What masks meant at one time

Sadly, Madras Musings is off print for both issues of April 2020. We are putting up our stories online but as a caller rather reassuringly told me, “who reads them anyway?” This piece appeared in the March 16th issue but it is still relevant.

This article is going to take some time to type out for The Man from Madras Musings has to take frequent breaks to wash his hands with sanitizer, adjust his surgical mask, take it off to drink rasam and munch his way through two cloves of garlic and finally ponder over whether he did the right the thing by refusing the offer of a full glass of cow’s urine, with a pinch of dried dung to taste. All of these precautions are being taken to ensure that the dreaded Covid-19 does not strike MMM.

First, the hand sanitizer. But hang on, let MMM get a couple of drops on to his palm and then come back to the rest of this column. MMM is all for its use for he is informed that among all the suggestions, mostly daft, that are doing the rounds to keep the virus at bay, this is the most practical. But there are difficulties with it too – if the perfume is very strong, it makes you want to sneeze and then you begin wondering if you have been crowned by the Corona.

Just before the lockdown, MMM travelled a little and it amused him to find airport after airport resembling a vast operation theatre – people grimly going about their activities with their faces hidden behind surgical masks. That was of course nothing when compared to those who sported masks but not on their faces. Some had it hanging around their necks and a couple even dangled it from their elbows. Some kept it within hand’s reach, in their cabin baggage. MMM labelled them all as suffering not from the virus but the helmet syndrome. You may have seen people going about on two-wheelers with the helmet hanging from the handlebars or from their elbows. These people assume that it is enough to have a helmet about or near their person for safety and it is not necessary to wear it over the head. The same goes for the surgical mask. Why wear it at all if it was not meant to cover the mouth?

MMM also notices that there is a certain class distinction among the mask wearers. At the lowest level are the light green ones, mere commonplace accessories as it were. Then come the more fancy – there is one in yellow and another in scarlet with light pink dots. You also have some that appear to be designer wear – you would not be seen dead in them if you were normal. Still higher up in the hierarchy are respirators, they even have a thingummy at the end that filters out airborne particles. MMM has noticed that those who wear these look down at those wearing mere masks. There exists, so MMM is informed, a third and inferior class that wear hankies around their nose and mouth but of these MMM will not write. He does not believe in mingling with the hoi polloi. All three categories have one aspect in common – very few believe in any other form of hygiene, including the washing of hands. They assume that the mask will handle it all.

The telephone operators have substituted all ring tones with a longwinded message on the virus and this begins with a sepulchral cough. MMM approves of this initiative but wonders as to why the entire monologue is in English. Is it likely that the deadly scourge affects only the Peter class as they are referred to in Chennai? What about those who don’t know the Queen’s language?

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius is believed to have said that when aught, as in misfortune, befalls us, it is a good thing. MMM strongly doubts if the good ruler could have really said as much, in the first place he would not have known any English. But the core of the message is that aught when it befalls us is a good thing as it is part of the Universe’s grand design. MMM would prefer to go with the Tamil seer who in a couplet said that if aught befalls us, we ought to smile. He said it in Tamil by the way and we have the original to prove it.