I HAVE A clear memory of the buttons – large, translucent-white plastic – and the teacher’s fingers unbuttoning the first one. She was shouting: ‘I’m going to take off your clothes! I’m going to strip you naked in front of everyone!’
The child’s maroon tunic, with those big buttons down the middle, hung down to her ankles. In our little township school, parents often bought uniforms three or four sizes too large so they’d last.
The teacher’s brows were riven with her frown, her eyes wide, her voice transformed by rage. Her flushed face was level with the child’s. And the child was howling.
I’ve forgotten what I, a senior prefect, was doing there and what the child was being punished for. Perhaps she was in the wrong uniform; we wore white on Saturdays. At any rate, it was not unusual. The boys especially were often beaten or subjected to threats like: ‘I’ll take your pants off if you... (insert any act of disobedience here).’ Still, twenty years later, I remember that howling kid. She was not stripped after all. A promise was extracted that the mistake, whatever it was, would not be repeated. But I do remember wondering why the child was so afraid. She’s so little, I thought, she must be bathed and dressed by other people. Why does she care if her clothes are taken off?
But the child did care. At three or four years old, she was aware that the taking off of her clothes was an act of public humiliation. And she was howling out her terrified little heart.
I WENT TO college in Ajmer, a small town in the desert state of Rajasthan. There were sand dunes less than thirty kilometres away although I never saw them. I was in a strict convent college-hostel and was not allowed to step outside the campus. Not without written permission.
Permission was granted once a fortnight: three hours on a Sunday afternoon. Even so, you had to have an excuse ready in case the warden asked why you had to go. The staples were: ‘Visiting local guardian’; ‘Phone calls’; ‘Buying some things’; ‘Doctor visit’. We could not make calls (most of us didn’t have cell phones yet) though we could receive calls on the hostel phone. We were asked not to enter each other’s rooms (this rule was broken a lot). We were not permitted to talk after 9 pm. There were fixed times for bathing, studying, exercising, eating and sleeping. We were not allowed to lock our door from the inside. The warden could walk in at any time.
One evening, a Sister walked into the room of a batchmate while she was changing her dress. Sister left after making a gruff remark about ‘shameless girls’. Since we had no dressing rooms, there was no alternative to shamelessness. Our skins grew thick very quickly. A girl would say ‘shameless girls!’ in mock outrage, and we’d all respond with glee.
Yet, we were not shameless. Far from it. We grew up with a very private view of our bodies. I was not used to changing my clothes in front of other girls because, in our small township school, there were no facilities like lockers, gyms or pools. Moving to a hostel was a first step towards letting go of shame. But it was not a step I was ready to take.
Some of us who were extremely shy created a makeshift dressing area by stringing up a shawl, one end tied to the window frame and the other end looped around a nail on the wall. Some girls teased us for hiding behind the shawl-curtain, but even they clung to a token modesty. They never took off the upper and lower garment at the same time. First the T-shirt came off, then a clean T-shirt was pulled on, then the jeans slid off and pyjamas were pulled on. No girl took off her underwear in the room. None of us saw each other in a bikini. We still had no access to swimming pools, and the shower rooms were made of solid concrete with lockable doors.
One day, a bit of gossip was whispered from room to room – two girls had emerged together from a bathroom cubicle. Maybe it meant nothing. Maybe it did. We had to queue up for everything – to fill buckets, to get a bathroom, to use the toilet – and water was rationed strictly. If you didn’t wangle a turn fast enough, the tap would be locked up (a wooden box, a chain and a padlock). Sharing a bath could be a timesaving ploy. Or, it could be just fun. Two overgrown teens playing, splashing each other, forgetting they’ve sprouted breasts and pubic hair. After all, the two girls had been friends since kindergarten. Still, the girls did whisper and wonder: Were they nude? Did they at least keep on bras and panties? Except, we hardly ever used words like panties. UGs was what we said. A discreet acronym for an already discreet word: undergarments.
This discretion was not just verbal. Each room had a clotheshorse, for wet towels and underclothes that we handwashed, and it was kept in the corridor outside the rooms. On the rare occasion that a Father or Brother visited our hostel, we were warned to remove our UGs from the clothes horse. We grumbled. It was a hostel for girls! Why do they expect to avoid our UGs? But, of course, we removed them.
