This is me...
...and this is also me.
In case you missed the point, I was trying to bring your attention to my glorious beard.
What the above photos — however — do not show are the various comments and remarks people from all walks of life have thrown at me about the same beard.
Now, before we begin as to why I find people's comments/questions baffling, here's me clearing a couple of things straight away:
— I'm irreligious, as in I don't believe in or practise any religion.
— The only reason I grow my beard is that I simply want to.
All the baffling comments people have made about my beard...
Among the reactions of people around me, the most jovial of reactions have been from my teammates and other colleagues at SAYS, a few friends back when I was in Delhi, and a handful of my Internet buddies.
One such reaction involved a friend getting laid because of my beard.
Apparently, the friend was narrating a story about my beard's magnificence to his Tinder date and the mere imagery concocted by him was enough of a turn-on for that person.
Apart from that, it's either been shock, amusement, or at times complete disgust. In the initial weeks of me growing my beard, the most common thing I would hear was people telling me to "go take a shower"!
As weeks went by, and my beard started to grow substantially beyond the lines of my chin, the reactions changed. From curious to judgmental, they started coming in all hues and shades.
"Why are you growing your beard?"
It's the one question I get asked almost every time I meet a person for the first time or after a while. Even today. It's like there is nothing else the person would like to know more than why a person with facial hair would like to keep letting those facial hair grow!
In response, I would simply smile and answer the question.
But somehow my answer ("I'm growing it because I want to") was not enough to satisfy their curiosity. They would probe further, ask the same thing differently ("Is it because you're keeping a vow?"), get sillier ("You want to show that you're a writer, right?"), and at times get annoying ("You know that it's not healthy, right?").
I would (try and) remain calm and take the time to explain in vain that no, it's not all that.
"Stop growing your beard now. What will people say?"
This is something I get to hear either from a handful of my relatives or from certain individuals who like to think of themselves as my friend. It's like according to them what random people want me to look like should matter more than how I want to look personally.
Moreover, why should I care what people will say? They will say anything they want to anyway. That's what people do. But why should I waste my time and energy in thinking, "Oh, no! I shouldn't do this or that or else what will people say?!"
This obsession behind the need to satisfy random people's frivolous whims is something I've never completely grasped.
"Dude, when did you convert to Islam?"
Beard = Muslim.
That's how people around me started thinking all of a sudden. It seems as if they have collectively lost not just their sensitivity but also basic civility.
During the previous month of Ramadan, I was in the market buying groceries, and here's what happened:
The shopkeeper: Today is the 10th day of puasa for you people, right?
The shopkeeper: Puasa. I mean how many days of puasa has it been till today for you people?
Me: I don't know. I don't do it.
The Shopkeeper: (Looking all surprised) What do you mean you don't do it? Aren't you people supposed to do it?
Me: (Irritated with his ignorance) Because I'm not a Muslim!
The Shopkeeper: (With an expression of shock and disbelief) So why do you then have a beard this long?
Me: Excuse me? So anyone with a beard is a Muslim?
He went silent after that, trying to avoid eye contact.
And this is just one instance I'm mentioning here. It's a usual thing for people to assume that I'm a Muslim just because I keep a beard. Sometimes I ignore, other times it gets really frustrating.
"Where are you from, Sardarji?"
Beard = Punjabi.
This is something that's common among the autorickshaw (tuk-tuk) drivers in Delhi. Each time I got into one, the driver would greet me saying "Sat Sri Akal, Sardarji" (a greeting in the Punjabi language used mostly by the followers of the Sikh religion).
It's not the greeting that I mind, but the assumption that because I've got a beard, I must be a Sikh from Punjab. They ask me questions like if I'm from Punjab, and when I say "no", they react as if I've lied to them ("What do you mean no? You're a Sardarji so you must be from Punjab). I try to ignore such silly and trivial arguments as much as I can and simply tell them that I'm not a Sardar or a Punjabi.
They look at me like I've just committed blasphemy.
A while back when I was in Delhi, I was at a kebab place with a couple of my friends. While we were eating our dinner, I realised that a group of boys sitting on the table next to us were discussing among themselves — while staring at me together — that whether I'm a Muslim or a Punjabi!
I looked back at them and asked: "Seriously?" In response, they grinned at me.
"You look like a Pakistani agent!"
This one time, I was on my way to have dinner. It was quite late and all the shops at the nearby market were closed. While I was on my way to the makan place I frequent for dinner, a couple of complete strangers stopped me. At first, they said 'hello', to which I responded by saying 'hello'.
Next thing I know, one of them looks at my face, points his finger towards my beard and says: "You look like a Pakistani agent! What are you doing here?"
Taken aback, I felt like punching him. But by the time I could do anything, their friends, who must be nearby, came out and separated us, apologising to me for the offending remarks. I walked away from them.
For those of you who may not have grasped the meaning of that line, being called a Pakistani agent is an insult in India, given the political animosity between the two nations. A Pakistani agent is someone who is considered to be 'anti-India' or simply put is a terrorist working for the government of Pakistan.
To sum up the assumptions of different people based on my beard:
I'm — at best — a Punjabi Muslim from the northern part of the Indian subcontinent who refuses to accept that he is what others are assuming his identity to be.
At worst, I'm a terrorist from Pakistan. Why? Because beard!
Now, you might be tempted to say that I should just tolerate it.
But, you see, that implies that others have more agency over my facial hair and their sentiments take precedence over my personal choices.
Today, it is my beard, tomorrow it may be my gender identity or even my dietary choices.
The problem with asking people to 'tolerate' what others say or think about them is that it gives way for the society to impose its own ideas about normality by dictating what it deems correct or right.
Furthermore, it leaves the onus of seeking others' acceptance and approval on me. And that's messed up. Imagine, asking your neighbour what to wear before you can step out of your house.
Sounds absurd, right?
That's how it is for me when I'm asked to tolerate what random people say to me — to my face — about something that is as natural as breathing itself and not being allowed to question.
This story is a personal essay by the writer. You too can submit a story as a SAYS reader by emailing us at [email protected]