By Purba Ray May. 04, 2022
Every summer, women in India have to contend with ball-scratching, banyan-wearing men either telling them what to wear or leering at them long enough to force them into covering every inch of their burning skin. The body politics of this latest heatwave is a burden only women will be made to carry.
This year’s summer and its dreaded heatwaves crash-landed on us in spring itself. If there’s anything worse than yet another wave of Covid infections, it is summer in north India. It is as brutal as Ashneer Grover was in Shark Tank India. You step out to winds so hot, so dry, they air-fry you into crispy perfection – not the sweaty six-pack version mind you, more of the bloated, gassy kind. Our homes turn into tandoors, and the only reprieve is standing in front of the refrigerator or under the shower. We turn into limp lettuce and leave patches of sweat everywhere like dogs marking their territory. Our sweat-soaked clothes can give ‘Mandakini under the waterfall’ a complex. But even the oppression of a season that is felt the same by everyone, women suffer far more than men.
Even the oppression of a season that is felt the same by everyone, women suffer far more than men.
There is no feeling that compares these days with that of coming home, and finally peeling your sweat-soaked garments off, to spend the rest of your day in your airiest, worn-out ganji. Imagine my despair when I found myself robbed of even this small mercy. A few weeks back I got the bright idea of getting our apartment re-done. A little bit of insanity is always worth the house that I imagine will be on the next cover of Architectural Digest.
I am perfectly okay that my house now resembles a bus station. After all, it was me who had signed up for this chaos, dust, noise and the platoon of workmen who land up every day to turn my life upside down. But what I had not bargained for is that male gaze I have to put up with regardless of what I wear. Within just two days of surreptitious glances thrown my way by the all-male work crew, my shorts had lengthened to pyjamas, singlets to kurtas and my mood to a constant state of angst. Even though I live in a fairly liberal household, it told me that most women in India have it far worse.
A man’s gaze has to be mankind’s most potent superpower. It can reduce the most accomplished of women to a pair of boobs and legs.
A man’s gaze has to be mankind’s most potent superpower. It can reduce the most accomplished of women to a pair of boobs and legs. It can flatten a woman’s self-esteem faster than a presentation flattens the enthusiasm of a team that believes samosas and hot tea are on the way. It has the rare ability of being condescending, disapproving and leering at the same time. It only makes things worse that men on the other hand can scratch their balls in public anytime or wear boxer shorts to gatherings with their manhoods every now and then gracing us with their presence.
The heatwave can make our souls leave our body but it can’t make an Indian man give a woman the mercy of her space and privacy. Also, spare us the contradiction that most Indian men would ogle other women, but want their own wives and sisters to be dressed in PPE kits every time they walk out into public. It’s bizarre but suits them well because while the proud Indian male struts around in their kachhas, scratching their hairy bellies, the women in his house have to mummify themselves in layers of clothing as they manoeuvre through household chores and errands. When they are feeling a little risqué, they take off their saree ka palla to fan themselves while stewing in the kitchen heat. Even this moment of vulnerability has been sexualised by cinema as some kind of invitation to be ogled.
I’d like to know which Ma ka beta gave men the right to police our bodies, when it is the filth in their minds that defiles our anatomy.
A few months back, when I offered my help a few sleeveless kurtas, she looked sheepish and said ‘my husband will break my legs if I wear this.’ I’d like to know which Ma ka beta gave men the right to police our bodies, when it is the filth in their minds that defiles our anatomy. And yet we are forced to sweat in kurtas that dare not be diaphanous, shirts that must not show cleavage and thick tights because our bodies are so explosive, they can deprive men of their senses. And even this sweat that is mostly a man’s debt we take upon ourselves to pay, has to smell rosy, because how dare a woman not look, seem and smell her absolute best. Every night ought to feel like a honeymoon, right?
Even as a woman of privilege who can wear what she wants to (mostly), I cannot do away with lecherous gazes when I pick a loose cotton dress that shows a hint of my cleavage. The last time I wore one I was taking my mom to the hospital and heard a lecture from her in return. Possibly, because worse has happened to her. Maybe we should take a cue from the nightie brigade. Notions of femininity, or form are practically erased by women who slip into this tent-like garment that confuses the hell out of those who judge us for the amount of skin we show. Is it a dress? Is it a maxi? Is it a kurta? Does she really have boobs snuggling inside? It’s an abomination really that women have to hide themselves in weather that is just as unforgiving for them as it is to the ball-scratching, ass-crack-investigating men who let their genitals hang freely in the balmy loo of the North-Indian summer.
Nearly funny, almost liberal, rarely serious, Purba likes to keep a safe distance from perfection. Unfortunately she has an opinion on everything, fact or fiction, beginnings or ends, light or heavy, long and short.