RAHUL BEDI | 19 MARCH, 2019
What Is a Man Without His Moustache?
Abhinandan Varthaman’s moustache has attained iconic status
The grand moustache of Indian Air Force fighter pilot Abhinandan Varthaman, who recently shot down a Pakistani F-16 in a dogfight with his legacy Soviet-era MiG-21 fighter along the line of control in Kashmir, has attained iconic status.
Many Indians are emulating it and Amul even made a video celebrating his handlebar moustache, largely a rarity in the air force, with many hailing his bushy upper lip as a mark of valour.
Moustaches, after all, are an integral part of Indian tradition and folklore, closely associated with respect, honour and above all machismo.
In northern Punjab province there is a popular axiom that is popular even today: Muchh nahi, puch nahi (Nobody bothers about a man without a moustache).
Impressive moustaches in Punjab are those than can effortlessly balance a small lemon on their upturned ends.
Moustaches in Punjab and in neighbouring Rajasthan state are an enduring symbol of maleness, on which hangs pride and social standing.
Loss of face is likened to cutting off the moustache, widely considered an unpardonable insult that can, and often does, lead to prolonged feuds.
Some years ago policemen in central India's Madhya Pradesh state were paid a small monthly allowance to grow moustaches, as senior officers believed they bestowed gravitas and authority upon their force.
The officer, who introduced this special allowance, declared that whiskered lawmen generated a positive and masterful aura, which in turn spawned respect for lawmen.
He hit upon the cash-for-moustaches idea following a seminar attended by district policemen and local residents.
A scattering of constables with moustaches in the gathering, he observed, were looked upon with reverence and led to him encouraging his force to grow them. The moustache allowance was merely a 'sweetener'.
Over time mustachioed policemen came to subtly occupy an unstated, albeit higher status, but senior officials kept a vigilant eye on the shape and size of their whiskers, mindful that they did not look too intimidating.
Only "proper" moustaches were encouraged, ones that twirled rakishly along the upper lip. Bushy handlebar models were permitted, but only if they did not look overly menacing or challenging.
Policemen were discouraged from duplicating moustaches sported by Bollywood villains, often portrayed in films stroking their whiskers malevolently, whilst either torturing their victims or raunchily eyeing women.
Moustaches have even resulted in legal battles in India.
One such case involved Victor Joynath De, an Indian Airlines flight attendant grounded some years ago for refusing to shave off his luxurious handlebar moustache.
The airline said De's precious asset was a health risk, especially as he handled food, besides unnerving passengers.
"My moustache is me" the attendant maintained, determined to keep it.
Supported by his flight attendant wife, he took the prickly issue to the Calcutta high court in eastern India that ruled in his favour after months of amusing and learned arguments on facial hair.
"I never dreamed of trimming it " De declared after his moustache had been legally safeguarded. He said it had taken him 25 years to grow and attracted nothing but admiration, especially from female passengers inside the aircraft.
Meanwhile, many years ago Lush a popular Western cosmetic maker named its popular moustache wax after the fiercely bewhiskered bandit Veerappan from south India.
Shot dead in an ambush in October 2004, Veerappan was responsible for murdering around 120 people and poaching over 200 elephants for their ivory in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. He also kidnapped rich and famous people for ransom and cut down hundreds of hectares of sandalwood forest to smuggle out the agreeably scented and valuable wood that is gradually becoming extinct.
But, from atop Lush’s moustache wax jar, the brigand rakishly urged customers to ‘add a daring twist’ to their facial hair for just $15.95.
Packed with nourishing waxes and oils-including sandalwood extracts-the wax potion in its online advert promised to make “whiskery kisses all the more memorable”.
Lush could not have got a better moustache than Veerappan’s awesome whiskers, to flaunt and promote its latest male product, that also claims to ‘work wonders to soften (hair) split ends too”.
The bandits’ moustache almost entirely concealed his lips, its thick hairy oversized 'pillars' dwarfing his face and hanging carelessly like well-trimmed bushes off the edge of his chin.
A journalist who spent time with Veerappan in the 1990s said he daily lavished elaborate care on his moustache, treating it with special oils and herbs, before lovingly combing and rolling it round his fingers to give it a stylish droop.