where a photo of the lower half of your face is printed on the mask, like on mugs. This may save you from loss of face, so to say, but is disorienting because when you speak, your lips don't move.

Seeing these I thought, wouldn't it be something if these masks were magical, revealing your true nature when you put them on. For instance, I know a woman with a very sweet, earnest demeanour who, classic mean girl style, promotes herself by appropriating other people's work, stabs those who have helped her in the back and makes innocent faces when called out. In contrast, a brusque and stand-offish woman I know has a gentle, vulnerable heart. One masks herself to attack others better, the other to protect herself.

People mask themselves for many reasons, most revolving around the uneven nature of power. You may take on an anonymous identity online in order to speak truth to power. But as that brings you power, your mask can become the very disease you sought to quell, your anonymity a one-way denouncement tool, not unlike governments who mask themselves with laws that curtail everyone but themselves. A mask worn for too long becomes infected or toxic and must be changed. Even between lovers, when the ankh micholi of revealing and hiding carries on too long, a mischievous, exciting game rots into a competition for invulnerability.

Masks, which seek to wound, are often opaque, hence we are quickly fooled by them, taking them at face value. The idea of unmasking is tied to the quest for justice, but righteousness can also be its own mask, so it's tricky. But most masks are translucent, people's inner selves peeking out, sometimes hesitant, sometimes playfully, in an exchange of trust. We lower our masks voluntarily, when we trust—rightly or wrongly—that the onlooker's gaze is not harsh but honoruable. As with body, so with feelings, we risk exposure on a hopeful chance.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at paromita.vohra@mid-day.com

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