The Gaze of the Indian

I would say I live a pretty typical  23 year old single Indian women’s life here in Chennai. I go to work, do some grocery shopping on the way home,  watch tamil movies in my little living room while drinking copius amounts of tea and listning to my roomates complain about their work and families, or talk about the men they hope their parents will marry them off to. Sometimes we go down to the beach at night, when it is getting dark and there is a cool breeze. Then the beach comes alive with acrobats and vendors and people doing the craziest things and we stroll along, drinking mango juice,eating chaat and watching the sun set behind the clear blue sea ( actually I lie, the sea is pretty dirty and the sun usually sets behind a haze of smoke and pollution but that doesn’t sound quite as romantic).  I don’t really party, hardly drink and am home usually by my 9.30 curfew.

However last weekend I sort of snapped. I wanted an original nontraditional Indian experience. So I went out. Both nights. I went to a club where an Indian band was playing covers of Rage against the Machine and Korn. I stayed out way past my curfew talking to French expats, eating gruyere and drinking pastis. I went to a tourist hotspot with a friend to go surfing, a male friend at that and stayed up drinking lukewarm beer and singing Pink Floyd covers with a group of drunk Indians and Russians.

So Sunday found me  sitting on a cheap red surfboard, my legs dangiling lazily in the bay of Bengal, scanning the horizon for a wave big enough to propel me towards the sandy shore.  Even at 8am in the morning it felt like it was already 35 degrees out. Sitting there,in the middle of the bay, my wet tshirt clinging to my back,my face getting redder by the minute, my head pounding from a long night and a beer too many I was doing prehaps the three most unorthodox things a women in India could do. I was swimming, engaged in strenuous physical activity that requires a fair amount of strength and I was wearing shorts.It felt AMAZING.

“We seem to have a fan club already” my new friend Arne yells at me from 30 feet away. I look towards the outcrop that supports a 14th century temple ( and conveniently provides a small point break that we arsurfing on) and see a row of maybe 50 school children, probably on a field trip, their faces pressed up against the mesh, their fingers gripping the wire, watching us intently. I turn and wave and as if on cue the blue and white checkered line erupts in a burst of waving and giggling and yelling.

I love that I am a constant source of amusement for children in India. Everytime I come across a group of more than 5 school children I will always hear the ubiquous “Hello, what is your good name?” from the most daring child, the rest giggling uncontrollably, hiding their shy smiles behind their hands. In cars as soon as they spot me they wave furiously, smiling through then gaps in their teeth. It is impossible to resist such genuine cuteness. The men on the other hand I could do without. They seem content to just sit and stare at me, not actually aknowledging my existance, just staring.

I now realize more fully the tension that is felt by most western women when coming to India. You ask them about the most annoying thing in India ( and as much as I love India there are a fair number of annoyances) and the majority will probably list the never ending staring in their list. Men will stare at you when you walk, when you talk, when you stand, when you sit, when you pick your nose. Especially when you pick your nose.

When my sister and I were young and travelling in India we used to make a game out of it. Whenever we would find someone staring at us we would pull the most hideous face we could, stick our tongues out, cross our eyes and blow up our cheeks. It was hilarious to say the least. We would kill ourselves laughing and the men would look away confused and and bewildered. At least, however, we got some kind of a reaction.

I feel I have already resigned myself to the fact that the men here will just always stare and the best thing to do is ignore it. However, the unorthodox white chick attempting to stand on a large over-sized board while being propelled towards the shore seems to be almost too much for their otherwise inert gawking. Do remember that this is a country where the majority of grown men still use swim rings when swimming in deep pools and the most strenuous thing a women can engage in is table tennis.As I am once again tumbled, head over heals into the frothy foam beneath me I chance a glance at my unsolicited fan group and swear I see a smile or two. Maybe I underestimate them and they stare, not because they are rude, creepy men but because with all the cultural, social and linguistic errors I assume I commit 90% of the time I am a potential source of constant amusement.

I personally think the anxiety that many women, myself included, feel is based upon being constantly under the “gaze of the other”. Here I would evoke the feminist theorists that argue that the constant male gaze makes us aware of being objectified and thus aware of our own selves as an object and not just a subject. It makes us aware that the Gaze of the Other con-constitutes our own facticity and this takes away from our control, messes with our worldview and our ego.  But there I stop. If I can’t stop being objectified, at least I can have a choice over the type of object.

So maybe I should start practising those faces, who knows, maybe next time I might even get them to laugh.

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