Saturday, July 29, 2017

Note Book of Ordinary Things 12: We Gonna Chase Those Bald Heads...

Once upon a time I had a lot of anxiety about hair falling. Nothing new, you would think because it is one phase that most of the human beings have to pass through. When you are a teenager your whole idea about yourself is your body. You keep looking at your body as if it was a great work of art and you a great sculptor. In fact, you are a great work of art destined to do sublime things. Unfortunately you wouldn’t think so and none would tell you that you have bigger goals to reach and you are nothing but a tool in the hands of a great artist. The folly of looking at the way in which hair follicles behave comes from the belief that you are the author of your own self. You are a collaborator of your own self because the greater hands are elsewhere, invisible but so close directing you at each pulsating moment but you need different eyes and different sensory organs to feel that. The whole idea of perfecting yourself is to make yourself an antenna capable of catching the god frequency. But teenagers hardly develop this antenna and they remain in front of the mirrors counting hair, pimples, blackheads and so on.

This great fear of turning oneself into a bald person keeps haunting most of the males and females. Some people tell you at a very early age itself that baldness is something hereditary. Then you not only look at your own hair but also the hair of your parents and all those blood relations. Then someone else tells you that it is not necessary to turn bald even if your father is bald. Before you heave a sigh of relief there comes a rider that if any of your forefathers had it then there are chances even if your father has a full mop. It is like height, you see. Such people are more scientific or they think so but knowing that they are scientific does not help you at all because you are about to lose your hairs. And your dreams are full of demons pulling your hairs out one by one. You read Kafka at an early age because you are naturally tuned to literature and you see one fine morning you get and find that you have turned into a bald person. That is the mortal fear that could afflict you at the age of sixteen or seventeen; it is not the right time to turn existential though. One of my cousins had this jealous streak in him and used to tell me how I would turn a bald person by the time I turned twenty. I am still alive to write this only because that better sense prevailed and I did desist from committing suicide.

Bald is in fact beautiful but most do not know. Our aesthetical outlook comes from the popular imageries and narratives, especially novels, films and today all sorts of digital communications. There was a time when bald people were seen as beautiful people. That was the time when experience and intelligence were given value over money and muscle. The early Greek history and mythologies show that the intelligent ones were bald and old. The wise ones were definitely bald. Only the warrior class that spoke from the muscles had a lot of hairs. Why intelligent people were bald? They used the brains and using brains gave out heat waves and heat caused hair falling. Such a beautiful explanation! Later on I learnt that when people think a lot or undergo stress they lose their hair. Then again, we have this new theory; life style product and the chemicals in water and food could cause hair falling. Anyway, the bald people fell from grace sooner than later in our popular narratives as they were demoted from being philosophers to underworld dons. A good baldie makes a good villain; Mogambo Khush Hua. Take the best villains ever in the Hindi screen all of them have played baldies; Jeevan, Pran, Prem Chopra, Amaresh Puri, Khulbushan Kharbanda, Anupam Kher and so on. But a hero could give himself a comic streak if he adds a clumsy wig which shows him partially bald.

That means baldness became a signifier of villainy and if it is partial then of foolishness. Look at Mr.Pickwick of Dickens; he is half bald and is a mixture of wisdom and foolhardy. From Butler Jeeves to the scheming secretaries is bald. Why baldness came to have connoted all the wrong things in the world? Once upon a time, in India baldness was considered to be a sign of beauty, especially for me. For women it is always hair that added to their allure; a woman with open hair stood for her sexual prowess. That’s why when one is widowed her hairs are shorn off as she was to be projected as a sexually neutral person (how such women were socially used and abused were a different matter). The life expectancy was less in those good old days and the source of income was less. People turned old by the time they turned twenty five or thirty. By the time they were forty they were pretty much old as most of them died by the age of fifty. Sixty was very advanced age as today sixty is the new forty of the yesteryears. In those days baldness was okay. With the increase in the longevity of life people changed their idea of beauty. While the beauty concept of women remained more or less same (white, slim, well endowed, long haired, coy and so on), the beauty concept of men changed drastically. Baldness became a thing of past and relegated to villainy. We do not see bald heroes in our movies. But definitely we do see bald villains.

