The Open Dosa

Consuming the Ordinary Differently

Hairlessness is Next to Godliness

This essay won the SJU Prize for the Personal Essay 2024 in the college category. The theme was Keeping Secrets. The judge, writer Amulya Shruthi had this to say:
“Mohammad Abdurazak frames their secret like it were a trivial detail told in uproariously funny light. They write with such spirit, levity, and acid-sharp irony. Refreshingly zero self-pity. Nothing escapes Abdur’s keen eye and keener wit – not the toothpaste-mottled mirror, certainly not the latest worriable zit. But their truth is a familiar, heavy one: the frustration of not being able to get away from the tangibility and inevitability of our bodies; how our bodies “betray” us by not cooperating with our idea of self.”

My first conscious forays into anti-masculinity began when I was 12 or 13. I refrain from calling them “explorations of my feminine side” or whatever the buzzword is; I had little interest in indulging in femininity. I just needed to seem less of a man.

Sometimes, I wish that someone had whisked me to the side – a quick and illicit slip of knowledge like a drug deal, confirming the foggy ghosts of androgynous gender presentation that wafted through my head. Surely my akka could’ve. She was 19, a fresh-faced English and Psychology major. She would’ve been diving headfirst into the worlds of “deviants” – those that refuted the normative, those that thrived in fearless, criminal expressions of love – threats to the just and supremely beneficial structures that were meant to hold the world in place.

In all likelihood, of course, I wouldn’t understand.

Boys like blue. Girls like pink. Girls who like blue are tomboys, boys that like pink are sissies. Or Pansies or f*ggots or wimps. Purple likers don’t exist, and even if they did, they don’t come from houses like mine.
These were maxims branded into me. Words to live by. Genuinely one of the first things I learned about life. Would I have been open to a place between and beyond the binaries of gender, even if it was within the domains of comprehension? Would I have made a beeline to the nearest old adult to tip them off about akka’s discovery of the anti-masculine? Would I have worn purple?

“FOREIGN, UNGODLY IDEAS”. “WESTERN DEBAUCHERY’S TAKEOVER: COLONIALISM PART II?” A BOYS’ INNOCENCE MAIMED.

Headlines from the household.

Maybe some secrets should be kept until later, until the time is right. Until we grow and they grow. Until their meanings and consequences are fathomable. But then again, how come I knew exactly what “f*ggot” denoted as a whole in fifth grade? All the boys did. So maybe all secrets should be borne in brutal, naked recklessness as soon as they are told. We’ll understand.

***

A worryingly clear image has clings to my mind like a rogue piece of tissue: In Race (2008), Saif Ali Khan’s stands in candle-lit horse stable. The tiny hearths make the scene warm and comely, and I can almost taste the hay and horseshit. But things are heating up.

Saif’s sopping wet t-shirt begins to retreat from his torso. The blatant fire hazard can’t hold a match to the flame of my twelve-year-old heart, as he reveals a chest so smooth, so hairless that it could only be achieved by taking artistic liberties. Saif Ali Khan is a walking sculpture, and I am frozen solid.

His pectorals bulge in all angles as he folds the shirt, and I hear near-synchronised splats – hits of fleshy noise that follow one another with a slight delay, like the start of unsure clapping. The sound of ladies instinctively shielding their eyes with their palms. I’m about to follow suit, but I remind myself that I’m not a girl and boys can gawk at what they want. Sure enough, I see all the men in my family staring unflinchingly at the screen, as if challenging Saif to a brawl. Man to Man.

“It’s okay for men to leer at hotter men… if they want to fight each other,” I note.

Out of the corner of my eye, I notice that my grandmother is sneaking a beady eye through a strategic triangle between her furrowed index and middle fingers.

Boy or girl or both or neither. One thing I was never in doubt of being was an insufferable RAT. I fought the impulse to tattle on my own ajji and held down her secret. But I hope she won’t have to. I hope she gets to fight Saif Ali Khan, because I know she’ll win.

As Saif and an equally shaven Bipasha Basu did the dirty tangles right in front of Black Beauty ever so shamelessly, I had an epiphany: Hairlessness is the key looking good as both a boy or a girl. Hairlessness is next to godliness.

Think about it. The good guy is always hot and waxed. Nothing must weigh his bust down as he spouts from the water like a mermaid. He is slippery clean, gleaming under sunbeams as if they are his personal spotlight. Look at Salman Khan – India’s prodigal action hero – smooth as a bowling ball. Being hirsute, on the other hand, is the mark of a grade A rapscallion. Consider the following illustrations:

  1. Akshaye Khanna, cast as the villain in Race – conniving, greedy, alcoholic and fratricidal. His worst crime? Having chest hair.
  2. Gabbar Singh – Bollywood’s most infamous antagonist and proud body hair sporter.
  3. My father.

Unfortunately, a cruel genetic prank meant that I was hairier than most middle-aged men even in pre-pubescence.

“What a man you’ll become!” they’d cackle, patting me on my back with an iota too much of force, turning a gesture of comfort into one of scorn. I muster the child of a gnarl and a smile.

