Sunday, September 09, 2007

Return of the Original Chauvinist

Chupulu. Stares. When I first read this poem as a part of the prescribed texts for my paper on Indian Writing, it didn't sound spectacular or even forceful. Among the more illustrius names like Kamala Suriya (erstwhile Das) and A.K Ramanujam, this comparitively little known Telugu poet talking about the offensive stares she fights every day, seemed just ordinary.

Not now. It's been a month that I moved to Hyderabad (Secunderabad, if you are a sucker for details). I now understand, perfectly, what that poem was all about. Now that I've walked on the streets, and travelled on the buses of Hyderabad, I know what it is to be stared at, rather, stared down at. "Being stripped with your eyes" is not a hyperbole anymore.

Hyderabad is considered one of the safest cities in India. It really is. My seniors tell me that they can go out partying, can return drunk at insane hours in the night, and not fear a thing. I've not heard horror stories of molestation, of people trying to feel you up in a crowded bus. They just stare. A stare that is much more than just lecherous. Girls here, need to learn to be demure. Or be just the responsible working homemaker types-who wake up at crack of the dawn, prepare breakfast and lunch for the entire household, runs to office, finishes her respectable 9-6 job, comes back to cook and clean some more. And at the end of the month, dutifully give their salary to their husband/father.

A bunch of girls going for a movie, in a non-multiplex: not good. A bunch of girls going out for lunch, and actually ORDERING their food, even with guys sitting with them: bad. Two girls going alone to pick up another at Secunderabad railway station, and THEN refusing a coolie, and carrying the luggage between them instead: BLASPHEMY.

It's not criminal. To stare. It's annoying, to be stared at. And it makes your blood boil. Chauvinism at its best. "Women are better of two steps away from the stove" attitude. The worst is, there is little you can do to fight, except stare back. Afterall, you cannot put a person in jail for just looking.

And it is not just the men. Women are equally bad. No their stares are not lecherous, but more accusatory, "the don't-you-know-your-proper-place" kind of look. I have not made up my mind about which is worse.

Me and Vidi were on our way to Hi-tech city. I had no change with me for the bus, so at the Secunderabad bus station we walked into the magazine shop. There was a lady at the counter, and a man who I presumed was her husband, standing on the other side of the counter. I asked for Reader's Digest, she looked at the man, who shakes his head. "Reader's Digest nahi hai ma" she says. "The Week"? Look, head shakes, a negetive. "India Today?" Same drill. Exasperated, I looked at the man directly and asked, "Outlook hai kya?" He offers Outlook Money, which I didn't want. So our enterprising business woman offers, "Femina, Women's Era, Graha Shobha saab hai, woh kuch lejao!"
I just blinked. And shook my head in exasperation and walked away with Vidi giving me cheeky "why-are-you-surprised" look. And their stares followed us all the way.