The hero or rather the victim of this story is a young lad who hails from the famed ‘god’s own country’, Kerala. He is nameless but not faceless, for you can find him in almost every single teenager who has ever had the singular fortune of growing up in this unique melting pot of cultures we endearingly refer to as India. Throughout the story, we will refer to him as the ‘Great Indian Teenager’.
Out of all the people in the Great Indian Teenager’s house, it was his grandmother who noticed it first. Anyone could have noticed it actually, if they had paid him any attention. His family was too obsessed with bears and bulls pouncing on each other in the stock market, the latest political scandal to hit the news and the dating lives of cricketers and movie stars. Hence it was nothing short of a miracle when his grandmother, who was usually preoccupied with unraveling the intricacies of soap operas and charting out the ‘who eloped with whom’ sheets, noticed a subtle change in her Great Indian Grandson.
Our hero had started sprouting hair on his face! He was ecstatic! He knew puberty had kick-started his system long back (his grating voice made sure of that) but this was something new. This was something different. The hair on his face was short, messy, and scraggly, not to mention hardly perceptible. But it signified something important: he was on his way to becoming a man. He has cleared the first rung of the ladder that led to that image of the dhoti wearing, mustache twirling macho man so heavily promoted by the movie industry.
Delight led to curiosity and curiosity led to experimentation. Armed with top class knowledge from the trusted GIF (the Great Indian Friend), our hero made each and every second of growing a beard worthwhile. At first, he committed the blasphemous act of doubting his loyal friend when he advised him to shave every single week so that the hair would grow back thicker. “ I googled what you told me. Isn’t it just a myth?” asked the poor hero. In response, his friend spat on the ground.
“Who was it that taught you everything you needed to know about the birds and the bees?” he asked our hero, feeling rightfully betrayed.
“Uhm…… you did”, the Great Indian Teenager said meekly.
“Who was it that kept you up to date about staff room politics?”
“Who was it that told you that Vimala, the cute girl in our class, was interested in you?”
“ You did, but it turned out that she wasn’t actua-“ “ She was interested but she got turned off by your attitude once she got to know you”, bounced back our hero’s friend, as wittily as ever.
“Bottom line is, I’m never wrong. Although Dr. Google might be sometimes. You can never completely trust it.” The friend gave a beaming smile.
Our hero relented. He started shaving and trimming and oiling and doing all sorts of atrocities on his beard and mustache under the watchful guidance of his friend. Grooming his beard became his favourite pastime, even surpassing his usual: deducing every single glance and side glance and minor gestures of his crush. Our hero’s relentless toil finally bore fruit. In his final year of school, he had a dark, shiny mustache and thick beard that even rivaled that of some of his male teachers. He had no idea ofcourse that more than his friend’s trusted counsel, it was his own genetics that had helped him achieve his dream.
There is a Malayalam adage which goes: If you smile too much, you will have to sigh. The noble hero soon discovered that there was profound truth in old sayings. Society, the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent being (not to be confused with ‘god’) did not like the fact that the teenager found a unique way of expressing himself. It did what it does best: playing the villain. It wasn’t long before its agents started wreaking havoc in the life of our hero.
It started without warning one fine evening and once again, the credit goes to the grandmother. “You are looking too old for your age. You should shave”, she said, flashing her teeth so beautifully painted red by betel leaves. Needless to say, her statement pricked the teenager’s ears. “Granny, I think the word you are looking for is ‘mature’, not ‘old’ ”.
“You should listen to your grandmother, son” chimed in his mother. “Remember Venu Uncle who came to visit us yesterday? Before he left, he asked your father where you worked. When he told him you were only 17, he was shocked.” She stopped, letting her words sink in and making the silence add to its emphasis. The Great Indian Teenager could only grunt, showing his disapproval. He hoped the matter would leave everyone’s minds as soon as it came in. Of course the reader knows better: he was wrong.
With each passing day, comments about his facial hair only increased in frequency. Every single person of paramount importance, starting from the milkman and the neighbours to the family friends and relatives who came with wedding invitations had something or the other to say about our hero’s face. They were mostly veiled jabs and snide remarks designed to make the family uneasy. Not a day went by in the teenager’s life when he wasn’t confronted by his family.
