“If you are to become a professional, then this look is unacceptable.”
“Son, you also have to consider what others will think”
“Are you a stoner?”
Considering that in my family, most men adorn a shining head, I decided to cherish my hair as long as I could. “What harm could a bunch of hair could do?”, I used to think, and was never prepared for the above mentioned comments and questions I faced for keeping long hair and beard.
This was disturbing for me as relatively, my hair and beard was neither that long nor thick. Growing up, from school to college, and even in the neighborhood, clean cut hair and shaved cheeks were part of an unwritten rule-book. I never understood how professionalism or being gentle is related to my hair. Then there were questions of “Why am I keeping it?” and the simple response that “I like it” was never satisfactory to others.
Apparently any action or behavior without any visible correlation is considered to be a waste of time and resource in our society. For me, it was all just a matter of perception. So over time, I chose to ignore such comments. Initially it was hard to resist family decisions, cheesy comments of aunties and ultimatum from teachers, but I prevailed.
At the saturation point, India Fellow happened for me. As part of the fellowship, I got placed with Agragamee, an organisation working in tribal regions of Odisha. Finally, I was free in this new land without any burden to visually satisfy those social norms, or so I thought. Initially, it was just the police. As this area is known for presence of Maoists, it was common for someone with my looks to be stopped from time to time for verification when going from one place to another. It would be confined to a few routine questions and checks. I wouldn’t worry about it.
Everything was fine until one day when a funny (depends how you look at it) but dangerous outbreak happened here. It seemed like the whole of Odisha got swept by it. There was a widespread fear of Pillachor, a local term for child kidnappers.
Nobody exactly knows how it started but one day we heard that two people in a nearby village were beaten brutally and tied up to a tree, as they were suspected to be child kidnappers. One of them died there.
There was another news of something similar happening in the nearby district, and suddenly there were reports of multiple such incidents happening all over the state. No one was arrested yet. Police found that all the victims were innocent and a pattern emerged in culprits. None of them could speak Odiya. Something similar happened in Assam where two boys were killed by public, thinking they were child kidnappers, even though they were innocent locals.
In conclusion, one could say that if you don’t know Odiya, then you are vulnerable to attacks and if you have beard as well as long thick hair, then this danger level doubles. As a guy in second category, I was advised to cut my hair and get clean-shaved, but I was hesitant.
On a field visit with my coordinator, I was peacefully sitting under a tree eating a mango, which we had plucked on the way, when my coordinator went to see someone. Out of nowhere, a cool appearing guy approached me and started asking something in the local language. When he came to know that I don’t speak Odiya, I saw him signalling his friends at a distance, who came and joined this one-sided conversation.
I explained them my purpose and told them about our organisation which is well known in that area, but I could sense tension rising. “I was going to be another article in a local newspaper”, I thought. More people started to gather. As there was no network, I couldn’t contact my coordinator, and started preparing myself mentally for what may happen. Such moments are always intimidating and in a way, beautiful, when you feel a disaster coming up.
Miraculously, my coordinator arrived in time. He explained the situation to everyone and made it clear that I’m not a kidnapper. Since he is known to many in this village, things were sorted out peacefully.
Now I’m in a rough space to cut my hair, but it’s haunting to think for how long will I have to give in to the fears and social norms. Such incidents are really common in this area and many a times, such rumors are used to cover up gang robberies. It’s interesting to see how these rumors are sustaining themselves.
Morphed images, videos and fake warning from police are spread through various social media platforms which worsen the situation. The end users of such media is usually young people here, majority of whose forefathers have not even seen electricity but it has a deep impact on everyone regardless.
It’s common to see people blocking roads at night, armed with tools, waiting for the child kidnapper to appear. They may seal the fate of anyone who come that way and doesn’t belong to the region. Maybe, it’s the fate of our society to run behind such rumors which appear from time to time and effectively engage a population which is pretty much bored. Who knows if such organised chaos was always present and is just taking a different form.