The mask that unmasks

“Problem hai, (it’s a problem).”

The bhajiwalla (vegetable seller) says so as I am buying my weekly supplies. I see the way he has worn the mask. It is halfway down his nose, a black sack resting on his chin. An extended yoke, strung up with no release. 

“Do they still bother you?” I am referring to the corporation staff who lurk around to fine anybody they find without the mask. That’s when he had told me – problem hai.

“Don’t you get worried?” I ask.

Pehle (before),” he shrugs as he packed my veggies. 

I read the shrug as – now I am used to it / what choice do I have / stop irritating me. Take your pick. 

That gets me thinking about the future of the mask. An interesting time too, as the vaccination drive is around the corner. Who are the people wearing the masks? Why are they doing so?

There is the 70-year-old Mr Khandle who goes about with his N95 tank-mask firmly in place. The zestful activist Kayli uses it as a tool to spread her activism messages on Insta even as the colours and messages keep changing. Minal, Juhi and Soumya are mothers I meet on morning walks, who want to get rid of the mask but clearly don’t know how and-or are scared. So they wear it and insist that their children do too. The Oberois take a different route – they steal every possible chance to not wear it or fling it away and encourage others to do so as well. 

Kunal, a fitness enthusiast, swears by the mask and thinks it should be made mandatory in public irrespective of Covid. He refuses to step out till the govt enforces it. Sameera wants to face life head-on and mask-less, but people fine and fight her, so she has shut herself indoors. Now, they live their lives behind other masks and filters. They like the masks they wear.

Then, there are the great Indian people – the ones who have always been put behind one mask or the other, over centuries. Masks of caste, education, livelihood, mask – the list goes on.

Like my bhajiwalla. He knows it’s a problem. He knows it can become bigger. But he also knows there is nothing he can do. One day the government told him to wear the mask — so he did. One day he knows they will tell him to remove the mask. That day he will remove it. Then he, or his son or the next will wait till its their turn to wear a new mask. 

Till then, the mask stretches like a yolk on his face sticking its thumb out saying, “Go, mask yourselves!”

Published by appamprawns

soni writes about children and people in controlled spaces, in his quest for appam stew. homi writes in the hope of being able to buy prawns to make patiyo.

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