Baldness made a comeback during the boom years in India; in fact all over the world. Bald people in suites and flowery shirts became a rage. Bald people with stubble were dubbed to be hot. Perhaps, it was a carrying over from the Italian underworld kings in the USA and also the American as well as European blacks surging with identity politics. Most of Break Dancers, Rappers and Hip-Hoppers of 1990s were bald heroes. From Tupak Shakur to Biggie to 50 Cent were baldies or the people who had adopted the bald style. Samuel Jackson, Wesley Snipes, Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Jamie Fox, Forrest Whitekar, Spike Lee and all the cool Black guys went bald. When the market boom came the successful ones wanted to give a shade of Mafioso and darkness. In India the successful ones were already ageing and it was necessary for them to shave off their bald pate to give that bald edge, starting from Pritish Nady to Prabhakar Kolte and their protégé Bose Krishnamachari. They all shaved off because they thought it was best to have a bald pate than the good old Pickwickian silly baldness. They had still a great option before them. They could have gone for weaving their hair or outright hair transplantation as most of the film heroes have done over the last ten or fifteen years in the whole of Indian film industry. For the poor ones who still attached a lot of value to hair and still thought baldness was ugly stylish wigs were available. Even today in newspapers a portion of advertisement space is taken away by the wig selling and hair growing advertisements. Such is the discourse of hair and baldness in India today.

I sport a semi bald look for some time now. I had a different story behind this haircut. I have been contemplating to do away with my hair for it stood for certain style or identity. I wanted to do away with any kind of identity the way the monks did/do all over the world. Hair is also a part of your ego (for many the baldness is a part of their ego and identity as we have seen it in the Indian art scene). So doing away with hair is like doing away with your ego. You don’t attach that value to your hair the way the teenagers do. But I was hesitant; after a long time I had actually settled for a particular hair style; neither long nor short. One day my sister, upon looking at my comparatively long hair asked me to go for a ‘decent’ hair cut so that she could walk with me and ‘claim’ me as her brother. Her contention was that I should be cutting hair like any other people around. I thought, well, her aesthetic sense was about creative normative identities. When you have a normal hair cut you don’t stick out; you become just ordinary like any other person in the street. And ordinariness is a good thing to aspire for. When you are ordinary the society does not look at you nor is it anyway interested in you other than your consumerist side and vote. In the meanwhile you can carry on with your ordinary lives, stoking fuel to your small egos and selfishness. That was the concept of decency for many. So long as you do not look different, everything is fine. So I went to the barbershop and asked him to shave my hair off. As he too is a ‘decent’ man he was reluctant to do it (in villages the barber knows you and your family background). I came back and asked my sister whether I was looking decent enough to be called a brother. Then her answer surprised me: You were better earlier.

In a world were decency is measured with hair or lack of hair and its length and the style of it, it is good to go for a monk cut which makes you simply an identity-less person. You think in this very understated haircut you could just escape the attention of other people. When I am at the airport the security man asks me I look familiar because he has seen some swamy like me a few days back. At the pre-paid taxi counter the policeman asks me which ashram I belonged to. People treat you with some sort of discretion. You could be obscure only in the places where you see a lot of youngsters who have either shaven off their hairs or have grown it in different fashions. Among them I look absolutely out of place, insignificant and ignorable like an old piece of furniture. Lesson; having no hair is still a fashion, but having hair like mine could bring some attention. Decent hair cut you could just be passed off as ordinary. If you have very long hair, you could turn eyes and necks towards you. But what would happen if your hairs are very long and you have black skin and sort of clothes that absolutely challenge your moral and aesthetical values? Then police action may follow. I would talk about it tomorrow.

(Images taken from the Internet for representational purposes only)

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Note Book of Ordinary Things 11: Fountain Pens and Fingers Stained by Ink

There used to be a time when your fingers always remained stained throughout the academic year. You were exactly eleven years old and that was when your teachers and parents allowed you to use fountain pens. The stain on your fingers was always that of the ink because in those good old days the pens were ink pens. Use and throw pens were yet to be invented and Tendulkar had not yet become a star who could surprisingly tell the young kids of the time to use ball point pens rather than bats! Amitabh Bacchan hardly wrote his scripts and songs but he too advertised stylish Parker pens which we never got a chance to use in the school days. The other stains that we used to get were those created by saps of mangoes and cashew nuts and along the way we found out that our undergarments were stained by strange fluids. We knew how to hide those stains cleverly; also we were successful in hiding the stains that had befallen on our innocence. Still we did not know how to hide those indelible stains on the finger tips. On the last day of the school final examinations, we, the then children emptied the left over ink in those pens on the friends, their faces, hands, shirts and skirts in pure mirth and a lot of expectation thinking that they all would remember us forever. They too did the same; times changed, we grew, new friends came in, new life happened. Moreover new pens came that never leaked.