“The police recently caught some boys smoking ganja in that abandoned house. And you know what, those boys had the exact same style of beard as you have! Who is to say that you won’t be mistaken for a hooligan when you go out looking like that?”
“I’ve never touched a cigarette in my life, let alone ganja”. The hero was obviously annoyed.
“I don’t want people to think my son is a delinquent. You have to shave your face clean”.
“But what does growing a beard have to do with being a delinquent?” he could not help but ask. “No counter questions! You will do as you are told to!” Arguments and counter arguments of the sort populated his days.
The breaking point came one fine Saturday evening. Mother, having just returned from work, called out to the young hero.
“Remember when you came to see me in my office today? After you left, my colleagues asked me if you were my younger brother! Oh the nerve! That’s it! Go and shave right now!” She was fuming.
“B-but, I can’t do that!” stammered the teenager. “It’s been years since I’ve clean shaved. I’ll look like a potato! Besides, you should see my classmates, mom. Their beards will put yogis to shame.”
“I didn’t get pregnant and carry you in my belly for nine months just to give birth to a yogi. You are my son. You will not copy those delinquents. No more excuses.” The mother stormed off without waiting for a reply.
That day when the whole family sat together for supper, they saw a most curious sight. Our hero had definitely shaved, but not in the way his family had hoped for. He had taken off the bushy sideburns but he had left the mustache intact along with a little bit of hair near the chin. “It’s called a ‘goatee’. Nice, right?” Our hero asked, flashing his most nervous smile. This time his dad, the Great Indian Father who had always conspicuously remained absent or silent in their heated debates, looked up and chuckled. He was immediately silenced by a sharp glare from the mother.
“Honey, you are at fault too. He has grown defiant because you were too soft on him.” She turned to her son. “When I return from office tomorrow, I need to find your face clean. With not a single hair left. If not, you won’t be getting any supper.”
The mother gave her son an ultimatum. It was all he could think about the next day in school. ‘Why is she doing this to me?’, ‘Why can’t she understand?’ similar thoughts plagued his mind. Even while giving an important class seminar on globalization and neo colonialism it was the only thing on his mind.
In his troubled, twisted mind, he saw the dull classroom transform into a grand stadium. The concrete ground beneath him shook and raised itself into a podium. The audience, which was earlier comprised of bored students, was switched with a huge, passionate crowd. The hero looked around. He saw teenagers of various shapes and sizes. Flower crown wearing hippies with long, flowing hair, guys with the imperial moustache, stubbles, goatees, mutton chops, the Van Dyke etc.
Our hero took to the stage and with an eloquence and oratory skill that could only have been matched by Mark Antony, began to pour his feelings out.
“Dear comrades! I ask you, why should we shave? Are we trying to be those evil soul sucking clean shaven corporate bastards who mask their lack of honesty with their lack of facial hair? We are not! We are full-fledged individuals, members of society capable of making our own choices and who are fully conscious of the consequences arising from those choices. The adults refuse to acknowledge us. They never will. If we watch cartoons, they say we are too old; if we try to give valuable suggestions in important family discussions, they say we are too young. When are we ever ‘just right’ for them, comrades? I say MAKE UP YOUR MINDS, ADULTS!!!”
He paused to catch breath. “An attack on our facial hair is an attack on our freedom of expression! The molestation of our sense of identity and individuality! We will NOT allow it! Under any cost!”
The audience burst into thunderous applause. Booming chants of “Make up your minds! Make up your minds!” reverberated across the entire stadium.
As soon as he got back home, the teenager went straight to his bathroom. With a trembling hand, he picked up the razor from his shaving set. I swear if you focus, you guys can hear the sound of his racing heart, breaking out of the fourth wall and pounding on your eardrums.
‘To shave or not to shave, that is the question.’ He turned the shiny silvery blade in his hands while pondering the question. ‘To shave and submit to a malicious attack on my individuality, or to not shave and spent a night without supper? To forsake freedom or food? Damn! Hamlet had it easy’.
Suddenly, the Great Indian Stomach rumbled. ‘Wait a second! Isn’t facial hair sort of like a sacred rite of passage to adulthood? I don’t want to be an adult. Adults are mean and insensitive.’ Our hero had made his decision.
He came out of the bathroom with a clean face, very much resembling a potato. But he ate well and slept well that night. And in the end, that’s all that matters.