By Maya Palit Nov. 17, 2016
It’s Movember, the time of year when people on social media begin rabbiting on about moustaches. The campaign’s money-raising bit, however, is completely lost on desi hipsters.
Iremember a walk down Camac Street in Kolkata with Ananda, a man with a formidable moustache and a beard down to his knees. As I dodged the traffic and stares, he told me why he treasured his facial hair: Without it, he was a nondescript chap. But with it, he got questions (including racist ones) thrown at him all the time: “Dada, aapni ki foreign?” “Dada, aapni ki magician?” “Dada, ei re aapni ki Osama?” (Brother, are you a foreigner? Are you a magician? Oh no, are you Osama?)
A moustache on its own is so ubiquitous among Indian men, that unless it’s truly spectacular it won’t earn you the kind of attention Ananda got. Which is why, older Indian men seem to be rather flummoxed about the purpose of Movember, or Moustache November, a campaign that urges dudes around the world to grow their moustaches for a month and contribute towards prostate and testicular cancer research.
It’s that time of the year when a large section of people on my Facebook feed begins rabbiting on about facial hair. This includes weedy juniors from college who say they will try hard to grow something on their faces this month to support the cause. And document their efforts with before/after shots – to stop men dying too young. Or, to echo the hipster-lingo-meets-NGO-speak of the campaign, “Grow a Mo, Save a Bro”. #Cancer, #Charity, #One Mission. The Beard Club of Bangalore is going all out, I hear, with a moustache competition at the end of the month with different categories – handlebar, combstache, and the Great Indian Moustache.
In 2006, my mother Vasudha Joshi, made a documentary called Moustaches Unlimited about the place facial hair occupies in Indian society. She pitched it as a lark, never thinking it would get funded, on the day her editor told her about being part of a four-woman band in Finland that wore moustaches on stage to feel more powerful. When the band was getting an after-concert drink one time, a big man in his 40s came up to her and said, “You think you look like a man, hmm?” and ripped off her moustache. She punched him in his big fat beer belly.
An enthusiastic woman who loves beards vehemently defended Movember, labelling it a much more environmentally friendly stunt than the ice-bucket challenge.
This story got my mother to begin researching the subject. This was in Kolkata, so naturally, the first cultural allusion that a lot of people brought up was the Sukumar Ray poem “Gonph Choori”, about a man who is traumatised when his moustache gets stolen one day. The shoot began with a bunch of women at our dining table passing around a Mangal Pandey-lookalike moustache, and trying to make it point upwards like Dali’s. Someone asks my mother, “How do you feel? Empowered?” She shrugs, and says, “Amused.”
The film moves on to Gorakhpur, where wrestlers with massive moustaches explained that not sporting a moustache is a way of signalling that your father has died, and that in a previous era, the moochh was so respected you could even pawn a hair from it to borrow money.
It also had a series of grave, stiff-upper-lipped men holding forth on moustaches being integral to their lives. An army cadet spoke of the authority their moustache gave them and mourned the loss of the value system among clean-shaven young men today; and an old Major General detailed how the Army Act, which held from 1860 onwards that every officer had to have a moustache, was altered after protests by new recruits. The men, who were enlisted to fight in France and Germany during World War I, declared, “We came to fight for the country, not to keep a bloody moustache.”
I couldn’t help wondering what these men would have to say about Movember.
None of the people I spoke to had heard of the campaign, and when I explained, they pointed out its fuzzy logic. (The Movember Foundation’s response to someone’s pertinent enough question, “How the hell will a moustache stop people dying too early?” was less than adequate, and just listed the great work the charity does.) The unanimous sentiment was, ain’t nobody got time for that, and they were unable to fathom why someone would pay to keep a moustache or how it would raise awareness.
“I can’t waste time thinking about the facial hair of hipsters,” said a friend who has always been clean-shaven. Another misconstrued my question as an attempt at campaigning, but made a succinct enough point: “Hey, if I want to contribute to something, I’ll contribute. Can’t be arsed with spending any time on this crap. Besides, I already have a moustache.”
Others have a more considered, nuanced view. A journalist who had recited “Gonph Churi” in Moustaches Unlimited, said three people in his family had died due to prostate cancer. He knows only too well how deadly serious the issue is and donates money to several cancer charities every year, but is utterly indifferent to someone choosing to shave or not to express their support. And a sociology professor broke down the deeper meaning of the campaign for me: “The thing about these gimmicks is that one more easily remembers the gimmick than the cause. It’s a neoliberal version of consciousness-raising: so it seems more effective as a tool of indicating that you are a person who is aware, rather than furthering any cause. And it’s linked to the spread of narcissistic, individualist cults. Look up the Marcusian paradox.”
The dismissal wasn’t solely from older generations. A friend my age told me wisely and wistfully, “This is what the politics of health looks like in the Instagram age.” Unlike the Locks of Love campaign, which (apparently) uses hair donations to make hairpieces for cancer survivors, the relation of the moustache to prostate cancer awareness is oblique.
All it really does then, is rehash the machismo of army gents in an acceptable way (“We encourage every guy to Be a Man,” exhorts the Beard Club) using new-age provisions for self-obsession like Mo Tracker apps, because you get to combine growing a magician-moustache to look suave as hell with making sure that no father outlives his son.
The only indirect appreciation of the campaign I heard, was from a different quarter. An enthusiastic woman who loves beards vehemently defended Movember, labelling it a much more environmentally friendly stunt than the ice-bucket challenge. Yet another friend who tried it seven years ago said he appreciated the fitness angle of the campaign but feared the money-raising bit was lost on desi hipsters.
But overall, moustache-growing or shaving never made a “jhanter baal”* of a difference to anyone’s life.
*Bengali slang for pubic hair.
Maya Palit is a staff writer at The Ladies Finger and Grist Media based in Bangalore. She studied English literature and might go back to that someday, and is interested in films, photography and writing about blues music.