Meaning Behind The Mask

Isha Amatya
Isha Amatya says her face mask is necessary to guard against high pollution. For some young activists, the environment is the biggest issue in Nepal. (By Emily Wax — The Washington Post)

By Dinesh Wagle

I lost my confidence in my nasal hairs last month.

I wonder how my former science teacher would react to this news. Buddha Pramod Rai had full faith in his nasal hairs. While teaching science at Adarsha Janapremi High School in Bhaktapur in the 90s he used speak confidently about their capabilities. “You don’t need to wear a mask,” he used to say. “Trust your nasal hairs. They are capable of stopping dust from entering into your lungs.”

I trusted him till last month.

The last time I wore a mask was in 2005 when I was agitating and blogging against the then autocratic royal government. It was part of a political statement. Journalists were rallying for freedom. They wanted to show, by covering their mouths with black masks, that they didn’t have freedom of expression. As a statement against the autocracy, I kept that photo of mine—mouth covered with a black mask—on the front page of my website for several weeks.

This time around there is no king to protest against.

Now, a mask is a key part of my pollution survival strategy. I wear it whenever I walk on the streets or ride pillion. Over the years, the Kathmandu environment has deteriorated to the extent that it’s almost impossible to walk around in the city without wearing a mask if you don’t want to get sick from air pollution. Vehicles are the primary (and most visible) culprits. With the dark exhaust billowing out of their pipes, most buses (of all forms: micro, mini and large) deserve to be banned from roads. Gurujis lack basic driving etiquette. Somebody needs to tell them, perhaps the traffic police, that keeping the engine running for extended lengths of time (like 10 to 20 minutes) when the bus is not moving is a crime against the environment. It is bad for the economy too—just look at the long queues snaking from the petrol pumps.

Meaning Behind the Mask Kathmandu Post Monday 07 March 2010
Click to enlarge. TKP:07.03.10

Our ‘polluted image’ has gone international.

Internet forums are rife with complaints from foreigners regarding Kathmandu’s environmental condition. “Air pollution in Kathmandu is pretty bad,” writes a traveller on an internet forum. “I felt as if I was standing on the top of the factory chimney facing down.” writes: “Air pollution in Kathmandu is known to cause considerable respiratory problems for travellers.”

Isha Amatya represents us on the world stage.

In August 2009, the 24-year-old girl was featured in a Washington Post story that detailed the environmental degradation in Nepal. When she couldn’t breathe anymore, the story said, Isha bought a pile of face masks and tricked them out with hearts, rock band logos and hipster symbols to match her outfits. Isha explained the importance of face masks in Kathmandu to Emily Wax, the story’s reporter: “For Nepalis, it’s just like wearing sunglasses. It’s a must in our really polluted city. You literally can’t make it in this city without one.”

We know how to turn adversity into an opportunity.

In a recent interview with a newspaper in Kathmandu, singer Nabin K Bhattarai said something about Nepalis’ fashion sense. “They may not eat good food but Nepalis like to wear good clothes,” he said. We could debate on that but I assume he was speaking for urban Nepalis. Some people do dress very nicely—they are the ones who deliver fashion statements through their face masks. They express their dissatisfaction loudly and clearly while their mouths are hidden behind colourful masks.

But, let me tell you, wearing a mask is no fun.

For bespectacled people like me, face masks come with a price. My own breath keeps fogging up my glasses. How can you walk on the challenging streets of

Kathmandu when your vision is blurred? Even when your vision is working fine you may find it difficult to recognise the face behind the mask. Who is hiding behind that beautiful mask: a friend or a foe? A person stopped his bike in front of me the other day as I was entering the office and extended his hand to shake mine.

I didn’t respond because I didn’t know who he was. “Look, whoever you are, I don’t recognise you,” I told him. He whisked away on his bike without speaking a word. I am not sure if he will speak to me again. But one advantage of the mask, apart from its obvious task of blocking dust, is that it keeps your lips warm in winter.

But winter’s gone, what will happen in the summer?

I can’t answer that because I am already wearing a mask.

[This article first appeared on today’s (Monday, Mar 7) Kathmandu Post. The print version contains an email address which doesn’t belong to the writer of the article. That’s because of an error while designing the page. The correct email address is]