I was at a work meeting a few months ago when something curious happened. We were sitting at a long table, and I noticed that on the opposite side from where I sat, every person had a moustache. As I looked along their faces, all focused intently on the boss’s rhetoric, I was spontaneously seized by a powerful urge to burst out laughing. It seemed so hilarious, like this unofficial uniform – absurd, almost, if it weren’t for the fact that I wore a moustache myself.
Back home in New Zealand, it never occurred to me to cultivate facial hair. That was always a sort of rebellious preserve of a particular group of university freshers, something to get out of their systems during the college years and cast off for good upon starting their first full-time job. Beyond that, it’s almost frowned upon, as if wearers are either seditious or hopelessly out of date. When working in sales for one employer, my dad was even asked by the boss if he would shave off his beard. In Kerala, however, such an affront would be unthinkable: here, it is the ‘meesha’ – or moustache – that makes the man.
That’s not just a catchy statement. My old landlord informs me that “when you become adult, you should keep a moustache” – ‘adult’ meaning 16 or 17 years of age. Historically, it makes perfect sense: moustaches have always been a sign of masculinity and virility, and the most well-bred of men kept theirs perfectly trimmed and organised as a highly valued point of pride. In the West, however, this trend has all but disappeared, while the kids here start literally as early as they can. There is also no emo or sensitive new age male culture in Kerala, but any correlation between those absences and the abundance of moustaches could not be confirmed before going to press.
I got quite a shock when I taught at a high school – a private school, no less – for a month here and during my first class with 12A2 found that all the boys had more impressive upper lip hair than I did. I went to a private school in New Zealand where facial hair, in all its forms, was expressly forbidden. The educational instutions of Kerala’s rich obviously saw things differently. (And as for the girls in the class, well, moustaches weren’t compulsory for them but… let’s not go further with that.)
Within a week of arriving, I cast off 7 years of clean-shavenness and started working on becoming a Man. Pretty soon, I had developed a pretty solid French beard and looked a good ten years older than I had without. I didn’t notice too much of a change in people’s attitudes towards me – I suppose saip-ness trumps manliness – but what I did notice was that my French beard was in the minority. You certainly won’t meet anyone in Kerala who could contest the World Beard & Moustache Championships: 90% of men choose either a ‘thin’ or ‘thick’ variation, which are pretty indistinguishable.
After a few months, the maintenance required in keeping my moustache presentable became bothersome so, when I had an accident requiring stitches in my chin, I took the opportunity to shave the thing off. A week of open-mouthed stares at the office – from close friends and bare acquaintances alike – ensued, and I was quickly growing it back. Now I can hardly imagine life without it. Recently I decided to mix things up and take on a full face beard, but I’m still not sure how the Malayalis around me feel about it. I can only imagine their first impression of me has changed from ‘obviously a man’ to ‘obviously criminally insane’… at least I still have quite a few variations to get through before losing all my friends here.