UGs were supposed to be kept out of sight at all times, everywhere. Not just in hostels, or in small towns like Ajmer. When I went to work in Delhi, I hired a domestic helper. I did my own laundry, drying it on a terrace clothesline. The helper took it upon herself to remove bras and panties from the line and hang them against a wall where the neighbours couldn’t see them. It annoyed me, but I was also moved. The poor woman wanted to ensure that I was seen as respectable. I already knew what UGs could do to a single woman’s respectability.
In the building where I lived before, I once overheard an argument between a young woman who lived next door and the man who lived across the landing. It started with her requesting him to turn down the television volume, but things quickly took an ugly turn. The man began to boast of his affiliation with an aggressive right-wing political party; then he accused my neighbour of being a certain type of woman and her ‘type’ was established by the fact that she hung out her clothes where everyone could see them. He said ‘clothes’ but he meant underclothes. He could not bring himself to use the word, though he could bring himself to suggest that he did not need to show my neighbour any respect.
UGs. Evidence that there is something underneath. Not a garment under a garment, but a body. Breasts. Buttocks. Vaginas. Things we are not supposed to acknowledge. Things that define us, but to remind the world of this fact marks us out as shameless.
Little wonder that many girls who graduated from our women’s college said that those three years were the best years of their lives. The strict environment offered freedoms they could not imagine outside. The freedom to wear shorts without fear. The freedom to think and speak your mind among peers. The freedom to play, to pull off feats requiring strength and co-ordination, to grow callouses. The freedom to just be human.
We did not like to be reminded that we were women. It was, after all, not the same as being human.
AJMER IS A small town with a clutch of respectable schools, colleges and the tomb of a famous Sufi saint. In the 1990s, Ajmer was also infamous as the site of a sex scandal.
What was called a ‘scandal’ was really a series of crimes. Schoolgirls were either seduced or raped (it would have been statutory rape at the very least) by a group of young men, some of whom were related to the family that took care of the Ajmer Dargah, a shrine where renowned Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti was buried. That made it all the more scandalous. The men took ‘compromising’ photographs and the girls were blackmailed into silence, pressured into getting their friends involved. Rumours flew in all ten directions. Some people said dozens of girls from various schools were involved. Others said a handful of girls from one school. Most versions of the story mentioned ‘compromising’ photographs.
When I moved to Ajmer, the scent of scandal still hung heavy in the air. Embedded in the narrative was a warning: This is what happens to girls who go out to meet boys! I was seventeen, in many ways still a child. I had been so carefully shielded from sexual knowledge that I did not know the difference between rape and sex. I did not understand what drove those schoolgirls into such a mess. But I did know that the ‘compromise’ involved nudity. That’s the only way the blackmailers could succeed.
To be naked, even under duress, brought great shame. Shame enough for girls to kill themselves and to betray friends to a similar fate. When we discussed the scandal, we did not talk about the nakedness of the unfortunate girls. We did not swear that we would never betray each other. Who knew what we might do? I would probably have killed myself.
At seventeen, even at twenty-one, I did not know a single woman whose body was seen by strangers. I had only heard about a woman called Protima Bedi, a model and renowned classical dancer. In 1974, she was photographed ‘streaking’ in Bombay (it was called Bombay then) for a magazine. It was before I was even born but people were talking about it for years after. Photographs notwithstanding, to me, it wasn’t real. I could not imagine Protima Bedi breathing, eating or running like an ordinary Indian woman. Celebrities lived in a different world, after all. Their money shielded them from harm. They could afford to escape to different countries.
Now, in the internet age, when watching nude actors on screen is not uncommon, and when we’re in the grip of a pop culture that’s constantly selling images of near-naked women on billboards, even in the newspapers, it is easy to forget what the fuss was about. Ajmer, sex scandals, nude photos, warnings against boys. I ought to forget.
But there are fresh reminders of the power cameras wield over women’s bodies. Newspapers still report ‘wardrobe malfunctions’ on the ramp and celebrity ‘nip slips’. Ex-boyfriends still seek vengeance through exposing the nakedness of their former lovers. A young actor like Emma Watson is threatened with the leak of nude photos when she speaks of the need for feminism.
