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The Bhodrolok’s Guide To Grooming

While the men’s grooming segment has blown up (and how) in the last five years, Bengali men still fall back on some time-tested rituals and products.

Is your skin feeling dry? Does your complexion make you cry? Then you must definitely try Boroline, Boroline, is good for my skin, Boroline is the cream for my kith and kin.

I came across this song on a vlog by singer Sawan Dutta and couldn’t help sharing it with, well, my kith and kin. The song, aptly released on Bengali New Year, talks about how Boroline is one of the most enduring mascots of Bengalis and is used for possibly every ailment that might befall one. I couldn’t agree more. From childhood, Bengalis become quickly familiar with that dark green tube of antiseptic cream, which is recommended by our parents for bruises, cuts, chapped lips, cracked elbows, dry skin, stings and bites and whatnot. The thickwhite-greasy cream is less of an ointment and more of a potent magical remedy, which the whole of Bengal has unflinching faith in. I never liked how it felt on my skin (it’s really oily and sweetsmelling), but I’ve come to appreciate its wonderful qualities. Since it’s not easily available outside Kolkata, every time I visit my folks, I stock up (much to their mirth) with at least 10-15 tubes. Running out of Boroline is quite panic-inducing, if you ask me.

Bengalis have always scoffed at “fancy stuff”. It might have something to do with the state’s enduring romance with Communism (and that Bengalis always want their money’s worth and love a good bargain — a tube of Boroline costs Rs 30), but I have noticed that Bengalis never jump onto fads and trends as fast (or as blindly) as people from other metros. It might not necessarily be an admirable quality, but it has kept many of the community’s traditional practices (and products) alive. Take Boroline, for example. In an era of “non-greasy, non-sticky, you won’t-even-know-you-have applied-it” creams, every generation of Bengalis still put their money on this antiseptic. We use Vaseline too, for milder requirements, but when nothing seems to work, good old Boroline always comes to the rescue.

Bengalis like their men soft, clean-shaven and well-groomed. A roll of fat around the gut is highly appreciated, too. Mothers perpetually threaten to snip off ponytails and goatees while their sons are asleep. Long hair and bushy beards are always seen as signs of “bokhey gechhe” (gone to the dogs). Pierced ears (and other assorted punctures), tattoos, stylish haircuts (especially creative sideburns), hairstyles (especially using gels and creams for “spikes”) and beards have been forever seen as red flags that denote the fall of a bhalo chele (“good boy”) into the dark, irretrievable pits of rockbaajioshobbhotami-ganjakhor (this loosely translates to “uncivilized loafers and potheads”).

A good Bengali boy oils his hair regularly before bathing. Mustard oil is preferred (our other cure for everything), but Keo Karpin Hair Oil and Shalimar Coconut Oil are the next best options, approved by Bengali mothers worldwide. Till the 1990s, shampoos were not a requirement for the Bengali middle class — a bar of body soap was good enough for their hair. Hair conditioners will still be a mystery for a lot of people from the previous generation. The only solution to any hair-related problem is “bhalo kore tel laagaao” (oil your hair regularly). When sons come home from hostels, mothers whack them for not oiling, for trying out “fancy” hairstyles and — God help you — for colouring their hair.

As far as soap goes, during summer, we trust the solid deep green (and very bitter) square of Margo neem body bar. Some families might use Cinthol and a red block of Lifebuoy, but most Bengalis trust the healing properties of neem quite piously. During winter, however, we switch to Pears – the translucent ambercoloured glycerin soap which is supposed to moisturise your skin and make it winterfriendly. Winter grooming rituals are quite labourious for the Bengali man. Mustard oil is zealously massaged into the skin before a bath. It is quite a sight to watch daddies, uncles and grandfathers leisurely rubbing oil on their bodies on weekend afternoons, on the terrace or the courtyard, scantily-clad in a weathered, red gaamcha. The oiling ends with pouring drops of mustard oil into your ears and snorting some too — like snuff — to clean out the plumbing. The wives (or maids) melt chunks of coconut oil (it tends to freeze in winter) for the hair. Pond’s and Nivea cold creams are used before bed time. It is quite common to find mid-sized tubs of Pond’s cold cream in Bengali refrigerators during the summer – they’re leftovers from last December. Quite notoriously, Bengalis love the greasy-oily feeling these creams leave your skin with. I remember an aunt saying “If I can’t feel the cream, how do I know it’s moisturising my skin?”

Skin care is quite simple, too. Like I’ve already mentioned, creams are used for winter care. Summer is a time for the generous application of talcum powder — specifically Cuticura and Pond’s Dreamflower. Most families still have powder cases with powder puffs, which are used to thump powder on the neck, chest, armpits and back. From heat boils and bad skin to BO – everything is blamed on the lack of regular talcum usage. In summer, Bengalis are also quite paranoid about bathing. You should be bathing “a lot” but not “too much” (I have not been able to hit the magic number yet). If you are dehydrated, it’s because you haven’t bathed enough. If you catch a summer flu, it’s because you’ve bathed too often. There are no traditional facial rituals. Pimples and acne (a common Bengali problem) are attributed to unhealthy blood, and a lot of neem is administered. Face packs are for pansies, although sometimes, young men do coax their mothers to prepare a paste of gram flour and milk, which is then applied on the face and body, left to dry, and washed off. Said mothers will unfailingly giggle and ask about the girlfriend all this effort is being made for.

Bengalis are quite wary about hairstyles. They prefer their men in short haircuts, good-boyishly parted to one side. The oft-used reference for a handsome man is kattik thakur, the Hindu god of war, perennially single. A head of curly hair is desirable, as is the bhodrolok haircut that super sleuth Feluda sports. Feluda also famously said “When you get a haircut, it should not seem like you have gotten one.” All Bengalis nodded in agreement. Trying out different hairstyles is not something Bengalis appreciate. Grey hair is also not something that men choose to flaunt. It is quite common to see kakus and jethus visit local saloons on Sunday mornings and come out hours later, almost a decade knocked off their heads. While getting your hair dyed and trying to hold on to a fading youth is sniggered at, the Bengali male ego (whatever little of it exists in a mother-oriented and henpecked community) also cannot handle greying.

With all due respect, the Bengali moustache is basically the creepy pornstache, and it should be done away with. Middle-aged Bengali men love sporting moustaches without a beard. The moustache-andbeard look is generally the sole preserve of the “creative” types – they who don the panjabi and Shantiniketan jhola and discuss politicspoetry-patriarchy at Coffee House. Bengalis don’t attach any macho connotations to the moustache, although a nice-and-thick Rabindrik beard is appreciated after you turn 50. It is a sign of experience and wisdom, I suppose. Shaving rituals are quick, generally ending with a good rub of fotkiri (alum) and a complimentary — and potentially harmful — head massage at the family barber’s. The previous generation still uses safety razors at home, only recently having shifted to modern multi-blade razors. Bengali men enjoy a good lather. As a kid, I would often see my father dreamily lathering his face, some complicated philosophy floating through his head. The day I introduced him to shaving foam cans, his heart broke a little.

Arnesh Ghose

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