October 2016 began just as many other Octobers of the previous years. Just before the month could end, however, Delhites were hit by what is now known as ‘The Great Delhi Smog of 2016’. It was quite a time! The smog hung on the city till around mid-November that year, reducing outdoor visibility considerably and causing an upsurge in respiratory ailments in the young and the elderly alike. For people who had no option, but to venture out, N95 masks were a must.

Like many others, I too purchased a few N95 masks and so felt no inhibition to move about and around for routine activities assured of inhaling lesser toxins.

Come November 2017, and Delhi saw a repeat of the smog of 2016. The environmental crisis had already become a steaming political issue – the open-field agricultural stubble burning by neighbouring states adding onto the emissions from fire-cracker bursting during Diwali celebrations – being the chief factors for such a severe smog. As the Delhi govt. took measures to curb the smog and issued advisories for normal life to continue, air purifiers and N95 masks were seen rapidly getting sold out from the medical stores.

My stock of masks of the previous year came handy yet again!

The following year as I packed my luggage while bidding farewell to my few years of stay in the national capital, I caught hold of a packet of still new unused N95 masks. Confident that pollution would never reach Delhi levels in my home state, I thought it could be better used by someone staying in Delhi (little did I have the powers to forsee Covid-19 striking every corner of the world in 2020!)

2020 and its tryst with masks is a saga that will be told and retold for generations to come!

Masks are shields guarding the vital entry points in our body by allowing ‘no entry’ or ‘diminished entry’ to toxic pollutants or deadly viruses. Donning a mask is a life-saving precaution in Covid times. Even as these safety valves fulfil the purpose for which they are manufactured, they also end up hiding a part of the facial identity of people. And, so we have accounts of many amusing pranks played and of horrendous crimes committed by faces hidden behind masks even as the world continues to battle with a deadly pandemic. Not to leave out many a shy person who has dared to step outdoors (post-lockdown) only because s/he could cover up half the face without inviting amused stares! And yes, how could I forget the aesthetic role played by masks during carnivals in many places across the world! (Venice, known as the city of masks, houses some of the exotic mask stores of the world)

Providing safety from pollutants and pathogens that are invisible to the naked eye and concealing identity from people before whom one is undoubtedly visible – sure sums up the utility of a mask. While pollutants and pathogens lie in wait for that split-second of a moment when they can sneak into a host without a mask, coming to people – just a faint cue is enough for familiar others to identify the face behind the mask.

We all don many different masks in our lives. The happy masks help hide inner pain and turmoil from people. The sad masks help generate sympathy from significant others. The angry masks help discipline our children. The seductive masks help lure desirable others. The masks of apathy help portray a lack of concern. The masks of romance help hide acts of adultery. The masks of altruism show our helping nature to people. Behind a robber’s mask may lie the heart of a needy father. A prostitute’s mask helps veil stories of betrayal and deceit.  

Why call these masks?

Because, behind such facades lies the true self – at times known to us and at times hidden from us.

A mother who is acting angry on a child who hasn’t completed the homework, knows that she isn’t truly angry. She is just pretending to be angry! Known self-pretence!

On the other hand, a seasoned criminal with a gory history, more often than not, does not know that he has a soft side to himself as well. Unknown self-deception!

Known self-pretence is easier to slip out from than unknown self-deception. You remove your mask and are out of known self-pretence. However in case of unknown self-deception, you need to be first made to realize that you are wearing a mask and then taught to remove it and drop it off.

The human heart is prone to play its tricks in various ways. It is a smooth pathway to deception. Whether known or unknown, our pretences lie unveiled before the omniscient God – who invades the heart to see deep within. Our different masks save us from ourselves and others, but fall ineffective before God who penetrates deep within the tiniest of all pores.

Even as we continue wearing protective masks against pollutants and pathogens, let us strive to identify and drop down the many masks of unknown self-pretences that we are habituated to wearing.

With God’s strength we surely can!