An odd threat: nude photos. As if her own body was evidence against her. The men who threaten Emma Watson are no different from the blackmailers who took ‘compromising’ photos of those schoolgirls. It is wise to remember this. Shame is not something that happens only to girls who go out to meet boys.
LAST SUMMER, IN the changing room at our local pool, I saw a child of about ten peeling off her wet underwear outside the shower cubicle. There was no mum or relative around. For a moment, I wondered if I should tell her to lock herself in before getting naked; the gym is right next door and all sorts of men hang around. Or whether I should tell her that she must not strip in front of strangers, not even women. Then, another memory floated up the surface.
In that remote girls’ school in Rajasthan, a few of us had gotten into the habit of peeing without locking ourselves into separate toilets. I have a vague sense that we started this because we were afraid of the ghorpad, the monitor lizard. A huge ghorpad had been discovered near the toilet and none of us wanted to find ourselves locked in a loo with one of those creatures.
We usually went in twos, squatting at the threshold of the toilet, aiming our separate streams towards separate holes in the ground. Perhaps it was also a carryover from picnics and field trips when we could pee together in the great outdoors. Perhaps we were looking for a way to bond, as boys do. We were pre-teen, young enough to think peeing together was fun, but not so young that we wanted to look at each other. We learnt to pee in lady-like fashion, holding our uniform tunic around our hips like a curtain.
The habit remained even when I got over the ghorpad scare and started going to the toilet alone. It ended the day a teacher walked in while I was peeing. I had not locked the door. The teacher brought this up in front of the whole class. She asked if I felt no shame. She said nothing about hygiene or about keeping toilet floors clean and dry. She spoke only of shame, and why didn’t I lock the door?
Two decades later, in the changing room at the pool, I felt the full burden of it – shame demands transference in order to be meaningful. I stood, hesitating. The last thing I wanted was to make a little girl feel ashamed of her body. Nor did I want to tell her about why she must lock doors. I said nothing. I waited until the child had left, then I locked the door to change into my swimming costume.
AT A WRITERS’ residency last year, mealtime conversations spanned international politics, culture, fish, salad, religion, war. One day, talk turned to nudity and children.
A Swedish writer said that nudity was not scandalous in Scandinavia. It was not unusual in his generation for parents and children to see each other naked, though it was no longer common for his children’s generation.
I thought about that for months. That nudity is shameful, even at home, is drilled into middle-class India quite early in life. A toddler running about the house naked is told: ‘Haw! Shame-shame!’ In many households, a child’s private parts are referred to as ‘shame-shame’. Even in my imagination, I cannot conjure up a comfortably naked family.
What would it be like if we were familiar with family bodies? Beloved bodies, bodies that we would die to protect. Female members of the family are rarely seen even in swimsuits. We see their bodies either as toddlers or when they’re gravely ill. Some of us see a mother or grandmother naked only after she dies. Even that is granted only to daughters or nieces who choose to help prepare the body for the final rites. For many sons, a mother remains a body with a loving soul wrapped in layers of fabric.
A few months ago, I met a photographer friend. Talk turned to cities. He said he didn’t like the capital city. Delhi’s work culture, he said, was such that people always seemed to be taking off each other’s pants. The Hindi phrase he used was pant utaarna, which refers to an attempt at pulling someone down. To undermine, to humiliate. Chaddi utaarna is a similar phrase, where chaddi refers to underwear. It encapsulates our attitude to unclothing. To be stripped of your clothes is not just an assault on your dignity; it is also an attempt to show you up as powerless.
Throughout human history, clothing has been associated with power. The rich wore clothes that are hard to make at home – imported silk, expensive dye, velvet, designs that require endless innovation on the weaver’s loom, embroidery, lace, pearls sewn into slippers using gold and silver thread.
Conversely, powerful people also controlled clothing choices for the less powerful. In England, even in the post-Renaissance era, commoners were forbidden from wearing ‘royal’ colours such as purple and red. In India, as late as the nineteenth century, the south Indian state of Travancore (now Kerala) did not allow lower-caste women to wear an upper body cloth; their breasts had to remain exposed to upper castes. If they wanted to cover up, they had to pay a tax. Legend has it that around 1803, a woman called Nangeli chopped off her breasts in despair when she was unable to pay the tax collector.
