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October 8th, 2017

Caste, virility & the Indian moustache

My goodness me, but India is a funny old country.

There you are, thinking that you “know” the country after some 34 years, married to an Indian, now living here permanently…if ever anyone were a shoe-in for the job of “an old India hand” you’d think it’d be me, right?

And then, all of a sudden, you realise how little you understand of this complex country.

Take this latest moustache controversy.

You read that right.

A controversy about moustaches.

Last week, in the western state of Gujarat, some young men were attacked for having moustaches, which is/was/still is considered to be an upper caste prerogative.

I mean, who knew?

Perhaps I should’ve known, but in a country where so many men (my own husband included) have moustaches, who knew that caste was involved?

Just downright weird.

I’ve read up a little about this latest controversy – including, sadly in these social-media driven days, one self-staged “attack” – but it still leaves me baffled.

According to the venerable Times of India this morning, a boy was attacked “for daring to wear a moustache that suggested his masculinity was on a par with that of his Darbar-caste neighbours.”

Now you’re telling me that a mooch implies masculinity?

Personally, between you, me and the gate post, I dislike moustaches intensely, and have asked hubby for years to shave his off, but to no avail.

Why on earth would having a few bristly hairs above your upper lip imply masculinity?

Lordy, but am I hopelessly out of my Indian depth here.

Of course I have noticed, over the decades, that many more men have moustaches here in India than in Europe.

I just thought it was a Thing.

“Oh, yeah, Indian men like moustaches.”  That kind of Thing.

I never even suspected that there was actually a whole virility Thing going on here.

Is it literally a case of mine is bigger than yours, mine is wider wider than yours, and yeah baby! mine is twirler than yours (ewww, let’s not go done that route, Christine).

I just asked hubby dearest a leading question:

”Did you know that wearing a moustache is supposed to imply masculinity?”

”Yes, I think I’d heard something like that,” was his suitably noncommittal reply.

”And did you know that lower caste men are not supposed to wear them?” I persisted (as one does, when trying To Understand India).

”No I didn’t, but I read something about it recently,” was his suitably noncommital reply Mark II.

All my substantive experience of India has been urban.  Though I’ve travelled widely and frequently across the country, I’ve only ever lived in Mumbai & Delhi, and I have never ever once, in all these years, heard mention of someone’s caste.

Religion hardly even figures as a conversation piece in my group of friends and my husband’s family, to be honest, so as for caste…it has never, ever been a topic of conversation, other than outraging about some atrocity or other in some far flung part of non-Mumbai or non-Delhi India.

I truly have NO idea what caste any of my friends comes from.

As in NO idea.

Doubt many of them would even know themselves.

Hells bells, other than a few surnames that scream Brahmin (all the -edi’s, right? Trivedi, Chaturvedi etc. Or have I got it wrong?)…so, yes, other than a few “obvious” surnames, I wouldn’t know where to start.

Not that I’d want to, I hasten to add.

Take my lovely running group, for example.

I know some of my gang’s surnames, but that tell me nothing at all – but since we all run and sweat together, and train together, and exercise together, involving some degree of physical contact in paired drills…you see where this is going, right?

Who knows?

Who cares?

But apparently in some parts of this country it does matter.

Even though one of the attacks in Gujarat was, as I mentioned earlier, faked by an attention-seeking teenager, 2 other youngsters were attacked, another kid was killed for watching a dance, so there is definitely something evil and horrid and terrifyingly retro going on here.

Inevitably, there has been a spate of social media posts of Dalit men sporting mooches.

Dalit, for non-Indian readers, is the word used to describe lower-caste people – this in a country where the Constitution of India prohibits discrimination based on caste (Article 15).

But discrimination continues, and thus “dalit, meaning “oppressed” in Sanskrit and “broken/scattered” in Hindi, is the term used for the members of lower castes of India.

I have to say, I do like their ballsiness in choosing a moustache as their logo.

Let me end with a note from Wikipedia, which certainly resonates with me:

“In Western culture, it has been shown that women dislike men who displayed a visible moustache or beard, but preferred men who had a visible hint of a beard such as stubble (often known as a five-o-clock shadow) over those who were clean-shaven. This supports the idea that in Western culture, females prefer men who have the capability to cultivate facial hair, such as a moustache, but choose not to.”

As I said at the outset, it’s a strange old country…

1 comment to Caste, virility & the Indian moustache

  • Jane

    So those Shoreditch hipsters with beards and man-buns are flaunting masculinity?? I thought they were just mainlining Jon Snow!

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