The release of Indian Air Force Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman from Pakistan has likely reduced the odds of war between the two nuclear powers, but never mind that – Varthaman’s mustache is the real hero of the story.
The pilot of a downed IAF MiG-21 was returned to India on Friday in “a peace gesture” by Pakistan, as the two countries teetered on the brink of all-out war over Kashmir. In addition to a hero’s welcome, Varthaman sparked a conversation about his fierce facial hair.
“Abhinandan Varthaman’s Gunslinger: Tamil moustache all of India wants,” declared a headline in India Today, describing it as “beautifully crafted in a manner that ensures that neither his radiating smile, nor his proud face gets covered with it.”
Much of Twitter was likewise impressed.
The wing commander – IAF rank equivalent to a lieutenant colonel in the army – comes from a family of pilots. His father, retired Air Marshal Simhakutty Varthaman, also flew the MiG-21 when it was first introduced.
Varthaman’s facial hair originally caused some to declare that his capture by Pakistan was fake news, due to the conviction that IAF pilots are not allowed facial hair. While it is true that the IAF forbids beards – with the exception of Sikhs, who do not shave or cut their hair for religious reasons – the air branch does allow mustache.
In India, however, facial hair is a cultural marker. In some rural areas – such as the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where Varthaman is from – adult married men expected to have a mustache, while beards are reserved for grandparents, for example.
Military and civilian pilots around the world face restrictions on facial hair motivated primarily by the need for proper fit of oxygen masks. A 2018 Canadian study showed that a clean shave is not necessary for a proper mask fit, but the findings have not yet influenced widespread policy change.
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