31 March, 2021 – Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India

By Preeta Kuhad Balia

When the first brutal cessations of the COVID lockdown were declared, nearly a year ago in Jodhpur, we complained. The register of laments immediately around me, were for the most part centred on the cancellation of wedding celebrations, and other social gatherings. Whether a particular hotel agreed to refund booking deposits, and how much of it, was our dominant concern. Which establishments agreed to bear a part of the loss, in this cascading river of repercussions, decided how much love we promised to give back to them; give back, when we could go back to eating and dressing and congregating.

As a part of the small, homogenous community of traders, manufacturers, professionals and other such of relative economic prosperity, we are irrationally preoccupied with celebratory social gatherings. So the official notification of 21 March 21, 2020 in Rajasthan, banning all movement and communal gatherings, was a sentimental stop to our long-bred sense of selfhood and society. Who would you dress for? Why would one become inured to compulsive consumerism but for the need to show and share with others?

A year on, most lunch and dinner parties are fewer and further between, stymied by the hiccups of bureaucratic uncertainty about when the scale and surge of the virus will precipitate another phase of prohibitions and precautionary closures. We stand dithering, inviting our fellow men and women in smaller dispensations. And yet, while I go each week from one party to another, a little more appreciative than before of the delightfully rich dinner banquets, the reversion to our cherished floral decorations, showy clothes and jewellery, I squirm about a conspicuous iniquity.

With the opening of our worlds, mask became an indispensable accessory- silk and gold embroidered face masks for women, animation character prints for children who (reluctantly) agreed to don them, and purely functional N95s for the grey and black suited men folk. As the vaccine came to the over-65 population, face masks still persisted in public spaces, though with diminishing prominence.

I walk out of the house holding a mask in my purse of entitlements, for that ‘in case’ necessity that may arise —

In case the traffic police is standing watch;

In case of hob-nobbing with NRIs in a panic that they’ll contract the virus in this godforsaken dusty Jodhpur;

In case the white skinned superiority of a foreigner mandates it civil for me to do so.

Otherwise, I will skip wearing a mask. Most people around me will. Today, I can walk into a bistro or a party without a face mask. Looking at the pristine lipstick on the mouths of other women, I can tell that vanity is now a primary concern. People hug freely, squeeze palms reassuringly and, even though most of us haven’t been vaccinated, we keep our faces are naked. However, in a twisted subversion of rules, to favour the conveniences of the master, the mask wearing obligation is now grafted on to the servant.

Without exception, at all manners of events, it’s the domestic drivers, the nannies attached to the children, the food bearers and waiters, the doormen and security guards who have to keep their masks on. All evening, all day, these people who surround us, attending to our subtle and unsubtle needs — catching our eye or nod for another drink, making a quick call to bring the car to the hotel lobby  — these people continue wearing masks while we  ourselves freed of the dreary obligation.

I was at an all-night fortieth birthday celebration of a friend a few weeks ago when it hit me that amid the blaring sound systems and the incessant chatter of party guests, half-awake waiters moved with laden trays of food and drink, unable now even to say the few words they could in the past. They couldn’t smile or laugh to admit the gaiety of the evening as they might have done before. Now, they stared back with pale unsmiling eyes, sadder now, bereft of the most elementary forms expression and communication.  While in the past these men (because they are almost always only men) went about doing the same jobs, they had a small chance of establishing individuality. A server who ran to fetch paper napkins for the child who spilled her milkshake would take the liberty of kindly wiping the spillage from her dress or mopping it off her hands. Now he stands a foot away, in confused discomfiture, unable to decide how much touch is allowed.

A friend of mine confessed that while he has resumed his regular long drives to inspection sites for business, he has strictly ordered that his driver keep his mask on at all times in the car, saving himself the trouble to do so. The stipulations of service require that all staff at factories and eateries, for example, wear masks, but the rest of us casually forgive ourselves for not maintaining a harmless habit with documented, continuing benefits. The mask is transformed into a leitmotif, a construct of social segregation between the haves and have-nots.

In the waiting area of the dentist’s clinic, the attending staff wears masks in deference to their duty. The patients from nearby villages, perhaps careful of contemporary cultural norms, wear masks in diligent submission. The dentist himself wears one. But look around and the privileged who ignore waiting queues, we who make a few phone calls to arrange for a hospital bed: we keep our lipstick on, show our teeth, our snooty noses, flash our smiles in greeting. Unlike the others, watching the world with masks on, their eyes mutely communicating the emergence of another index of inequality.