Once upon a time, the beard belonged to all. It hung from the faces of believers and non-believers alike. It still does, but because of stereotyping it has become the symbol of just one faith as a result of extreme violent activities by some its adherents and also because of the role of the media in shaping public opinion on beards. The beard ‘belongs’ to the Muslims now. This I say not out of mere speculation, but from my own experience of it in public space for many years.
The holy cow, the modern car, people, wanting-to-be modern, all fight for their space in pre-modern narrow lanes of Varanasi. Wandering on these narrow lanes, I often found myself a subject of attraction and amazement. The reason for such an interest in looking at me was my six-month-old, untrimmed beard, and an attitude which told the spectators that I am an outsider. Looking for Kashi Vishwanath Temple on foot, when I finally reached there, I had to look for a place to keep my shoes. Since I did not wanted to present any offerings and just see what it is that the people worship in there with such devotion, I asked a fellow selling pooja items if I could just keep my shoes and not buy any offerings.
“Would it be possible for you take care of them?” I asked.
He looked at me and asked, “Mandir jana hai ya masjid?(You want to go to the temple or the mosque?)”
I was taken aback. I was very much shocked and hurt by his question. But, I did not want to create trouble for myself and also for him, as communal tensions in Varanasi were already high.
I replied, “Tumse matlab? (What is it to you?)”
Having sensed the anger in my tone, he looked at me, gave me a sly smile and looked away. I stood there for a few seconds, still lost, wondering what should my next step should be, I went away without entering the temple and looking at the tight police security, wondered what it would have had led to if I (or he) had made it into a big issue.
Before leaving for the temple, my aunt had advised me to put a teeka (a religious mark on the forehead, commonly practiced by Hindus), so that I “look” like a Hindu, which I refused because, I did not want to play the religion game.
A day before this incident, when I arrived at my aunt’s in Varanasi, her neighbour, a middle-aged woman, asked my aunt in front of me, “Who is this aatankvadi (terrorist)?” accompanied with laughter. For her this question was just a joke. Then she went on to probe why I had grown my beard, said that it doesn’t look nice and I must shave it off, or at least use good beard oil or else I won’t get married because of it, so on and so forth.
Many days later in a conversation about the Varanasi incident, a friend suggested that it would have been much better had I controlled my anger and disappointment and talked to the man at the temple to find out the reason behind his attitude. I wish I were wise enough then, but the next time I would certainly do so, as I am sure a similar incident is going to happen again.
Ever since I started to grow a beard, I have encountered this question hundreds of time, “Why have you grown a beard?”
I have always tried to be polite while answering it, believing in the power of dialogue and reasoning. However, I don’t think I have not managed to convince many people so far.
“Are you planning on becoming a Muslim?” is a question a lot of people have asked me. I ask them in return, “Do Hindus not keep a beard?” A common counter-point from a lot of them is that “Hindus don’t keep such long beards.” And when I counter this point by giving examples of contemporary Hindu-saint leaders, their reply to that often is “they are saints, you’re not!” Keep a beard, but keep it short (Keep a ‘Hindu’ beard, perhaps).
And it is not just Hindus who identify me as a Muslim, even Muslims see my beard as a symbol of practicing a religion. Just a fortnight ago in a conversation with a Muslim man on a train journey, I was told by him, “You look Muslim. You have grown a beard”. This he said in response to my liberal attitude on sex in a heated discussion about the rights of women which he dismissed and blamed it as a cause for the growing evils in the world . Since he considered me a Muslim, for him I should have ‘some’ knowledge of the shared values, but I didn’t. And the values were that of the role and rights of women.
In my six-month long stay in Mexico, nobody ever questioned as to why I had grown a beard or if there was a religious reason behind it or any other question related to it. They simply accepted the fact that I had a beard. The only time I was questioned, was by a group of Indians who approached me. Despite my unwillingness to meet or talk to them, one of them asked, “Are you Indian?” His friend was quick to add, “Must be a Pakistani. Look at his face!”
It would not be possible to generalize this social attitude that a beard equals to a Muslim, if it were only those known to me in my social and geographical space who shared this attitude. But, this attitude is common to all the places I have been to for a brief stay; Mumbai, Varanasi, Lucknow, Pune and Bangalore.
How ironic is it that on one hand the international cult of “No Shave November” legitimises the beard in India, while on the other, the beard is used to socially stigmatise and politically target those already on the margins.
Sometimes I fear that somebody known or unknown, may decide to target me, to start an unwanted, politically motivated, communal conflict, just because I keep a beard which looks like that of a Muslim.
I often wonder why people have the images that they have of a man with a beard. I think, it is primarily because of the international media which fed us images of some Islamic terrorists with long beards as representatives of all the Muslims which our media, and through them our people, bought unquestioningly. Now, to have a beard is to be a Muslim and to be a Muslim is to be an extremist, or a potential extremist, at the least.
To be identified as a Muslim because of my beard is not my main objection to this social attitude, but to be identified only as a Muslim is my objection to it. And this attitude has negative presuppositions towards the Muslims. Apart from this, why should a symbol become an ascribed identity of an individual? The beard could very well be religious and non-religious, depending on who grows it, provided the existing social attitudes accept them without identifying it with a particular religion and respect it as an individual’s choice. This would be real tolerance.