Stubbing out stubble

One’s appearance was important to the British bosses I worked with in Munnar’s tea estates in the 1960s and 70s, a daily shave being considered essential to ensure one was presentable. Practising what they preached, the Brits’ visages were always as smooth as glass except, of course, for the upper lips of the moustache-fanciers among them.

Nothing was more disagreeable to my boss, a stickler for a daily shave, than the sight of a stubbly face in the morning. He ensured that his domestic staff, office staff, driver and peon, too, kept their faces bristle-free every day. He would screw up his ruddy nose in disapproval, bordering on disgust, if he found someone who hadn’t shaved. “You look pricklier than a porcupine!” he once snapped at a youngster who sported a fortnight’s stubble on his return from leave.

No flimsy excuses were acceptable to the Brit for not shaving. Those who hadn’t, often baulked at entering his room when summoned, knowing they would be scolded. And sure enough, they usually came out contritely stroking their stubble and simpering sheepishly. Some, having risen late, prudently chose to slip into the barber’s for a quick shave en route to the office rather than incur his displeasure. The only time the boss relented was when one reported for work though obviously unwell.

One employee who really nettled my boss was the elderly Menon who cared little about his clothes and even less about his appearance. Luckily, Menon didn’t have to interact directly with the Brit who seldom ran into him. On one occasion, when the duo met by chance, the unshaven Menon was in all his grizzled glory — his air of scruffiness further heightened by two small tufts of meticulously cultivated hair curling luxuriantly out of his ears.

Masking his annoyance, my boss perfunctorily acknowledged Menon’s greeting and when the latter was out of earshot, I heard him mutter under his breath, “He looks more like a prize-winning cactus in full bloom!” It was the ultimate — and perhaps most appropriate — ‘compliment’ he could pay Menon in the circumstances.

Yet, for all their dislike of stubbly mugs, some of Munnar’s former British tea planters did let down their hair — or rather beards — in an annual three-month beard-growing contest that saw them grow shaggier each day with unleashed hirsuteness. On D-Day they paraded before a panel of lady judges, the criteria among other things being ‘kissability’, ‘touchability’ and ‘virility’ — of the beard, of course, and not its grower! The winner was awarded a silver tankard brimming with beer. 

Sadly, this novel contest — which helped spice up the fun-loving Brits’ unexciting lives in the remote tea gardens — is now only a memory as are Munnar’s Brits themselves!

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