A few weeks ago, an eight-year-old boy came with a fractured arm and swelling to Sancheti Hospital but, despite the intense pain, he would not let the doctor, Chetan Pradhan, examine him. “I was having a tough time. Finally, I stepped away from him to another part of the room and lowered my mask. He saw my face, that I was smiling at him. I assured him that I will not do him any harm and, only then, he let me touch his arm,” says Pradhan, consultant orthopedic surgeon at Sancheti Hospital.
It is an everyday scene that has been playing out in various forms across Pune as masks leave a mark on public behaviour. In a city, whose residents speak a number of languages and originate from different corners of the country, communication has depended on a combination of words, facial expressions and gestures. The pandemic has disrupted these traditional modes of social conduct.
Today, speech-and-hearing-impaired people or those who cannot hear well find themselves looking at a shopkeeper’s lips to figure out what he is saying and failing. Colleagues find themselves leaning too close or unconsciously lowering their masks in a bid to communicate better during meetings. A vegetable vendor, who services several buildings of Hinjewadi, says that he struggles to decipher what clients want even as his own handkerchief mask makes breathing difficult. Pradhan has had children and elderly people gazing uncomprehendingly at the spectacles, mask and face shield covering his face.
“Masks have benefits and disadvantages. The benefits are obvious — from the data we have come across, it seems that masks and personal protection are all that help keep us safe. As long as the pandemic lasts, we do not have a choice. On the flip side, masks have caused a tough barrier for people. The kind of connect that I had with my patients is lost. The first thing I find it difficult to communicate is any emotion, especially a smile. When you see a patient, such as a small child, the first thing you would like to do is smile and then ask what is wrong. Now, they cannot see my face clearly so I have to emote with my eyes. I have to talk more and repeat sentences more, especially when I am also covered by a shield. If I am seeing 50 patients per day, there is quite a bit of loud talking I am doing throughout the day. Most days, I end up with a headache,” he says.
India has been one of the most proactive countries in enforcing the use of masks and social distancing in public places. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other heads of government appear masked in public. Globally, more than 50 countries have mandated the use of masks as a way of safeguarding oneself and others from the coronavirus. What is less documented is that masks have disrupted a primal way of human behaviour and forced modern society to negotiate the new normal in communication.
Shruti Tambe, head of the Department of Sociology, Centre for Advanced Studies, Savitribai Phule Pune University, says that “talking” is not always verbal — “they are non-verbal also”.
During the pandemic, Tambe has observed that “people have become very artificial with each other and the spontaneity of social interaction has become impacted.
“Non-verbal communication is of several kinds, such as a smile, nodding through your eyes… you show approval or disapproval..We use hands a lot in our daily communication. People move their necks in many ways to signal many things. Today, you have to guess a smile as you cannot see it clearly, but the eyes hint that the person is smiling. You focus on the lip area and try to understand what a person is saying or if the person is smiling. All facial expression still continues, but behind a mask. Unfortunately, I have seen groups of people trying to compensate for the barrier of masks through other means, such as gathering too close,” she adds.
Tambe adds that, from primitive societies to now, there have been occasions and reasons when people have worn masks to either discourage communication with one another or stop communication for reasons such as ritual purity.
She believes that masks were not as big an evil as other terms that gained currency during the pandemic, such as “social distancing”. “The use of the term social distancing is unfortunate in a country with a history of untouchability and casteism. In Pune, we talk about Mahatma Phule, who opened the water tank of his house to ‘untouchables’ during a drought… Even today, in parts of the country, people are killed for violating the terms of untouchability. Given the history of inequities in India, I would prefer to use the term ‘physical distancing’,’ she says.
Among the most vulnerable is the community with speech and hearing impairment.
Manisha Dongre, principal of the Indian Red Cross Society’s School for Hearing Impaired Children, Camp, says that such people, especially children, are taught to lip read. “Now, there is a problem in communicating because the general public does not know sign language,” she says.
One of her students helps out in his parents’ tailoring shop and customers are coming in wearing masks. “When they say they want things in a certain way, the student tailor cannot understand a word and the customer also has no other way of communicating with him without taking off the mask,” she says. “It is very difficult,” she adds, “but it is a choice between falling ill and staying alive.”
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