Splinters

The saying goes that we all have rituals – and the sayer points, often times metaphorically, to baseball players. The raise, the pinch, the shuffle, the swing, the dust-off, the spit, the spit, the spit. Ritual seems a bad word, suddenly. Habit? Superstitious habit? Let us stick with ritual for a second. I don’t think I have many rituals that I can consciously identify. Even now, as I sit thinking about my rituals (how do I write when I write?) I get mostly vague mental images of turning on music before cooking.

My ritual, my habit, the thing that I planned when I planned was to shave before going to the airport.

This ritual is a habit because, well, I fly a lot. Since moving to Berlin, I have been flying even more than my usual a lot.

Yesterday, in planning for my airport flight tomorrow, I went to my usual barber (a gentle man from Istanbul who speaks with kind eyes) and asked him to go ahead and make me pretty for the immigration control officer. As I sat there looking at the mirror, I realized that 1) I rather liked my face covered in short, grey, splinters. And 2) I was afraid of what these short, grey splinters would tell someone else about me.

I realized that this particular habit began ten years ago. I flew back into Chicago from London on Sep 16th, 2001. I was originally scheduled to come back on Sep 12th. I remember shaving. I remember shaving every single time since then. Now, this was not a rather well-thought out thing. There was no reason, I don’t think in retrospect, to conclude that NOT having a beard was a good idea.

Except that the images we were watching were of Usama and Omar and I was reading about Sikh elders getting attacked and the world had decided that a beard was really the marker of hate – but only on brown skin, naturally.

My younger brother grew a beard around 2006-7. He had a manicured kind long before, but then he began a proper Sunnah beard – emulating the Prophet. Long, uncut, with little hair on the mustache. My father as well. I love their beards – they represent faith, devotion, a sense of commitment to their ethical and moral lives.

My own adventures in hirsuteness came from laziness. I was not a fan of the daily shave, preferring the shadow. Either way, there was not much stock in my facial hair pot – it represented nothing, I believed.

But my clean shave on the eve of flying did make a representative gesture and maybe even an identitarian one, as well. I did because I wanted no “trouble” at the border. I wanted to see my loved ones and reach my destinations. It was a small thing to do.

Ten years later, the small thing was a grooved-in habit.

There is, of course, much to say about the last ten years and I feel that we all should. There is every reason to think back, willfully and in full light of history, about what we lived through, enabled and participated in. The wars, the killings are but one aspect of our global re-ordering. When I say “we”, I ought to qualify it by saying Americans or Iraqis or Afghans or Pakistanis or Muslims or whatever else. I will not do that. I read some of the fiction that came out after 9/11 when I was writing this piece and I remember a discussion (phone, was it?) with my editor Jonathan Shainin (who wrote this must-read tracing Updike’s post 9/11 novel) about pointillism or minutiae in the American gaze on 9/11. I remember, if I can recreate my own thoughts, being very adamant that this microscopic examination was another form of refusal by the American imagination to look up and out, to refuse to be historical and global.

I will probably still make that argument. Perhaps with more qualifiers, though.

In the meantime, I want to look at my own minutiae.

12 Replies to “Splinters”

  1. It was when those poky splinters grew into long yummy, curly noodles, when I felt that I was me. Me who always walk into a room thinking that if the ceiling falls on my head, it would be fine, and if for some reason it doesn’t it would be finer. Always started from the lowest note, knowing that I’ll have some room to go high. An immigration officer, a fellow bus rider, my new supervisor, the sleeping guy I had to ask to wake up and get up from his seat because I need to pull a lever from under seat or a “group of unruly youth” who when see me just can’t hold their desire to chant OSAMA OSAMA can just be themselves and do what they are programmed (by the media or by now a habit) to do OR they might make my day by just being not that well programmed. And believe me these new yorker make my day almost everyday.

  2. Bulleya, main jana main kaun
    (I am not this, am not that …)
    par, ki dassan main kaun …
    par, kiyon dassan main kaun
    te phair, ki jana main kaun !!

    So, who is Manan? or rather, what is Manan apart from a frumious bandersnatch (both the pictures belie this rather tedious trait, even splinters aren’t that helpful)?

  3. Good question: “who is Manan in this?”
    Or rather, what is Manan but a frumious bandersnatch?
    And how does the chickadee feel about shaving?

    Bulleya, ki jana mein kaun!

  4. Splinters, ah!

    Well, nothing can highlight better the dilemma of duality, the ways of being, this way or that way, going back and forth. Yes, the ways of coping by an intelligent man, an intelligent ‘plenty coup’. But, who is Manan in this? Need I know. It is not a single picture. A philosophical question to a historian: Do the ways acquired under compulsion, becoming over the period of time a habit, becomes part of your being? Or is it still an alienated part? Acquired but not reconciled completely.

    Ni, Mayain mainon kharriyan di gal na aakh!

  5. The day before an international flight, I spend an hour or so nervously arranging and re-arranging my documents.

    This comment string is probably not supposed to be a confession booth, but …

  6. Is this the right time to confess that I painted in the Sepoy beard in all but one of the nine rasa portraits?

  7. amazing , and after reading this i think, “sir i have become fan of yours”. you write so well and composed all the thoughts in this piece. i can feel for you too as i became reguler at shaving because of the same reason.
    call it laziness or fear but a blend of all those feelings took the soft splinters of boyhood away

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