The word ‘leaking’ had a special space in the vocabulary of the school children. We never worried much about the absence of some girls for a couple of days every month. We never got curious why the girls occasionally developed stomach ache and were sent back home accompanied by another embarrassed girl. We never thought a great deal about why they fainted in the morning hours as they stood under the morning sun for the school assembly where the headmaster admonished and advised us to be the better citizens for the future of the country. But we definitely worried about the word leaking as we saw many a pocket were seen stained by blue ink and many a cane were turned into threads. Cane the kids as much as you could, what would they do if the pens were just leaking as if the ink in them was so curious to jump out than remain there and help the kids in writing. The ink, fortunately was washable though the faint colour remained there throughout the night only to be renewed in the evening. The leaking of ink was caused by badly produced pen. Besides, for the children an ink pen was a thing of wonder; as they were not having enough things to look at other than girls who refused to look at the boys’s side, things of curiosity were simply the hapless fountain pens and the instrument boxes, which cracked a cackling sound followed by a shattering of frail plastic instruments all over as children struggled to open them by force.

In the pre-global economy of the country, or the nationalised economy of the country, we did not have many things to choose from. Everything came as pairs, even friends and enemies were in pairs. You had a best friend and you always walked with him or her. Your film stars were also two. The cars that you counted were also in two. There was always a cheerful Fiat to balance the seriousness of an Ambassador. Inquilab had Zindabad to go with it; so was the case of TATA, Birla never left the trail. When it came to the large vehicles we either sided with TATA or Ashok Leyland. As we were so ignorant of the larger games of economics, even somebody said Tata as a part of taking leave we subconsciously chimed in ‘Birla’. In those days when everything came in pairs (yes, how can I forget the good old Bata accompanied by Carona?), the inks too came in pairs. Bril was the best ink around. Camel was a rare ink. But to give competition to Bril then came Chelpark. But Chelpark was costlier than Bril so we mostly settled for the latter. Someone using Chelpark ink was looked at with some amount of envy. And those who used Chelpark ink had better pens, mostly important from the Middle East countries.

In the leaking pens club we had two major players and their names were Jubilee and Bismie respectively. Considering the percentage of leakage, I could definitely say they were neck to neck. Thinking of it, I still do not know what made our loyalties defined. Why did someone choose Bismie over Jubilee? I don’t know. What I could say is that the factor must have been the price. If Bismie was five rupees, Jubilee must be five rupees fifty paise. Fifty paise counted a lot. When I read Gandhiji and Vinoba ji and their efforts to develop an economy based on spinning Khadi, I come across this astonishing figures like 8 annas which is equal to fifty paise within which families lived as that was the maximum a spinner could earn in those days (today spinners in the cricket fields earn better than the best paid administrative officers in the government departments). Anyway, fifty paise mattered a lot then and we settled for Jubilee and some for Bismie. As you understand from the names, they were purely desi pens. Compared to the evolution of guns, these pens could be developed to those good old guns in which the users manually filled the gun powder and triggered. These were called fountain pens. Then another development happened; pens with fillers appeared. But they were imported ones. Then came the pens with refilling cartridges. One could simply compare these to double barrel guns and to the revolvers.

The day you got your first fountain pen, means ink pen, you grew up an inch taller and your ego got a few pounds of extra air. The feeling is almost like the kids who get their first pair of spectacles on the first year in the high school. That day when the specs come ready, the boy or girls read a lot, perhaps for the first time in his life he does all the homework in one go, even for the next year. Same is the case with when you get the new watch. You go to bed wearing the watch and get up in the middle of the night, just ‘to check the time’. Yes, things are alright. So when you get the first fountain pen, given a chance you would copy Mahabharata, just for the kick of it, the whole one lakh shlokas. The owner of a fountain pen unknowingly a Parsi. Parsi gentlemen are famed for their ability to repair anything and keep any machine in functioning condition even if they are a century old. So our little Parsis by default start working on this pen instead of working with these pens. These pens are just plastic barrels with ink regularly filled in it and closed with a corkscrew looking part fitted with a fine nib and a supporting part called ‘tongue’. So it becomes a favourite activity for you to open it and see the level of ink inside. Then screw it back. Happy. Yes happy. Depending on the marks on the upper part of the pen one could say which body part or equipment is used for unscrewing the portion, a vice or teeth. Someone approaches you with a ‘screwed up’ pen and you open it ‘just like’ that. The smile that comes on your face upon opening it would put the smiles of Edmund Hilary or Neil Armstrong into shame. The biggest innovation ever done by the R and D of these pen companies is adding a transparent part in the body of the pen so that the ink level could be seen. The naughtiest one? Adding the picture of a nude girl in that transparent part; when you turn the pen to write she wears a bikini! These adult pens were sadly not allowed in the class rooms.

