The masks of monsters

-By Zain Merchant

“You what?” she asks, incredulously. She is dressed in a lovely pink summer dress that falls with grace along her body hugging every curve and contour as the two seem destined for one another. The soft shade of pink lipstick on her lips is driving me mad and I love it when her face shows this look of pouty surprise at my actions. Sometimes I do them just for that reaction.

“Why is it a big deal?” I ask adding coal to the fire. I reach for the biscotti left uneaten lying on her saucer next to her coffee.

“12000 dollars for a mask Ravi. Asking me what’s the big deal. It’s a fucking mask that you will hang on a fucking wall. Look at it. It’s ugly. God! You’ve gone mental.”

“Its old and rare babba. Let me explain the significance of the mask and then maybe you will understand the reason I paid this exorbitant sum as you call it for this hideous piece of invaluable art.”

“Fuck art. It’s simple, okay. I like things that look great. I like things that are pretty. I like colorful things that can hold a room’s aesthetic together while being pleasing to the eye. This is a what. Aah… buba mask or whatever…” “Onibaba. It’s from Japanese myth and fables dating back to centuries of old wives tales and is a huge part of Japanese culture sweetheart.” “Hah, culture he goes on about. Japanese too. Look in a fucking mirror once in a while baby, you’re about as Japanese as I am a giraffe. Look at it man. Its just bland tones of green and mud colored brown and a scary face with horns coming out of it. What room on this earth would this mask look good in? It is hideous. Why would you buy it?”

I take a sip of my coffee enjoying the angry rant from my love. She is being playful too. I know the mask mesmerizes her; she hasn’t let go of it. Its just the rational of societal indoctrination that is making her asks these questions. When did we become purveyors of practical living?

“Now will you let me speak or do you want to give me some more grief?” she guffaws playfully and I beckon for the mask.

“You see this mask represents a demon or monster made popular in Japanese culture through a myriad of ‘Noh’ plays and fables told to children. The mask called Onibaba represents a demon that resembles an old frail woman in body who devours human flesh. This particular piece in its bland green and muddy brown and obscene horns was crafted by hand in the early 19th a theatre group that performed ‘Noh’ plays with said theme of demons and such. Its pricey cause it’s old. Its pricey cause its rare. And its pricey cause it represents a history and culture of a time long gone in a place where culture and tradition was very important. I look at it and see beauty where you see obscenity. I see art and culture and you see something that won’t accentuate your brown sofa and crème décor walls. Well, is it the aesthetic of this mask that is eschewed or is it your mental aesthetic that wants pretty for pretty’s sake my dear. “ I beam as I gaze at the mask. Its heavy and I cherish its feel on my hands. She looks pouty and mad. She doesn’t like being educated like a schoolgirl. Who would? I hand it back to her knowing full well that she could just throw it to the floor in a fit of rage. I trust her. Her tense face relaxes as begrudgingly she accepts my points.

“It’s still ugly and gross.” She marks. “And being rare and cultural doesn’t make it any prettier to me.”

“And a diamond is a plain transparent crystal that gets its mirth from the reflection of light and nothing else. And yet the light is free, the bloody diamond isn’t.” I retort. And then continue.

“Do you know what chasing the dragon is?” She nods in the negative.

“It is a turn of phrase, Asian again in origin, Chinese I believe, popularly referred in conjunction with smoking opium or some such narcotic product of similar effect. It is the constant state of burning or keeping the foil heated and preventing the narcotic from coagulating and thus becoming useless to smoke. However, it’s also become a phrase common in suggesting the pursuit of obsession or chasing the ultimate high.”

“What does that have to do with this?”

“Well, mainly cause my pursuit for cultural growth is akin to this very phrase. Why I ask you must we broaden our horizons when we can live on the bare necessities of life. As you said, a pink vase from a corner store that mass-produces it might look better than this. Or any such artifact. Being old doesn’t make it prettier. Than why would I chase it down, pay a large sum of money to own this mask that honestly represents only evil and demonic things. But it isn’t just that and you must open your mind a bit more and see the merits of this purchase. This mask was created from old wood, and it’s painted with regular paint, possibly even cheap paint. It’s old and feeble and needs delicacy in handling. But it’s unique. It served a purpose and has a meaning within the culture it was created in. it shows the evil within man and the capacity for harm we possess. I mean isn’t a mask just a façade for us to hide behind. But this demonic mask actually represents the opposite. The face is the mask and the evil as is seen in this mask is what we hide behind plain faces. How can you not appreciate this notion and not want to learn and keep finding out about the world and the ways that different cultures work. It was never meant to be ornamental. But to grow and learn about our past and to understand and appreciate different cultures in my opinion is the ultimate high. This is my dragon. I may not be Japanese but I can learn about their culture and appreciate this magnificent mask representing a demon for its representation in culture and history. “ I end with a sip of my now tepid and bitter drink.

There is silence for a few moments. Then she laughs at me and teases me for my pretentions as she calls it. We share another coffee and flirt mischievously with each other. Then I return home to my wife and children. I leave the mask in her care. Hoping she finds a wall for it.

Nityaasha Foundation