I remember an exchange with a stranger in 2019 when I was on my way to a gathering during the anti-CAA and anti-NRC protests. I was rushing to one held at the north campus of Delhi University alongside other university students scattered on the streets, armed with various sign-boards and slogans. I boarded the Delhi metro to notice that amongst the crowd, there sat a guy alone in an empty row of red seats. They were visibly queer and surrounded by the most fierce-looking posters; I decided to sit beside them. I looked around, analysing the crowd—God knows how my social anxiety kicks in—and pulled out a small make-up bag.
A cheap, red blush stained my cheekbones, and brown lipstick adorned my lips (just a touch, not much). I flipped open my compact mirror to see whether I looked presentable. At that very moment, I noticed them turning around.
‘Hey, can I use your eyeliner?I picked it out in a heartbeat and passed it to them. Mean-while, they, too, looked at themselves in their phone’s front camera, struggling with the moving metro and the black pen.
‘Wait, I’ll help you with it’; I held their chin lightly with my left hand and the eyeliner pen in the right. In an attempt to draw a wing precisely, I moved closer to their face and got it right on the second try. ‘Done’, I exclaimed, and they approved.
It was a moment–two people from the community, visibly feminine with brightly-painted posters reading ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ and many revolutionary slogans written in Hindi, sat alongside in the Delhi metro, busy touching up their make-up. When we got done, we looked around and saw a few people staring. Some giggling, others trying to look nonchalant. The metro was relatively empty, but we couldn’t escape the homophobic stares.
’Thanks, babe,’ they said the moment we got out of the metro. I felt a light peck on my cheeks and saw them sprinting away in the opposite direction. I think about that day more often than I should.
The consequences were severe when I first picked up lip-stick at age seven. My bruised neck was twice as dark as my stained lips, and scarlet red liquid dripped down my nose. I could hear mother mumbling something under her breath. Enraged, her face red. From that day onwards, I flinched every time I walked past her dressing table, not daring to even look at the womanly paraphernalia scattered around the mirror.
Twelve years later, I picked up a lipstick again–a sultry brow M.A.C bought online at a massive discount. This time, I did not flinch. I was away from home, and this time it shouldn’t lead to any problems. I walked into my bathroom, locked it from the inside and swiped the stick across my lips.
‘You look pretty’, I smiled and said to myself.
Now that I am in my early ‘20s, it blows my mind how the structures of patriarchy are so fragile that they convulse at the slightest hint of people breaking away from heteronormativity. It takes just one stroke of lipstick for society to descend into chaos. My first experience with make-up was my cue for my long fight against patriarchy and the convention-al notions of masculinity.
There are many people close to my heart, but I know I can never forget that stranger in the metro. And the kind Sephora employee who held my hand and taught me the ABCs of make-up, that high school friend who shared her lip tint with me in a heartbeat, the batchmate who pointed out I forgot to apply kohl in one eye and held out her mirror on the streets, that one YouTuber whom I continue to watch to see hacks on make-up. And most importantly, my community that just refuses to obey the unwritten gendered dissimilarities that continue to make our lives difficult because of our self-expression.
The brown M.A.C. continues to be a staple in my bag. There are days when I apply it religiously in my tiny room, my safe space, dreaming of a utopia where I can do it freely, without a second thought. It is a living reminder of how I picked it up as my weapon alongside literature to fight for my identity—just a tiny lipstick. For me, though, my lipstick is mightier than a sword.