Then the little Parsis got into working on the nibs and tongue because a fountain pen user lived a life of paranoia; he always thought that something was stuck inside the nib and his handwriting was going haywire because of that. So a day, mostly Sunday was kept aside for cleaning the nibs and tongues. They are wrenched out by force and cleaned with water, dried under sun and observed keenly before you put them back into place. These pens always had a problem; when they fit the nibs back they always went misaligned causing tremendous amount of leakage of ink. But then you were not disappointed; it gave you another chance to pull it out and get into some experiments. This time you found out that there is an inscription on it, ‘Bismie 1970’. You were thrilled to see that. Slowly, the pen became a thing of pity. With constant alterations and experiments sometimes you found a black pen having a red upper portion for it is exchanged with a friend who had the pen of the same make. Cannibalized pens still found their way into the classes terrorizing not only the meek ones but also the teachers. They kept their white clothes miles away from those pens. Finally the pens would go into the ultimate make over; the Parsis become plumbers. They wound some threads around the curved hinges to keep them tight and in place. If it still leaked then it was consigned to its grave yard, one of the remote corners of drawers. The first pen is never thrown. Each student in those days thought they would resurrect, if not on the third day but some day.

 Then years later you find them; like skeletons of an extinct species they lie before your eyes with a strange smell of clotted ink which takes you back to the school days, unfamiliar notebooks, printing presses, shops, ink bottles and so on. Along the way, you started using other pens, much sophisticated pens which had fillers of different kinds and cartridges. You valued your pen and there were no tampering with it. In my childhood there were pen doctors; when the home medicine did not work, parents took these pens to these doctors, expert technicians who rejuvenated ink pens. Now there are hardly pen doctors; there must be experts who handle high end pens that are used only for signing cheque leaves by the business tycoons. Ink pens have become a thing of past. People use a lot of key board work to do their writing. I too work a lot on key board but ink pens are my real tools. I have a pen bought many years back and I use that every day to write and translate. At some point its filler was broken. But I use it still by dipping it into the ink pot. I think I have been doing so for the last five years. Whenever I do that I remember my childhood when my father had a reed pen and a porcelain ink pot. He wrote a few things using these precious pen and ink pot. It was there around for a long time and today I do not know where they have gone.

Like an artist, a writer too uses different tools and mediums to write. For each kind of writing, a writer uses a different kind of pen. In my case my notes are written by one pen whose case remains the same while its refills are carefully selected from the same company. My dairy is written by another pen. Translations are done by my dear Parker pen. My casual notes are written by a different ball point pen. The fact is that when you love your writing tool, they never leak or go wrong. Recently I was in another city with another set of people. We were all using the ball point pens given by the organizers. Suddenly a friend’s pen started leaking. Even if it was not an ink pen it was a casualty. I tried to check the pen and the result was five stained fingers. Ever since I was trying to put these down and I have done it now.

(Images sourced from the internet for representational purposes only)

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Note Book of Ordinary Things 10: Whatsapp Mothers Back Home

Mothers back in the villages are an interesting lot. They are more concerned about the climatic conditions of the places where their children live than the children themselves. When you talk about these children, they are not really children, but grown up people capable enough to take care of own lives, families, children and even the grand children. However, the old adage says that for the parents, especially for the mothers children of any age remain as children forever. Of late I have understood why mothers like grand children a lot; they want to feel the same love for their children and as they are not available in the vicinities, these mothers transfer it on the grand children. The only problem is that mothers generally ‘over love’ their grand children that some real demands of the children go unheard. Anyway, these mothers come to know about the climatic conditions anywhere in the world through television news and newspapers. May be you didn’t know that there was a small earth quake in the city where you are living yesterday night, but there would be a mid-night call from your mother asking about your safety. Only mothers could do it.

Most of the mothers back in the villages have been now technologically updated. All of them have mobile phones now. There is a pattern in most of the houses. The mothers never get a new mobile phone. If any mother does not have a phone with her today must be having two reasons to explain it: One, I don’t go anywhere and there is a landline at home. I am happy with it. Two, I do not know what to do with this mobile phone. But as human beings they too are liable to evolve and they do that. Their first initiation to mobile telephony is in an old hand sets with the punching pad. They must be either a handed down thing with the digits and alphabets almost erased out of existence or some new handset with obscure brand names and the potential to explode at any time. Giving old mobiles to mothers is an economic move and secondly a very practical one. We all learn cycling on old cycles (now our children do it in the new cycle because these cycles have supporting wheels. When we were children trial and error method nay falling and getting up method was the only method to learn cycles and these hopeless cycles were rented out from village cycle shops), learn driving in old cars (with the gear lever remain flaccid in any gear position) and wear handed down dresses with minor alterations. Once you are good with/at something you get a new one (wish it happened in marriages too!).

