"Hey! Growing your beard out this November?" my friends, ask me in college, parading around in their 5-day stubble. I would laugh and say no, and then shave for a second time that day. People assume that I can't grow a beard, or that I am not man enough to do it; which might be partially true. But I have something more personal for a reason. It's fear.
Bharathanna was the eldest of all the cousins in the family. Being the eldest and also the brightest, he had always been the yardstick of my life's progress in my parent's eyes. "Bharath got a job in Amazon.","Bharath got admitted in the NIT" ,"Bharath scored a cent percent in Math." "Bharath goes to the market with his dad.", "Bharath’s room is so tidy", "Bharat's handwriting is so neat.", "Bharath was taller at 15", "Bharath's face looks so full….his feet are so clean… his cupboard's systematic…his breathing's so rhythmic," were few of the things I would hear around in the family growing up, nursing my fractured ego with jealousy.
So, when I was sent to Hyderabad to study intermediate and get a seat in a respected institute , I lived at Pedananna's house and shared a room with Anna; so that his brilliance would rub on to me like it were conjunctivitis.
In the beginning he would mind his own, being the golden boy of the family, going to work for his high paying job, study for his GMATs to leave for the US, helping around the house ,and doing other ‘Golden Boy' stuff, only occasionally taking time to bother me with his war stories of slaying the toughest entrance exams in the country.
But it all began when he went to the trips to the hills with his new colleagues. He didn't get to shave for a couple of days while trekking. ‘The stubble looks good on you’ they had said . "It does" I said, casually looking back at him through the mirror he had been in front for an hour that day; a sight which would soon become a routine in the house. He loved having those grains of black on his jaw. On days when his Pedananna forced him to shave it off, he would look devastated with his fruit like bald face.
But with every passing day, the beard would call out to him, like the dark side calling out to a young Anakin . The silky, black ‘jaw fur' called his name in husky voices whenever he looked into the mirror. Before the elder folk at home could read the signs, he was already sporting a black patch on his face.
When questioned he would lie. "It's just a ‘mokku'." He would say , resorting to god to avoid shaving. But only I knew the beard had become a fancy ,a passion ,an obsession .
It took another month, and another thick inch for the beard to completely assume control over him. He would spend hours looking into the mirror and other reflective surfaces, combing his manly mandible mane. The selfie cam on his phone drained most of the battery. He would spend a fortune on products like shampoos , scented beard oils, conditioners, shaping wax ,combs, brushes, trimmers, and razors.
To be fair, the beard shaped out to look amazing. It shone in the sun , glistened in the rain and swayed gently with the wind. Kids took turns to play with it at parties. Ladies stared at in admiration. Bharathanna grew more proud and more obsessed. It took a toll on him. He was not around to help anymore. He never tried to please his disapproving boss .His study hours included staring at the walls, or talking to girls over the phone while stroking his beard .
The growing beard also grew the fanatic in him. He would have sudden anxiety attacks during grooming sessions. "Do you think my left part of the beard looks shorter than the right?" he would ask , sweating. He would talk lowly of people who recently shaved off a sizable beard . "He’s not worthy of it" he would hiss in disgust.
"Why have a preference in where you grow the beard? " he would ask me puzzled and unsettled , while looking at a guy sporting a ‘chin strap' or a ‘frenchie' . I would shrug, trying not to engage further with his ‘purist' beard beliefs.
Random beard enthusiasts would come up to him and strike conversations. "How old….?" the stranger would ask. "16 weeks" Bharathanna would answer , like a proud mother. I could bet the bearded brethren was a cult who would meet up in dim-lit basements , where Bharathanna in his secret cult dress would recite verses to grow their beards faster. This theory of mine would grow stronger when he would nod his head to other bearded guys , while walking on the streets , and they would nod back in customary recognition.
For obvious reasons, he faced problems at home and work. His father would plead to him, to cull his beard baby as the society was asking too many questions .Bharathanna would reject straight away. His boss would bark down at him for petty reasons ,asanna wouldn't heed his advice to shave. "Jealous bastard" Anna , would call him. But the break up with the girl he had been talking to for 2 months was the one that pushed him into a bad phase .He would sit alone smoking. At home, he would indulge in donuts and pastries and binge on 90's Bollywood movies , while brushing down the crumbs off his beard ,in a hope that it would somehow brush away his worries too.
