Sukumar Ray may have got it wrong: whiskers — the gnof — may not have been the correct cipher for a shared solidarity. That honour, if New, Brave, Modern India is any indication, belongs to the moustache’s bushier cousin: the beard. That the beard has clipped whiskers’ wings and entered the hall of fame of culture and haute couture can be deduced from a glance at the gallery of India’s Most Wanted Men at the moment. The prime minister sports a handsome beard, ignoring jibes that his growing beard is inversely proportional to the nation’s shrinking economy. In the regimental party that he leads, the prime minister’s lieutenants have started sneering, in a manner of speaking, at lather and razor. When Narendra Modi was returned to power, one estimate found that as many as 18 of Mr Modi’s colleagues admired the beard — trimmed or long. Since cricket and politics mix well in the country, it was only apt that an almost entirely bearded Indian cricket team journeyed to play a World Cup.
Of course, there has never been anything facile about facial hair when it comes to men. Charles Darwin believed that bearded men got the best women in primitive societies but modernity has weaponized the beard by embellishing it with other kinds of potency. Long hair and beard have, for long, served as emblems of asceticism: indeed, the sagely visage of the prime minister may not be a coincidence. Only a sage’s wisdom can help India crawl out of the deep hole that it finds itself in. The other virtue of the bearded is, apparently, their masculinity. Be it on the political minefield or the cricketing arena, India needs to be shepherded by Men and not Boys: the latter, unfortunately, do not have the beard on their side. Such ingredients as aggression, dominance and virility — represented by the beard — are being used to cook up the broth of a hyper-masculinity to quench the thirst of the country.
There is, then, a case to argue that the Bearded Man is threatening the extinction of his Metrosexual brother who had, some years ago, taken the post-industrial order by storm by embracing a neat, mellow, even androgynous self. Does the latter’s demise signal a broader cultural shift away from civility, orderliness, decorum, inclusiveness — the elements that were integral to a quieter, peaceful world? Perhaps the ‘bushymen’ ought to think about this — stroking their facial locks to come up with a rebuttal.
Curiously, the popularity of the beard — 55 per cent of men in the world are said to have one — has not made it democratic. It remains distinctly discriminatory, much like some of the grizzled political leaders. In an increasingly polarized India, beards of some communities are codes to unleash vilification and violence. And the sight of a bearded woman is, usually, a hair-raising experience across lands and cultures. Can the beard, if not the country, be made representative at least?