Mothers are now in the world of new telephony. Let me tell you here, I am not talking about those English speaking mothers who are pretty sophisticated and are familiar with the urban life styles, and remain constantly updated with the changing trends. Such mothers are seen even in villages but that is a rarity. Mothers like my mother are educated, understand a few languages, had worked in government departments and banks, fairly informed about the world but fiercely protective about their territories, extremely sentimental about their properties and land, unreasonably fearful about the changing technologies. They are good mothers who are capable of wrecking a lot of disaster in the families because of their attachment to certain value systems. At the same time they are phenomenally protective mothers whom you could rely on keeping your house in order, bringing up your children and placing good food on the table. There is even a saying among these mothers or grandmothers that ‘your mother just delivered you, I brought you up’, a claim which functions like an emotional shackle for most of the children who do not have siblings.

Coming back to the fear of these mothers regarding the mobile phones, I would say it takes quite some time for them to get adjusted. They are die hard traditionalists; they now refuse to graduate to smart phones. They say that punching the invisible key board is rather a thing of experience and practice which is much easier than the sliding screens of the new age smart phones. Think about it, what we call the good old mobile phone handsets with punching key pads were a thing in vogue till five years back. The smart phones came very recently, less than a decade. So things have become things of past as the technology changes so fast. Two decades is something like a remote time in the past for many children who were born sometime in late 1990s. They look at the floppy discs or CDs with a lot of nostalgia where our nostalgia is constituted of dark evenings, unpaved roads, sounds of crickets and frogs, coolness of well water, garden in the front and backyards of the individual homes and so on. Only question remains is how past is past or what is the pastness of past today? Anyway, our mothers refuse to graduate to the smart phones because they are happy with their traditional mobile phones with key pads! They call something that they got introduced to a few years back traditional! That is the mystic of our times.

Some mothers like my mother have succeeded in graduating to the new smart phones. Again I should say these phones are never bought for them as brand new equipments. Even if the children do it with good intentions, by the time the packet is delivered by the flipkart or Amazon agent, the loudest and rudest among the grandchildren would come forward to lay claim to it and become very magnanimous in offering his smart phone to his grand mothers. Sometimes, sons themselves would take it for himself while offering his old set to his mother. Generally mothers do not use anything new including food. They prefer to eat what is left over. Even if there are new dishes abundant, they would take out something from the fridge to add a bit of ‘pastness’ to their meal. So, perhaps out of fear, giving away the new phone to the grandson or son himself is a welcoming relief for these mothers because they are afraid of ‘spoiling’ it as they do not know how to use it. They would be happy to have the old smart phone in the place of the new one. With a heavy heart as if they were burying their dearest pet in the backyard, they would push the old key pad driven phone into the drawer still thinking that one day it would come of use. What you see around as its memory, most often is its charger that nobody claims.

It does not take many days for these reluctant but impish old mothers to become experts of these smart phones. As we know they do not have much of work or rather they do it very slowly, they get a lot of time in between to check their mobile phones. Initially all of them would find the sliding a bit difficult as their physical co-ordination is with the old phone and there would be a tendency to punch rather than to touch. They need a few days to register in their minds that it is a touch screen. The next step is familiarising with the functioning of it. Most of the time, you get missed calls from your mothers’ phones because they must be fiddling with the new toy and often what looks familiar is your name or the code in which you are saved in there, would be ‘touched’ hence you get a missed call. Once they get a sort of control on the ‘contact’ list, how to call back a missed call, how to handle a text message and so on (they do it laboriously like a child learning to walk), they move on to the special apps. It is mandatory to have Whatsapp. You know these mothers are very curious about whatsapp. They keep asking you how to work it. And once they have it, then do not worry about anything, they will be in one place sharing whatever comes to them via whatsapp. When you are about to sleep at night, there is a ping in your phone and you take it and lo there is your mother sending you a funny video.

The funny thing about it is that my mother (I could say quite convincingly about her) even keeps funny videos sent to her by me, my cousins and members of the extended family very carefully in her whatsapp folder and never over sends or misuse it. Suppose, I send five funny videos to her, she shares only two further to someone in her list thinking that she could save the other three videos for those days in which whatsapp looks very dry and no forwarded funny videos come. She saves it like any other thing for the dry days. It is a very touching thing to see how these mothers even extend their human love in saving such videos for the rainy days. But only problem is that these mothers while enjoying the visuals and funny videos, they have this tendency to believe anything that comes in the form of a writing, a document, a pdf, something related to Aadhar card, Pan Card, medicines for certain illnesses, certain yogic practices, the medicinal values of certain leaves and so on. I always tell my mother that any thing comes as a public utility message just discard or counter check with internet, newspaper or television before taking any action on it. Even abstain from forwarding it to other people.

