When enough of this is over – because who knows if all of it ever will be? – there may come a day or an evening when something in the world beckons me to line my eyes and step into it again. I will venture out for something other than an errand or a dreaded obligation, and because I’ve weighed a risk and found that caution cannot convince me out of something that I crave. On that day, I’ll paint my lips and keep them secret, looping a mask over the lower half of my face. Hands that cannot touch but must speak will perform the mudras of the sequestered: fingers to the mask, then palm extended in a kiss presented but not blown; hand to the chest to emphasise the things that words have already conveyed.
Words will have more power in the new world than before, because we will need them more. We may be more easily swayed by them, because anything that contains power is always mined and misused – but we will also wield them better. We will need to, to shorten the new distances between us and fill the voids left by touch and all it does. But we won’t see each other saying them, won’t see how words take shape when spoken. Behind my mask, the lacquer on my lips could be crimson or could even be cyan. Only I would know. Perhaps there’ll be a minute or two when the person I embellish my face for, the company I risk encountering the virus for, will get to view it before we begin our meal. Separated by a clear partition on a disinfected table, served by people who’ve been rendered even more invisible and removed than they already and unfairly were. I’ll smile, vividly, before eating the colour off.
Lipstick is not frivolous. It wasn’t frivolous to the women at the Belsen concentration camp during World War II, who received a strange shipment of red lipsticks, and who (according to the diary of a British lieutenant active in the camp’s liberation) wore it even if they didn’t have adequate clothing to dress themselves in. It wasn’t frivolous for the women because of whom the economic term “lipstick index” was coined, when its sales increased during a recession because it offered a relatively affordable experience of luxury.
Lipstick as assertion of life and the desire for joy. So no, lipstick won’t be frivolous to those who still choose to wear it under their masks as they venture outside in the time to come, tinting their faces beautifully then covering them clinically, coming home to dispose of stained masks, finally understanding why women in cultures where concealment is enforced have always known that beauty is not only in the eye of the beholder. It won’t be frivolous to those who wish to wear it, but have not the means for the purchase, or who can’t for reasons best known to them.
Behind a mask, only the eyes can reveal a smile. But we’ll bring those velvety bullets to lips no one can read, always having known how their blazing colours also tinge the voice.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 19th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.