Are you wearing a smile?

| Updated on June 19, 2020

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Masks, both real and metaphorical, have revealed various truths for a reader

Dear Editor,

I was in high school when a nephew suggested that we bunk school to watch a film called The Mask. The year was 1994 and pocket money was almost a figment of imagination. I don’t remember if we begged or borrowed, but we did watch the film at an air-conditioned theatre, with refills of bottled cola and oily potato wafers. The film was about a goofy banker who stumbles upon a mask that transforms his personality. I missed most of the humour — subtitles were rare in those days. I didn’t enjoy the theatrics. I didn’t even like the mask, which was the colour of Pudin Hara. Above all, I didn’t like the importance the mask was accorded in the story. How can a mask change a person, I argued with the nephew on our taxi ride back home.

I was a little older when I watched The Mask of Zorro. The swashbuckling Antonio Banderas, in the role of the young Zorro, blazed a trail into my restless heart. I didn’t mind his mask, covering the upper half of his face. I loved the sword play. I also relished the messiah-like figure he commanded in the eyes of the poor and downtrodden. On the way back home this time, I didn’t question the presence of the mask in the chit-chat with fellow passengers. I only tried to place myself in the flamenco shoes of Catherine Zeta-Jones (and, subsequently, in the muscular arms of Banderas).

Somewhere around the same time, I discovered a plastic tube that claimed to contain a face mask. I brought it home from the store and pressed it hard in my eagerness to see what it contained. The tube belched out a sticky mess that, when applied to the face for 15 minutes, would give me skin as radiant as the Milky Way in the night sky. I bought the story, along with many such tubes, only to learn that masks are deceptive.

More than two decades later, dear Editor, I find my own face hidden behind a mask. Just to put it straight, I haven’t signed up for any film. I am in a game of survival against a formidable opponent. The adversary is a virus that threatens to wipe out humankind. A thin piece of cloth, I am told, is what stands between this virus and a painful, breathless exit from the planet I have exploited in my 40-plus years.

I ordered the first batch of face masks in April this year. As I strapped them around the face, I struggled to breathe, eat and drink, making me feel like I already had the virus. And then I made a trip to the local market. The mask clung to my face like a stubborn child to the mother. At the provisions store, the familiar face at the counter looked grim as I handed him a list of items. He looked the same as he packed my grocery bags with biscuits, cheese, eggs and hand wipes. I couldn’t stomach the severity of his looks and asked if he was okay. Pat came the reply, “I am smiling at you. But you are not smiling back.” He then pulled down his mask to reveal a set of sparkling white teeth. I nodded in approval, afraid to reciprocate his gesture.

At the next store, run by a trio of cheerful and young Nepali women, I tried to let my eyes do the talking and smiling. I thought I was good at it, until one of them burst the bubble by offering me a black face mask with a huge white smiley on it. “Ma’am, this will look good on you and everyone will think you are smiling,” she said as she held out the item with gloved hands. I chose to buy something else instead, unable to concede defeat to an artificial smile.

It was at the same store, two years ago, that I had almost bumped into a film actor. Dressed in a t-shirt and a pair of denim pants, he was looking for a hair cream. The trio at the shop was at its smiling best, so was the actor. He left us with an impish smile as we watched him get into a car and drive off.

Last heard, the actor was found dead in his apartment. TV channels and newspapers reported on Sunday that he was in depression. But how can anyone with such a smile be depressed, I asked naively. My friend summed it up thus: “Masks, you fool, masks! People wear it all the time.”

Your Unsmiling reader

Yours Sincerely is a weekly record of grudges and grumblings from an anonymous reader

Published on June 19, 2020

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