These whatsapp moms have become the new moms of the rural world. They are happy to see the pictures shared, at times they make video calls, they share cooking notes, pictures of cooked items, performances of the in-house talents which only the family members could tolerate, new saris, family gossips and so on. Whatsapp is a great thing for the mothers back at home. They may not be knowing how to operate a facebook account or a twitter handle. But they are very confident about whatsapp to the extent of some becoming addicted to it. I think most of the melancholic mothers could cheer up when they get funny videos and pictures in their phones. And the biggest solace for them is that they could make video calls to their children elsewhere. Of course, they still keep checking the weather reports for the possible earth quakes, storms and floods.  

( Images taken from the internet for representational purposes only)

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Note Book of Ordinary Things 9: Combs and Hairs of all Kinds

Comb is a very ordinary thing but as essential as a bath towel for a human being who takes care of his/her body. In a decent hotel when you check in they provide you a comb, a shaving kit, a shower cap, a shampoo and a dental kit. Of the five items four are directly or indirectly related to hair and hair care. I brought in the case of hotels at the outset itself only to tell you that hair care is very important to anyone in the world that even the hotel managements do not take it lightly. At home everyone has a comb and perhaps by looking at a comb one could say how hygienic a person is. Hygienic among the human beings take special care to keep their combs clean and dry for this is one daily body upkeep too that comes in contact with a body part which is prone to sweat therefore wet and oily. Hairs are dead cells they say, so are the nails. Vampires, when they feast on the human bodies generally leave hairs and nails untouched (bones they crush, chew and suck out the marrows, which is said to be very tasty. I am not a vampire but I eat a mutton preparation called Rogan Josh one of the many dishes that people eat without really understand what it means. For instance Chicken 65). If you are a grave digger, they say, you get the hairs and nails intact. The latest in the news is that they dug up Salvador Dali’s grave to study his genetic details and the samples were taken from his illustrious moustache, which they said remained more or less intact).
Even if hairs are dead cells the living ones take care of it more than they take care of the other organic parts of the body. A smelly armpit is always caused by the sweat holding hairs though the hairs are the so called vent machines of the human body. I believe hairs are the parts that the God has left in the human beings to remember that they were evolved from the hairy animals. That’s why God has decided to hide hairs in the places where limbs join and has made it sparse all over and made the indication of the possible hairiness of the person through the mop of hair on the head. Perhaps the hairs in the hidden parts of the body do not demand the use of comb for many believe in shaving them off (again for hygienic reasons, but it is not a rule there are millions of exceptions in the world). The hair spread all over the body, however needs tending. Women get into painful processes like plucking, waxing and downright shaving in order to do away with bodily hairs. But they need different kinds of combs to take care of the hairs on the scalp. The more you have hairs on the head the more your trouble; and the more the time that you spend tending it. Men too are not different. They also need a comb not only to comb down or up their hair on the head as well as the facial hairs. There was a time when men folk carried combs (flattened like a piece of leather) in their hip pockets. Keeping the mop in a particular style is one of the major concerns of the men, women and boys and girls alike.

 Combs must be an early invention as we have combs made of animal horns, bones and teeth. These combs must have been made when other materials like plastic and steel were not available. Wooden combs are/were available. Today everyone, irrespective of class and social status use plastic combs fashioned in different ways and for different purposes. But the use of combs made of animal horns, bones and teeth has become rare for the rarity of the raw materials to make such combs. Misuse of animal teeth for example that of the elephants is now a punishable offence. Logical thinking takes us to those good old days when artisans crafted plain and dull looking wooden combs for the use of the ordinary people and intricately carved and crafted combs in rare materials for the rich and powerful. I can imagine kings and queens using such finely crafted combs, which now we could see in the museums. Wooden combs are still in use in the rural areas. But there was a time when most of the people used wooden combs with specially crafted ‘teeth’ in order to take out lice from the hairs. There was also a special kind of thick and slimmer at the end combs which were used for taking out the eggs of the lice. With the advent of the beauty industry and also with the availability of shampoo sachets both in the rural and urban market, these kinds of combs have become a thing of past.

