Masked Maidens (India Week #033)
Masks are elaborate and everyone has one. It takes a while to get to know people. This doesn’t make them mysterious, it makes them like everyone else. ~Donna Lynn Hope
I don’t recall seeing them on my initial visit almost 7 years ago. Thinking my aging mind had simply forgotten or been overwhelmed by the complete culture shock one undergoes on a first trip to India, I reviewed all my pictures captured during my three India experiences spanning 2006 and 2007. The albums were devoid of them. My initial recollection of them was during a visit in 2012 when they seemed to be everywhere.
I first noticed the masked maidens cruising along as drivers of scooters or passengers on motorcycles. They go about with their heads and faces fully covered by cloth wraps. Fully covered save for the eyes and even the eyes are frequently hidden behind sunglasses. How is one to see a soul when the eyes are hidden?
Now, they seemed to be everywhere. I fjnd them walking about anywhere I travel in Pune. I drive past them as they wait for the next rickety red bus to creak to a stop, squeeze in more passengers, and wheeze away belching smoke with people hanging out of the doors. I watch them pass by while I sit at Cafe Coffee Day musing my blogs, while I snap pictures at the wonderful array of people going about their daily lives.
The masked maidens come in singles, pairs, triples, and more. I thought the head wrappings were religious coverings, hijabs, niqabs worn out of religious duty. And indeed some are but those are in the minority. Most of the women that wear these head coverings do it for principles unrelated to religion.
It is my understanding that women don the masks to filter out pollution, protect their face from the sun, to keep overly inquisitive boys at bay or to…well…I don’t know why else they would fee a need to hide from the world. A quick Google search and I found out the police banned them in 2008 as a way to combat terrorism. It seems the US isn’t the only country to tred on idividual liberties under the guise of ‘anti-terrorism’. I don’t know if the law is still in effect as it has been my observation that people in Pune tend to ignore traffic laws.
I understand the pollution part. There are many two stroke engines here (polluters even when in the best condition), busses that by their stench seem to have no pollution control, trucks that belch out grey plumes with every pressing of the accelerator. The worst are the ubiquitous auto rickshaws many which should have been condemned ages ago. Some of these three wheeled vehicles seem to be ever surrounded by blue-grey clouds of nastiness.
I do wonder why men seem not to care about pollution to the degree women seem to. I have only seen a handful of men wearing a covering over their nose and mouth.
Nor does the desire to protect their skin from the harsh sun surprise me. Harsh sun means dark skin. In India, fair skin is prized over dark skin almost to an obsession. There are thousands of skin whitening product advertised and stocked on store shelves. A woman having dark skin has a more difficult time finding a spouse as compared to light skinned Indian women.
Being that this is a very conservative culture, I am also not surprised that women will wear the mask to keep boys at bay. Pune is a university town. Many of the women need to focus on their studies rather than being pursued by amorous boys. Plus, with most marriages being arranged, having a love interest adds unnecessary complications to life and the potential for heart break.
I find the whole mystery of who lies behind the mask intriguing. Every time I see a masked maiden, I wonder who they are, what they look like, why they feel the need to travel incognito. If I was a boy pursuing a girl, I image unwrapping the head scarf to reveal the woman beneath would be like finding the prize inside a cereal box or opening a Christmas present. There would always be the undercurrent of excitement with every new face revealed.
We all wear masks of some sort. For the masked maidens it is a physical covering preventing us from seeing the faces. For the rest of us, the mask is the part of our person we show to the outside world. If it’s a stranger we wear the full mask. If the encounter is with a friend, the mask will show more of our true nature. For intimate friends the mask should be nonexistent but, I fear, it’s still there for many carry shame throughout their lives and are afraid to be fully know.
Some of us wear permanent masks, masks that have been worn for so long we have grown unaware of the illusion we present to the world such that they now live a delusional life. I have had people ask me questions about conflicts they are in with another person. When I explain to them where they may be contributing to the issue and may need to change some aspect of their actions, I watch a dumbfounded look spread over their face.
It’s usually not the answer they were expecting. They were looking for me to take their side, to validate their premise that the other is at fault and they are the victim. They seem to never be able to see the issue residing within themselves. Their masks are so ingrained in their character they can’t imagine they could ever be the source of the conflict in the world around them. It’s very sad. Their masks are wrapped on so tight they have lost the ability to grow.
Showing ourselves can be scary. I wish it was as easy for us to remove our masks as it is to remove the head wraps.