I do indulge myself in delusion, but despite all gripes with manliness, I’d like to believe that they felt a twinge of inadequacy upon being out-masculined by a twelve-year-old.

A thick fuzz infested each of my arms, and my bandy legs were so caked with fur that I dared not look down. I was an animal; I wanted to crawl out of my skin – existence as a bleeding, fleshy mass was better than life in a body that did not represent me. For nearly four years, then, no one in school saw my limbs. Temperatures surged into the upper 30s, and every football match left me fricasseeing in my woolly, blue hoodie and tracks. I wore socks that rose up to my shins in case any sudden movements made my pants withdraw upwards. I simply declared that I was never hot and perpetually cold. They shrugged and were satisfied. What secret could possibly lurk around one’s limbs?

Illustration: Sanjana Vinod

Jackets could protect my arms. As I raced into puberty, however, hair started bullying its way into spots that were harder to obscure. Desperate times, decisions get stupider and frantic. I waded into my ammijaan’s bathroom. A thin layer of dust left my toes white. My reflection was an abstract painting – dots of dried toothpaste and the residue of steam layered the mirror, leaving my face unclear. I glanced down at the razor. “Gilette Ma-,” read the faded rubber grip on its handle. Each blade was rusted and brittle, having played host to months of neglect and condensation. It looked like a museum artefact – belonging to a revered barbaric general that survived torture and bullet wounds but died of tetanus. I winced. Asking for a new one is a lost cause, because twelve-year-olds shouldn’t be shaving. It is what it is.

I gingerly attacked the fine strands emerging from the corners of my cracked lips. I could barely see them in the grimy mirror. Taking a minute to clean it couldn’t possibly have hurt, but I was twelve and committed. And twelve is the worst age to be committed.

Ten minutes of deliberate and delicate snipping, and I was cut-less and stache-free. I looked ten again! I had reclaimed my face, beaming into the mirror. The white toothpaste flecks were scattered across my face like they were foreshadowing my cystic acne. But we’ll only deal with one body image destroyer at a time.

“Did you shave?” asked Akka, looking quizzically over her black-rimmed glasses. Her brow furrowed, pushing her unibrow to the bottom which made it look like a hat for her nose. “No? Why would I do that?”

I hoped she would chalk the crack in my voice up to magic of puberty and not dishonesty.

“You tell me. The hair’s gone.” She started to pace forward for a close inspection. Yelping, I stepped back, ready to bold if need be. “I didn’t! Get your glasses checked!”

An expression of amused confusion made way for a knowing smile.
“Okay,” she cooed. “Keep your secrets. But you should know they’ll always be safe with me.”

***

My knowledge of the art of the blade has remained near constant since that first time. Worsened, even. Now that I’m allowed to shave, I’m unable to? Irony’s only fun when its victim isn’t oneself. Upon every pore that the razor skidded past, a gorge of microscopic white bumps was bred, bulging and bursting with every stretch of skin. If Gold was a pimple, I was Midas.

On a lucky day, they remained that way. Otherwise, they would inflate to the size of a fish eye, and a straitjacket wouldn’t be able to keep my filthy fingernails from popping them.

The pimples weren’t the issue. Not by themselves. What bothered me so viscerally was the inability to shave over them. Infection after infection, I was left reeling. I couldn’t shave for weeks on end. Not only did I have a beard, the strands would now be interspersed with pulpy pustules. Not only was I a man, I was an ugly one. I began to spiral at every other glance in the mirror. I was becoming more and more alien in my own skeleton.

The Gilette Ma- was switched for a Gilette Mach 5. The aftershaves doubled and tripled in price and empty foam cans stocked the bins, thrown in right beside my anti-masculinity. How do I reverse this Midas touch? I have no daughter to douse in a river. And if I did, the pollution would defile me with more acne. What is the secret to shaving?

***
I never found out. I wish I did. Where exactly in the undertaking of such a rudimentary activity had I been going so drastically wrong?

I did start going to a local barbershop, where I get a pristine shave for rupees 50 every week. My father warned me to death about foreign, disposable straight shavers. Tales of diseased, corrupted blades that had passed on pathogens undetected by researchers as of yet. Dominos of illness that never stop falling until the entirety of the male population is on its deathbed. All because one barber, careless or evil (to appa dearest they were the same) had not switched to a new razor. Luckily, I’d already died of warning.

If he found out, the rest of the house would be, too. But it’s awe-inspiring how the family morphs into a well-oiled machine that churns out lies when its time to keep a secret.

A barbershop is a solution, sure. But it’s not the answer. It’s not the ending I want. The external is not always the way out. In fact, it rarely is. I attained anti-masculinity, but the fact of the matter is that I am a 21-year-old man who cannot shave.

Mirrors shouldn’t dictate who I am or what I wanted to be. I know that. I feel anti-masculine, and so I am. I just have a hard time believing that. The most basic act of them all – so basic it’s innate for most – is to make yourself comfortable within yourself. Where exactly in the undertaking of such a rudimentary activity have I been going so drastically wrong? Maybe this is one of those secrets that does need to reveal itself only when I am ready to hear it.

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Mohammad a.

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