 Hairs have both religious and political meanings. The latest of political meanings of hairs could be seen from the North Korea; there in order to keep the social order, the totalitarian government has approved around six styles of haircut which is predominantly the variations of the haircutting style of the President. In such a situation, you don’t really need a comb in the conventional sense but some appendage that would do the job of the combs. For many a hairstyle today does not need combs per se because they need a little bit of gel and a lot of caressing by the finger; perhaps you have to fondly your hairs throughout the day and supply with it sufficient gel when the ups and downs of it start to wilt. All the religious conventions have made certain strictures about hairs; some say it is necessary to grow hairs and some other religions insist that the people who are in the order should tonsure their heads and should do away with all the hairs. While the former needs ample use of combs, the latter need not even think of it. Sikh Religion insists that the followers of it, should grow hairs irrespective of gender. Besides, carrying a comb is also part of their religious identity. Hindu religion, especially the Shaivites believed in growing hairs and not tending it at all. This would help the hair turn matted and become dreadlocks. Rastafarians in Jamaica had adopted the dreadlocks from the Indian Shaivaites who went to the Caribbean islands as indentured labourers. Along with dreadlocks, it is said that smoking weeds and wailing out their woes also reached those far off shores, which they reggae musicians like Bob Marley adopted as ‘wailing music.’

 Today all the Shaivaites do not grow hairs. To see all of them in one go, one should visit the Kumbh Melas in one of the three major Kumbh Melas in India, namely Ujjain, Allahabad and Banaras. The wandering mendicants, bards and Bauls grow hairs and they do not need combs. The Black People all over the world give a lot of attention to their hairs and by 1980s it has become a part of politicized ‘body’ of the black people. In his ‘Welcome to the Jungle’, black theoretician Kobena Mercer speaks how the black hair, the Afro style took various shapes in order to be the emblem of the identity politics that the Black People in the United States, South Africa, Caribbean Islands and Europe held high in order to achieve equal rights and justice. Among the Black People also the use of combs became very important not only in terms of fashion but also with regard to their politics. It is also noticed that most of the political debates and discussions were carried out in those years in and around the Barber shops.
At times, I think that combs despite its religious and political relevance, are a moderate fashion tool. The people who have dreadlocks, that means they are the ones who have gone out of the mainstream lives and prefer to continue as nonconformist people, do not need combs because like the moderate and the mainstream people they do not intend to take care of their hairs. The other side of the spectrum we see bald people. There are two types of bald people who need combs and who need electric trimmers (only the filmy villains shave heads with razor blades. Rest of the baldies in the world use trimmers). The former lot has got major baldness and some semblance of hair in their heads. They need combs to ‘invite the hairs forcefully’ to the areas where there are no hairs. Those people who have embraced baldness boldly just need to keep their baldness on. They do not need hairs. Among them are also people who have half baldness who perhaps need a comb and mostly not. Bald people attempting to comb and sad people eating alone are the two sights that would make you philosophical; you just think about the flimsiness of all worldly gains. Having collection of hundred different kinds of combs from all over the world and having no hair on the hair is the saddest fate of an art collector. And eventually, having a beautiful mop that needs hourly care and stranded in a place where people have not even heard of combs is the fate of a romantic who always think of getting stranded in an island where he would find a beautiful girl with divine powers.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Note Book of Ordinary Things 8: The Magical Paperweights

Once upon a time paperweights had a purpose. They by using their weight held the papers firmly on the table. Those people who never used papers on their tables also used to buy and keep paperweights in their homes because as objects of curiosity they had some strange attraction. Children used to consider some of the paperweights as enlarged versions of marbles and they could simply look at it or rather look into it for a long time. There were different kinds of paperweights. These days nobody uses paperweights because except in the government offices papers are not used. Most of the people have shifted their work to computers and the Microsoft word files do not need a paperweight to keep them in place. Maximum you need to press control plus ‘s’ button together which would keep the ‘sheets’ in place, safe, secure and forgotten until dug out.

I do not know the origin story of the paperweights. Nor am I interested to check for it in the Google. Sometimes reminiscing about something is more fascinating than going for factual research. My conjecture regarding the origin of paperweights is about the close relationship of a writer (not a court writer or a chronicler in a court room but an independent creative writer) with an open window and various kinds of breezes. An open window is a must for a good writer. An aspiring writer could check the difference between writing in a closed room and doing the same near an open window. Open windows would allow a lot of breeze, which is the genuine comforting act of the nature, into the room and would waft the writer like the compassionate caressing of the beloved. She comes in unobtrusively and places her palm on your forehead without disturbing the act of writing, gives a small peck on your exposed neck and a pat on your back and retreats. But winds are not always caring as the beloved is. As moody creatures of nature they too would at times refuse to stick to their brief and would ruffle a few sheets that you have written and kept aside. It was then the writer for the first time thought of having a paperweight.

