Some days back as I left my home after having been in hibernation for a week or so, I was surprised to find that almost everybody on the road was wearing a mask.
For a moment I was terrified by the thought that the ISIS or whatever those guys are called had taken over Kashmir.
The shock must have been evident on my (as yet unmasked!) face because an elderly gent (he too happened to be without a mask) stopped by my side and following my gaze gave me an amused smile and said with a bitter laugh, "Don't be surprised young man lots of people these days have got a mask-e-soorat and for good reason too."
I did not pay much heed to his words at the moment but later when I replayed them in my mind I wondered what exactly he meant by mask-e-soorat. 'Mask' I understood because everybody around seemed to be wearing a mask and as for 'soorat' of I course I knew what it meant but by way of extra precaution I looked up the word in the dictionary.
I got confused by the choice of meanings offered but then I saw that one of these was 'face' and I understood that the old man must have been referring to the masked faces.
I was to have yet another encounter with the old man who introduced me to the phrase mask-e-soorat and gave this write-up its title.
I saw him again a few days after our first meeting and this meeting was no less confusing than the first one. He must have recognized me because he gave me a warm smile and a friendly wink as I greeted him.
"That day I was confused by your phrase mask-e-soorat but then later I understood that you were referring to all those people wearing masks. You see now I too am wearing one. It is this swine flu business." I said.
He frowned and said, "How do you know that this swine flu isn't a mask in itself? And yes mask-e-soorat is not necessarily about wearing these things on the face."
"What do you mean?" I was puzzled by his strange words.
"Look at these people," he said pointing towards a bunch of people who were surrounding a distinguished looking man enthusiastically shaking hands with him, handing him bouquets and garlanding him. "This too is an example of mask-e-soorat."
"Why what is it all about?" I was even more puzzled by his words especially as none of the guys was wearing a mask.
He seemed to have guessed my thoughts as he gave me a meaningful look and said, "Well sure none of them appears to be wearing a mask but actually every one of them is wearing it.
You see this guy with whom they are shaking hands and fawning over shamelessly has recently been honored for his services, granted a promotion or something like that.
All these people that you can see around him have been opposing the fellow tooth and nail behind his back and yet now that he is successful they are falling over each other to felicitate him, shaking his hands and touching their hearts and all the stuff.
And all this when actually in their heart of hearts they would give anything to see him down and out. So now tell me aren't they wearing masks too even if they don't appear to be wearing one. They have a mask-e-soorat for sure!"
I couldn't make any sense out what all he was saying but whatever it was he sounded sincere enough. He continued, "You see there are many ways to wear a mask and there are all sorts of masks too."
"You mean like N95, triple layer masks, surgical masks, black masks…?"
"Yeah those too," he interrupted me with an impatient gesture, "and many more others, BIG ones like development and peace…Lots of ways to have a mask-e-soorat."
"Masked face you mean?" I said.
"Yes mask-e-soorat," he nodded his head vigorously and burst into loud laughter.
"Hey what are doing talking to this mad man? He is a raving lunatic!" a man who had stopped by my side whispered to me.
The old man laughed even louder and pointing towards this man said, "Look at him he is wearing a mask too!" Then he began chanting "Mask-e-soorat!" "Mask-e-soorat!" and broke into a short run.
The old man did look and sound mad! And yet…and yet I couldn't but feel that he was speaking some sort of truth even if what he said sounded strange and didn't seem to make much sense either.
I couldn't get this bizarre meeting out of my mind and the more I pondered over it all the old man's words seemed to become more and more meaningful.
And then it struck me, the old man was wearing a mask too, the mask of madness and perhaps it was right too for if indeed he was speaking the truth he would need to wear a mask. For in these dangerous times truth cannot but wear a mask…