The mask is forcing us into the strangest conversations. I am not only talking about the well-established but still quite inexplicable habit of lowering the mask when the necessity arises to address another person.
But that too. It is an absolute conversation stopper, as I realised again the other day when asking for direction for yet another new cafe in Salt Lake. I was inside my car and the gentleman whom I had addressed almost pushed his head inside the car in a most helpful way, pulled down his mask, and shouted out the direction into my face. I found the cafe but lost my peace of mind among the information and all else he had scattered.
Another gentleman I was talking to, who had also happily liberated his face of the mask, explained the act this way: “Jodi mask pore thaki tahole kotha bolbo ki kore? How do I speak if I am wearing a mask?” This has been the traditional defence all a long. How can one argue with such logic? One does not.
I am not even going to get into the aesthetic of a mask dangling below the nose. It is not a pretty sight however perfect the nose is.
It is more difficult, though, to actually have a conversation, if you are masked and are addressing a non-masked person. As you try to point out the necessity of wearing a mask, you are bound to fail in many ways. This conversation was always hard, because in this situation the masked person has to reveal her vulnerability in so many ways including to the virus, and it has become harder with Covid reportedly having become milder. It is also difficult because this conversation entails negotiating intricate systems of the social, political and cultural, not to mention that of personal boundaries.
All this is too much of a burden. And you often feel you are the minority of one because no one around you is wearing a mask.
Recently I travelled to two cities, one after the other, and experienced much airport and in-flight behaviour, not to mention what I was exposed to inside taxis. Every time I felt uncomfortable about someone not wearing a mask, I did not know what to say. Or how to say what I wanted to.
For example, the pleasant young man who was driving me to the airport from the depths of Salt Lake in his AC taxi at the crack of dawn and had helped me to get all my luggage in and was quite interesting to talk to, was not wearing a mask. I had already begun to enjoy interacting with him. We were discussing national politics and both were on the same page, which is not so common an experience for me, yet we obviously thought differently on the mask and hence introducing the subject would create a dissonance I didn’t look forward to. But I did bring it up and he, a little reluctantly, wore a mask. But his voice lost its enthusiasm.
This kept happening to me inside taxis in the other cities, Mumbai and Bengaluru, and keeps happening to me in my city. A happy, healthy conversation comes to naught because of the mask.
Or I am forced to have conversations that I don’t want. In a flight the gentleman in the next seat settled in, fastened his seat belt and took off his mask. As the plane took off, he took to clearing his throat at a high decibel into the paper bag provided with other airline materials, at an interval of about 10 minutes. Can one stop someone from expectorating, high decibel or not, in any situation? It is as fundamental a right as my right to protect myself from viruses. I mean technically you can tell him that during Covid times he should be careful about what he is doing, but how do you actually?
So I kept my face turned away as much as possible and almost dropped into the aisle. But this same gentleman helped me to open a very complicated bottle of coconut water that was served without clear instructions, thereby earning my immense gratitude. Then we spoke, exchanging notes on the need for clear instructions. He made a lot of sense. But I remained tensed and was actually relieved when he went back to his paper bag. Another unfinished conversation.
Sometimes the mask or its absence brings with all the force the violence that makes the class system work. At a busy south Kolkata crossing, I was again inside a car (do I ever step out of it?) and a beggar, a middle-aged woman, came to my window and brought her face quite close to mine asking for money. She did not wear a mask. I sprang back, as much as possible inside the car, and asked her to go away. She looked at me with utter derision.
“You sitting inside the car are afraid of Covid? Let me give you Covid,” she said, thrust her head inside and before I could pull away blew vigorously into my face and laughed. I felt assaulted. But I could also feel what a contemptuous little thing I was seen from her point of view.
The mask can actually show us who we are.