 What could be the first paper weight? It must be anything that has a weight to hold the papers under. Then I have seen writers collecting round pebbles of the size of a little palm and keeping it on their tables. They believe in what Tagore had told once, ‘you may keep the windows open for the winds of various cultures to come in but you should allow yourself to be blown away by that’ (words mine). Paperweights in that case serve the purpose of rootedness of a writer. He/she should not be blown away by the winds. Then when the market came to know that the writers all over the world were fighting against the winds that carried various cultures from different corners of the world, thought of making some weights to hold the sheets of their manuscripts. Then the paperweights of different shapes and colours started appearing. There was time when you went to some elderly person’s home who had the habit of reading and writing (once upon a time most of the literate people indulged in writing down their feelings not for publication. Even today it is true but most of the people write only to be put up there in the facebook wall so that they could get some kind of appreciation from the ‘like’-minded ones) you could see the paperweights and you as a young boy/girl definitely stood admiring those wondrous objects.

 It should be interesting to see how you viewed the innards of a paperweight made of glass. They were not simple masses made of glass. Aesthetically devised and carefully designed these paperweights contained different worlds of colour and surprises. Some of them had a splash of colour inside which made you think about the ways in which the colours have gone into it exactly the way you wondered how a miniature sailing ship had got into a glass bottle. You knew that from the ships the sailors used to throw bottles with messages meant for unknown recipients. But here the ship itself is in a bottle. It must have taken many years for you to know how they got into the bottles. Similarly, the paperweights also had colours sometimes they reflected the aquamarine life, sometimes a monument of your liking, sometimes a scene from the world, rarely a couple of lovers holding each other in a moment of eternity. As a child you could sit with a paperweight for any number of hours without disturbing the peace of the elders who would be discussing the serious world affairs. You see sometimes, a scar or a piece of glass chipped away from the surface of the glass paperweight disfiguring it forever. You could make out that the user of it is a bit impatient and often has the habit of dropping it while playing with inside his palms or in the worst case throwing it at someone in a fit of rage.

Times changed and the windows could have net covers and jallies. You could close it and still you could have the breeze coming in tamed. But by the time you have had your fans fitted in the rooms. Whether winds or no winds you have this fans running in high speed fighting the heat and ruffling the sheets of papers. There too you need a paperweight. With the advent of these fans too the paperweights did not go out of fashion. They evolved in different ways. Most of them preferred it in glass and they were of different shapes and colours. Some of them came in hexagonal shapes and had deep indigo colour which made you wonder how the glass as a lump gained that colour. Then came the transparent greens and whites that strangely resembled sweets. Then came the paperweights that looked like pieces of ice or crystal. Nobody could resist the charm of these paperweights and if you see it on anybody’s table, you would definitely play with it till you are admonished by the elders or the officer or doctor. And mind you, if you were an inquisitive child and you had laid your hands on a paperweight, it was sure that once you dropped it incurring the suppressed wrath of the doctor or officer which would carried over to back to you as a rough injection or a rude remark.

One of the strangest paperweights that I had seen in my childhood was made of cork. This was a paperweight come pin holder. There used to be these small pins that also helped in holding a bunch of paper together and could be called the precursors of stapler pins and guns. These minute little pins actually were mostly used in the government offices and I am sure that the cork paperweights were invented for holding the papers together and also to keep pins on it without falling all over. My mother was a government servant in a busy office where I used to go as a child and watch them working. These offices had large windows as well as grandfather types of fans hanging dangerously from the ceilings. So the flying around of the papers was inevitable and the paperweights became constant companions of these officer workers. In the boring moments these clerks who worked in the offices ran their cheap ballpoint pens on these cork paperweights making marks all over it. Eventually they looked like the walls of some primitive cave with indecipherable pictures all over. I am sure the office clerks were simply reflecting their minds on these paperweights.

Times have changed. Now nobody knows which time of the day is this once they are inside the office. Unless and until they look at the watch or the feeling of the grumbling in the stomachs they wouldn’t come to know about the time of the day because all the office buildings are designed for air conditioning. No day light comes in. Even if it comes in it must be coming to the higher up’s separate rooms with huge glass walls giving an overview of the city, a view always reminding them of their possible fall and the weight of the present job. With the air conditioners in place, no fans work in the officers therefore there is no need for paperweights. Still like the reminder of the good old days, some people still keep paperweights on their tables, simply to play with it. It is a sort of carrying over the past to the new technology as Derrida says in the case of the computers. We use Microsoft word file. But any related to the writing with a computer has the terminologies carried over from the good old handwriting and desk. A word format is in the regular A-4 size, you have clip boards, margins, pins, files and so on there. The age old handwriting habit was initially carried over to type writing and then to computers. There was an interim phase of electronic type writers where you type and the print out would come not in the A-4 size but in a size that suited to the printer. The past refuse to die. There is no future without the learning from the past. Paperweights are the living museum pieces that makes our lives perhaps a museum act.  

(Images sourced from the internet for representational purposes only)