What’s in a beard? Leave that stubble alone

Beards are back in vogue again
Beards are back in vogue again

From William Shakespeare to Ernest Hemmingway to Rabindranath Tagore to Socrates, Santa Claus and Leonardo Da Vinci, each had a beard of repute that shaped their individuality

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Abhishek Sengupta

Published: Mon 26 Oct 2020, 12:19 AM

So not for the first time since the days of Abraham Lincoln and WG Grace, the poor little beard has slipped into bit of a controversy and ratcheted up some storm. This time in India’s Uttar Pradesh where a Muslim cop last week got pulled up and sent on gardening leave for flouting “dress code norms”. He broke the norms by keeping a beard without an official permission.

Now, I have always loved keeping a bit of a stubble and have had some semblance of a beard ever since I decided a few years ago that not lathering up a foam every morning could just be another modest, sustainable way of saving planet earth. You say no to chemicals, save water, cut down on energy use and also pile up a few dirhams along the way every month. I know any of these don’t quite cut it as logical reasoning for purists like my mum who, she used to say, spent her life appreciative of my dad’s “clean shaven, corporate-look”. And for her, beards and stache just had no place in her lexicon to describe the splendour and the grace of a true gentleman. Beards hurt her sense of aesthetics; she would remind me rudely whenever she felt it was time for me to visit the barber. And so, I grew up thinking she was one of her kind until I faced a “beard backlash” by airport authorities first-hand a decade ago while transiting through London’s Heathrow. This was the time when I looked a bit more menacing than I do now with no moustache and an extended goatee that spread-eagled my chin and looked more like a half moon. I had got used to second looks alright but could never be enough prepared for the thorough, more-than-a-frisk kind of security check I had to go through for ‘looking suspicious’. It was no drill and I could tell a lot of it had to do with how I wore my beard back then.

Sadly, that was the beginning of the end of my goatee and the start of one long, uncomfortable era of the clean-shaven until one Movember several years down the line brought the beard back. That has remained like that since in various degrees as age, an everlasting early morning laziness and alarms of Covid caught up with the conscience to help me stay firm in resolve to keep the beard.

Yet, my concern remains for those subjected to beard-hatred and shaming. Those like me (I have been asked to appear clean-shaven in the next video I present) and sub-inspector Intsar Ali, the suspended UP policeman for whom his long flowing beard has suddenly become a problem after years of service. His bosses, in their favour, have showed the police dress code manuals that apparently only allow Sikhs to keep a beard without permission from the authorities. What intrigues me is how and when did beards actually become anything more than just that — a symbolism of good or bad, a representation of a religion or a community?

When the famous men wore beards, it became their very identity. Just that. When a beardless Abraham Lincoln was running for office — as the story goes — he was encouraged by a letter from an 11-year-old girl to “grow some whiskers,” since she thought his face was too thin. Honest Abe took that advice, won the election, and the rest became history as US got a prez who not just abolished slavery but also and the original “chinstrap.”

Over time since, beards, moustaches, and sideburns have gone in and out of style, grown to epic proportions, and taken on larger-than-life roles outshining even the men whose faces they have sat on. From William Shakespeare to Ernest Hemmingway to Rabindranath Tagore to Socrates, Santa Claus and Leonardo Da Vinci, each had a beard of repute that shaped their individuality, not anyone’s narrative or demands.

Beards are back in vogue again — mutton chops, van dykes, and the gunslinger, neatly shaped and trimmed, embellish faces in offices, in sports, in politics. But is it the same as before? Perhaps not because too many people also don’t like the beard anymore. Perhaps, they should just leave the beards alone!


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