I’m an Indian woman in her mid-forties, single, childless, jobless, who dresses like an uncool teenager, wraps presents in newspaper, drinks, smokes, occasionally pops into a bar or a movie theatre alone, drives around in the middle of the night, has no ambition, dances tango, has taken to the guitar, is a commitment-phobe and an atheist, and says no a lot. For many people, if there’s a box that this fits into, it’s got a big “Handle with care” sign painted on it. People do.
At a nearby petrol station, there’s a mechanic who’s been topping up my car and checking my tyre pressure since I was twenty-six years old. The first time I ever took my car in for servicing, I jumped down into the filthy pit after him to look up the skirt of my car. To this day, when I pull into the station, this mechanic asks, “You’re here on holiday?” It’s no use telling him, for the ten-thousandth time, that I live in Delhi, right around the corner: he decided, eighteen years ago, that I either am not Indian or live abroad. He believes this with unshakable resolve.
India is a famously complicated place. For women, it’s doubly complicated—we live with staggering mainstream sexism and both casual and egregious violence at every level of the power pyramid. You can choose not to conform, but only if you’re willing to negotiate the crass misogyny and judgement that will come your way, and to risk your physical safety. Driving at night, you might be followed by a car filled with men who try to run you off the road. Walking down the street, you might find people staring and breaking into song, or groping you. People will try to make you aware of your shameful oddness in thousands of little ways.
India’s goddesses are fearsome, beautiful, bare-breasted power-houses who make and break universes. They hold weapons in their many hands, and represent power. India’s flesh-and-blood women have vaginas, which make them the very fountainhead of shame. This country worships phalluses, but women are raised to believe in their own shamefulness, and taught that female modesty protects the whole world’s honour. There are degrees, of course—perhaps you’re a rural woman who allowed an unrelated man to see her face uncovered, or you’re a city slicker showing too much cleavage—but shame is the monkey on your back, and when it shows up, it imperils your whole family’s reputation. It’s been a long historical fall from the erotic celebration of Khajuraho to the prudery of today.
I appear not to have come preloaded with shame. My parents had more of it; they were raised in boarding schools by Irish nuns and Jesuit priests, but they were also great readers, well educated and forward thinking. They didn’t make a big deal of shame while we lived outside of India. I did ten formative years of growing up in Switzerland and Indonesia, blissfully unaware of the shit-storm that a bare leg or a public kiss could elicit. When we were home on vacation I had spectacular fights with my parents over things like wearing shorts or going out for a late coffee with a man I had only just met, but they argued for my safety, not against shame. I wore shorts anyway, and I went out for coffee anyway.
There was just one time in my teenage years that I confronted their socialisation—my father walked in on my boyfriend and me necking, and exploded: “This is not a flophouse!”
I remember being not ashamed of myself but shocked that he was calling me a hooker by implication. I yelled at him about it later and got a remorseful apology. I never heard anything like that from him again, whatever his opinions may have been.
I moved back to Delhi after college, living alone in my parents’ house while they were abroad. I chose to not choose shame, or the crappy words that come with it—loose, bold, fast, immodest, forward, slut, whore. A neighbour once leaned out of his window, wearing a singlet, and called across to the balcony where I was having a late-night smoke with a male friend: “You shouldn’t do all these wrong things.”
You could point to many things about my life that aren’t terribly orthodox, but the bottomline is I’m not squeamish about bodies. They sweat, bleed, excrete and get horny. This is, first and foremost, what it means to be human, as much as appreciating opera and writing philosophical treatises. Bodily truth is the frontline of existence in the world. I’m given to potty talk, menstruation talk and sex talk. I use my vagina the way I want to, and I am not ashamed of being a sexual being.
How do you go about being like this in a society that bleeps the word “arse” out of TV shows?
I discovered very early that eight times out of ten, doing the unexpected (or not doing the expected) deliberately, calmly and normally can calm and normalise the situation. Twenty years ago, the first time I walked into the local hole-in-the-wall liquor store, which is also stuffed groin-to-butt exclusively with men, you could hear a pin drop. I made my way in, making eye contact, smiling and saying excuse me, and they shifted scrupulously aside. They stared, but they were courteous.
When you don’t fit in, people are much more likely to assume that you don’t belong and don’t know any better than that you need to be taken down a peg or two. When they know that you do belong, they are very much more uncertain about how to treat you. Uncertainty has two positive points: it is not objectionable; and it makes people hesitate, a breach which you can nimbly fill with deliberate calm and normalcy. When you choose calmness and normalcy, you are often choosing it for the other person too, who didn’t know which way to go.
The columns I write for a national newspaper range in subject matter from the conceptual and political to the wildly personal, and they reflect my life as much as my thoughts. I’ve talked about a chequered love life, about not being built for marriage, about not wanting children. As much as I’ve received appreciation, I’ve also received reader mail like, “I think you are insane… For god’s sake, stop your corrupting writings in a responsible newspaper.”
Unhinged Hindu fundamentalist keyboard warriors cry “Prostitute!” at the drop of a hat, but usually only when a column criticises the government. Men sometimes write to say that they’re fans; those emails are filled with a kind of benign, intense curiosity—“How does your life work?” “What sort of creature are you?” “Do you think we could get a drink sometime?”—forgetting, I guess, that people you like in print are usually disappointing in the flesh.
But most of the people who bother to write say something that boils down to “Exactly!” and “Me too!” (I think there’s a square peg, round hole cohort out there.) Inexplicably, one notable slice of mail comes from readers asking me for a job, or some vaguely worded “guidance”. I’m constantly writing about how financially and professionally clueless I am, so that always cracks me up.
I left my brief marriage, to an absolutely lovely man, for no good reason other than I’m not built for marriage, which, if you ask me, is a very good reason. I knew that before we got married, and told him so. He said that it would just be easier on everyone than if we lived together. I said that if I got restless or unhappy I would leave. He said we’d cross that bridge when we came to it.
When the time came, he said, “Well, you always said that this might happen, and I will support whatever decision you take.” That makes him a jewel among men, particularly Indian men.
Leaving a jewel of a man is not the sort of thing you do lightly. In a society that is pathologically devoted to marriage, and hates free-range vaginas, you can expect shock and horror. Oddly, other than a few close friends who urged me to think about it, nobody said a single word to me, though I know people talked about it a lot. That’s the upside of living in a liberal elite cocoon in which people are too polite to bring up your separation, but love to speculate behind your back about whether maybe you’re a lesbo. After we split, my ex-husband used to take special pleasure in making sure we arrived simultaneously at a party, just to confuse the crap out of everyone.
Excerpted with permission from Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories, edited by Catriona Mitchell, HarperCollins India.