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Sumana Roy
Free Verse

What’s in a nose? Place, time, history

Uderzo’s depiction of Cleopatra’s nose in Asterix and Cleopatra

oochki' is a nickname often given to Bengali girls. It derives from 'bocha', a flat nose. Since nicknames are characterised by their onomatopoeia and political incorrectness, both coming in indifferent liberal doses, it didn't really matter whether your parents reminded you of your flat nose every time they called you to the dinner table. For how much does a nose really say about us?

A few weeks ago, reading Aruni Kashyap's poem, 1947: Jawaharlal Nehru Visits Assam, I got nosey about the nose. As is apparent from the title, the poem chronicles the first Indian Prime Minister's visit to Assam. Descriptions come thick: 'the crowd swelled, dust flew in the air, like shredded silk-cotton in windy February-noons', 'housewives were excited like sparrows', all to see Pandit Nehru.

Grandma's mother-in-law described his long nose, wondering
aloud if he could smell flowers blooming in distant hills
sweat grime dust darkened-underarms.

This is the first mention of Nehru's 'long nose'. As we read on, about the difficulty of getting in, of a young girl vomiting at the entrance, the security looking on, and the girl's mother slapping her 'on the right cheek, on the/ left cheek for spoiling her silk dress', the nose arrives again: 'her opportunity to see the long-nosed Godlike man'. The 'long nose' is mentioned thrice in this 31-line poem.

Many of them could see only his long nose,
while almost everyone saw his cap:

For those of us who grew up with R. K. Laxman's cartoon of Indira Gandhi, knowing her aquiline nose to be a synecdoche for her politics as it were, this rhetoric of the part-for-the-whole with which Kashyap represents Nehru, the nose standing for the Indian Centre, should not really come as a surprise. Also, before 'Chinky' became the mainland's metonymy for the North-Easterner, it was the 'flat nose' that would inevitably be used as a visual marker. The 'Mongoloid', I remember many saying, a classmate even asking our Biology teacher in school whether Arup Das, our friend from Assam, had difficulty breathing because of his flat nose. It is of this politics of the nose that the Assamese poet Nitoo Das writes about in My Face: II. 'My nose/part grandmother's ridge/and two parts/father's nostrils/is the hanged man that plays/footsie with my fool-mouth.'

Nehru's 'long nose', in my reading, was part of the same trajectory that has mythicised Cleopatra's nose, or how the equivalence of the long nose with a high station exists in social discourse, as in Hilaire Belloc's poem, Ballade of Modest Confession, that has these lines:

Prince! do not let your Nose, your royal Nose,
Your large imperial Nose get out of Joint.

There must be something about Nehru's 'royal nose' that draws in the crowds. Is that why it is the poor maid in the child rhyme, 'Sing a song of sixpence', who has to lose her nose?  Remember this?

The maid was in the garden
Hanging out the clothes.
Along came a blackbird
And snipped off her nose.

nd there is, of course, Surpanakha, who has her nose cut off by an ill-behaved Aryan prince. Naak katwa di, as we know, is a popular idiom where the nose stands in for honour.

Whether it is the Assamese writer Kashyap marking Nehru's nose, or Surpanakha in the epic, the nose becomes a poetic trope for othering. This is also seen in the depiction of the Jew, not only in Shakespeare or Marlowe, but as recently as in the film American History X (1998) where a Jew is derided with these words: 'I will f***ing cut your Shylock nose off and stick it up your a** before I let that happen!'. In both the Ramayan and the American film, the nose is a stand-in for the genitals, and these obvious versions of castration.

There is something else in the Assamese writer's use of the nose trope. Intuitive affinities between literature from India's North-East and African American literature have often been remarked upon. The representation of the nose brought that home again, as in this quote from Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint: 'No, no, theirs are the noses whereof he speaks. Not his flat black one or my long bumpy one, but those tiny bridgeless wonders whose nostrils point northward automatically at birth'.

For years since its canonisation into the postgraduate literature syllabus, university students in India have been asked questions about the 'significance' of Saleem Sinai's nose in Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Sinai's face is contoured to resemble distinct areas of the Indian subcontinent; Baby Saleem's nose is 'monstrous; and it ran'. So the film director Deepa Mehta got the child actor Darsheel a prosthetic nose while Satya Bhabha was chosen to play the 'snot-nosed', 'cucumber-nosed' Sinai.

The ''je ne sais quoi', so small an object that we cannot recognise it, agitates a whole country, princes, armies, the entire world. Cleopatra's nose: had it been shorter, the whole aspect of the world would have been altered,' wrote Blaise Pascal. What might have been the history of the Indian subcontinent had Nehru's nose not been 'long'? These days, when I read about Indian actresses and rhinoplasty and other such desperate gestures at Indianisation, I wonder whether it is the Indian nation that actually needs a nose job.

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