Delhiwale: The masks of Chawri
You probably won’t spot such a wide range of quirky and cheap masks in online shopping sites. Neither in the upscale Khan Market, where a front lane store has put up a poster proclaiming “fashion masks available here.”
At least you won’t see the masks strung together so casually in such great many numbers along a dusty footpath. Every second piece here is claiming for attention with its playful eccentricity. There’s one mask printed with a male model’s face. It looks disconcerting—as if a poor man’s lips were violently torn off from his mouth and pasted onto the fabric.
While the one with a very animated Mickey Mouse seems so alive that you expect it to jump at you any moment now. Another is printed with a cartoon of one of those red double deckers that ply through London roads. A few masks are, of course, more predictable, dotted with conventional flower prints. Some are totally plain in shades of blue and grey.
In short, you will be spoilt for choices if it is masks you’re after.
This morning, the stall in Old Delhi’s Chawri Bazaar is so over-crowded with them that it is natural to feel that these masks might have been here for a long time, long before the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic that made this face wear a necessity.
“Our stall is older than 50 years,” informs Brijendra Jain. In his 20s, the masked hawker informs that it was founded by his father, Ugar Sen Jain, who is now retired and stays at home. The unnamed establishment began keeping masks only recently though. Until the disruption caused by the pandemic, it would mostly sell gamcha, the classic all-purpose scarves especially popular, he says, among the area’s labourers and rickshaw pullers to wipe their sweaty faces and arms.
Indeed, a good number of colourful cotton gamchas are arranged at one end of the stall. They are looking quite pretty and on their own, would have been easily noticeable. For the moment, however, the masks are hogging all the limelight.
“Our masks are bought by all kinds of people... from working class men who sleep on the Chawri Bazaar streets, to rich men driving on their scooters and bikes,” says Mr Jain, who commutes daily from Lakshmi Nagar on his bicycle.
The family originally lived in nearby Chandni Chowk “but some years back we moved out from the Walled City to Lakshmi Nagar... so much peace there.”
It’s morning and Mr Jain is still awaiting his first customer. “I get the masks from a wholesale supplier in Sadar Bazaar.” He reveals that the masks were selling briskly until a few days ago “but now their popularity seems to be coming down.”
As a matter of fact, a few of the many labourers milling about in the area are bare faced.
Mr Jain isn’t sure how long he will continue to stock masks, “but as of now they still are the best-sellers.... the gamchas have fallen behind in the race.”
It is true that Delhi started taking to masks a few years ago, prompted by an alarming increase in pollution in the foggy winter seasons, but they were not such a common sight until this March. That the mask has percolated down to the street level proves that it is now truly part of our everyday.
Mr Jain’s masks range from ₹5 to ₹50. The stall opens daily from 9am to 6pm. Trials aren’t allowed for obvious reasons.