The new formal
As COVID-19 is now a ubiquitous part of our lives, face masks are quickly becoming an essential part of the way we accessorise in social settings
For many middle-class office goers, the tie that literally binds was the one worn around the neck. Every morning as the sartorial items were laid out, the tie took the place of pride in the ensemble. Though many still struggled to get the perfect knot, often tying one up in knots in the process, it had become unthinkable till a few months back to leave home without one. A formal meeting, a job interview, meeting the girlfriend's father for the first time, a visa interview, the reunion party — the tie had the same status as the safari suit in the 80s. Everyone wore one to impress everyone else.
Then came COVID-19. And with it a small piece of cloth that hitherto we had identified only with doctors and dacoits. The mask doesn't quite as yet qualify as the powerful steroid pumping magic vestment which Jim Carrey discovered many years back in Hollywood but its presence is now firmly entrenched in our lives. You can forget to tie the tie but you cannot forget to mask your face! Initially one would just accept any mask — if it covered your mouth and nose, its investment was fully repaid. And it wasn't a long term issue anyway. Everyone expected the virus to boil itself to a well deserved painful death in the unforgiving Indian summer and this pesky little thing would be cast aside. But as days turned to weeks and weeks to fortnights and into months, it became obvious that the common mask would not pass muster any more. My mask had to be better than yours!
N95 was the latest buzz word. Everyone wanted one, including my housemaid. She said that the maid next door was given one by her madam — which I thought was stretching it because no self-respecting madam would share the latest fashion accessory with her best friend leave alone her maid. The N95 and its poorer cousins, however, had one fatal drawback — they all looked the same, a big no-no. So began the next phase of this fashion takeover.
Soon one started seeing masks of different colours and designs adorning the faces around you. Some colourful, some gaudy, some sober, even patriotic ones with the tricolours showing. I actually saw a person in a shop trying out a few masks adjusting the strings and peering into the mirror with all seriousness of one trying out a Ray-Ban!
And of course, it's the new essential dress code for office. Not wearing one can leave you not just standing outside but facing disciplinary action as well. Attending a meeting without one will result in the whole room being sanitised by PPE wearing workers and your boss making a mental note of putting down 'irresponsible' in the pen picture part of your annual PAR. Recently, I attended a meeting chaired by a Senior Secretary to Govt of India through video conferencing. Each participant was wearing a mask even as he or she sat in the confines of their rooms. Social distancing tools like VCs are no match for fear!
Stepping out without a mask for the simplest of chores like walking your dog has become a tense affair. Not wearing one is considered akin to walking around with a live bomb. People stop in their tracks and look for the nearest tree to hide behind as you pass by. Then there is the issue of greeting old friends and seniors. Till you are standing right next to the person in violation of all social distancing norms, one is not sure if a greeting is in place and if so do you bow with a respectful sir/madam or wave with a familiar 'hi boss'. But I also find certain distinct positives — I can now walk past certain persons without having to stop and listen to their office gossip. Of course, I call them later with an apologetic, "Thought I saw you but wasn't sure because of the mask, ha, ha".
But danger lurks. Transparent Masks are on the anvil. And I suppose now it's also time to come out with aftershave lotions and colognes suited for our new faces.
Views expressed are personal