One fine day he got up from his bed and looked into the mirror with dark circles under his eyes. "My beard deserves a better life," he announced.
From that day , he had a spring in his step . He got up early, he brushed his hair and beard with vigor, he jogged and ran in the park like a dog. He ate everything ‘lean’,and quit smoking. He resigned his job and started working on a start-up idea he had been thinking of since he was a kid.
The folks in the house were horrified. Whenever approached ,he would send them back with resolute answers and plans about his life. At weddings and parties, people would gossip about his ‘fall from grace'. But he walked around with pride , and beard on his sleeve. I shuddered at the thought of his feat. For the first time, I secretly admired him.
On the seventh month of the glorious beard, the holy month of ‘No-shave November' ,Bharathanna's business model for the ‘online schooling tools' was declared a winner of the national entrepreneur expo. The Hipster-caveman was elated, to say the least. He even let our little sister, put flowers in his flowing mane. It was quite a sight.
It was also Diwali in a few days. I had almost convinced the family to go green and have a noiseless Diwali for sake of the environment, only to be foiled by Anna. He had brought a box load of fireworks to celebrate his victory.The family collectively shrugged their shoulders.I hated him again.
That fateful Diwali night ,the family were all happy for me doing good in studies ,and for Bharath and his company. We had the longest Diwali celebration ever, to my dismay. Bharathanna looked like a young desi Dumbledore in his white kurta , flowing beard, and the wand like sparkler he held in his hand. He bombed the entire neighborhood with ‘Lakshmi' Bombs, and ‘Hydrogen' bombs and gleamed after every explosion, while I sat there witnessing the carnage.
He went on about bursting, even after everyone around retreated to their homes. I hid the sparklers in an attempt to put an end to his pyromania, but he wouldn't concede. On lighting one of the rockets with a match, he stepped back in smugness. The smugness that had never left his face until then.The old kissan bottle which supported the rocket, wobbled and fell down before the rocket could fire. It was a disaster .The stray rocket zipped around horizontally and headed towards Bharathannna's beard , like a bull towards a red flag. It got lodged into his beard and decided to detonate itself there.
There were flames in an instant, as Anna yelled out curses not appropriate to the day. He cried out more words trying to put off the flames on his beard, completely oblivious to the fact that his entire kurta was on fire. We rushed with buckets of water and put out the flames on his kurta as he drowned his face frantically into another bucket.
After several heated arguments and threats of violence from both directions, Bharathanna conceded to the doctors, to shave off his remaining singed beard for treating his second-degree burns on the chin and neck. He wailed like a widow that night.
The month after, people pretended like there was a death in the family to make Bharathanna feel better. But no amount of consoling could cheer him up. He was distraught and out of his spirits, even worse than the breakup.
"I feel so naked” he would say, staring emptily at the T.V screen. "Maybe it's for your own good. You didn't burn your entire body" I said , trying to show the glass half full.
"I can't touch my stupid face," he would mumble grinding his teeth at me. "Can't you change the fucking channel." he would bark all of a sudden, not able to look at the taunting scenes from Harry Potter, or Lord of the Rings playing on the screen.
It was not like he could not grow the beard back. "It would not be the same" he would say, coldly applying aftershave to his freshly shaved face. His prodigal son was dead. No other could fill that void now. It would be too painful.
‘Time is the best healer of them all' I would say out loud if I had an Amitabh Bachan'esque voice. As weeks passed his outbursts became rare. I advised him to take up gardening as a hobby. ‘It would ease his longing to grow out something, even if it were just grass‘ I had thought brilliantly. The work demand of the start-up and the gardening somehow prevented him from being a recluse.
But even now ,sometimes on a cold evening, he would stare at his plants and sigh, “Maybe it's nature's way of justice .I burned its beard, it burned mine" he would say, fighting back a tear .
Even though I know that he switches to be an idiot, whenever he talks about his beard, I try to make sense of his ‘nature's beard’ reference.
Maybe it was the trees, or maybe it was the layer of atmosphere, he abused that night. I would never know. I gave up, taking solace in the fact that he realized nature had something as precious as his beard.
So, whenever anyone asks me to grow a beard, I'm afraid. Afraid that it would never reach the glory or equal the elegance of Bharathanna's .Afraid that I would not handle the responsibilities that come with a full-grown man mane. Afraid of losing myself to the lustrous face carpet ,forever.
- Chaitanya Voruganti