People sold into slavery were often stripped. Prisoners in concentration camps in the Nazi era were stripped. From Abu Ghraib to Mumbai, prisoners who endured custodial torture and lived to tell the tale have reported that they were stripped naked by interrogators. Stripping is intended to make a person lose confidence. Before your captors violate or damage your body, they let you feel their power.
One of India’s most famous women, Phoolan Devi, was a dacoit (bandit) in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Her life was documented in the book India’s Bandit Queen: The True Story of Phoolan Devi (Rivers Oram Press, 1993), later made into a film. Phoolan surrendered to the state, served a prison sentence, fought an election, won, and was assassinated in 2001. One of the major crimes she had been convicted for – and which she ultimately paid for with her blood – was the killing of twenty-two upper-caste men. This was an act of revenge.
When Phoolan Devi turned dacoit, a group of upper-caste men – some of them dacoits as well – punished her for getting above herself. She was held prisoner in a village dominated by Thakurs, a higher caste, and was gang-raped. She was then stripped and forced to walk to the well to fetch water for the men who brutalised her. That was an act of domination and oppression.
Decades later, stripping remains popular as a way of shaking women’s confidence and punishing them for opposing powerful men. In 2014 alone, press reports told us of a woman activist being stripped and beaten for standing up to the local ‘land mafia’ in Mumbai; a woman bus conductor beaten and stripped by a passenger; a woman forced to walk out naked while her husband was severely beaten for opposing goons in Uttar Pradesh; women stripped in Pakistan as part of a land grab dispute; and of protests in Kenya after a woman wearing a miniskirt was stripped by a small mob.
Yet, as much as it is a tool of oppression, stripping is also a way of reclaiming power. Women across the world have demanded justice by taking off their clothes. Lady Godiva’s story is well known. Legend has it that the noblewoman rode naked to protest the punishing taxes her husband imposed on their tenants in England. Whether the story is true or not, there are records of many other naked protests over the last century.
In 1949, when the French controlled the Ivory Coast, women stripped outside a prison to demand the release of political prisoners. In 1992, in Kenya, Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai had been part of a group that went on hunger strike to demand the release of political prisoners. When the police retaliated with violence, the women stripped in protest. In 2002, Nigerian women – many of them grandmothers – took on the oil corporation Shell, which was exploiting the Niger Delta. They managed to block oil production by using the workmen’s fear of the ‘curse of nakedness’ – the belief that men who look upon naked women, especially mothers, would become impotent or lose their sanity.
From increasing fuel prices to war, the cost of the Olympics, dictatorships, the Sharia law, bull fights – various causes have led people to protest in the buff. Greenpeace activists stripped on a glacier in the Swiss Alps to draw attention to global warming. In the UK, there is an annual naked bike ride. One naked woman recently got on top of a black cab in London, where she reportedly conducted a five-minute yoga protest before shouting: ‘Troops out of Afghanistan!’ In the US, women countered a monthly ‘arms march’ by gun advocates in Austin by showing their breasts and carrying signs like ‘Boobs for Peace’. Last year, a male student was stripped naked during a clash with pro-government demonstrators in Venezuela, and people responded by posting nude pictures of themselves online with the hashtag #BetterNakedThan…
PHOTOGRAPHS OF NUDE protests never fail to move me. Our awareness of a person’s personhood is contained in skin – hands, eyes, body hair, curved bellies, jaw, breasts, thighs. Clothes give us qualifiers, marks of identity, status, temperament. A high hat. An expensive frock. An Arab headdress. A Kolhapuri slipper. A headman’s shawl. Widow’s black. We find clues to the social identity of a person in their garments and, based on that, we decide how to treat him or her. It is only when someone gets naked that we confront a human being.
Perhaps this is what naked activists offer – their share in humanity. After all, human life is given over to the body’s preservation. We work to feed ourselves. We wear clothes and build shelters to ward off cold, sun, dirt. We make the body as beautiful as possible so we may attract others. Yet, some of us take great risks so that other bodies may be preserved – compatriots, children, future grandchildren. Some people go on hunger strike. Others submerge themselves underwater, as fifty-one villagers from Madhya Pradesh did in 2012 to protest the raising of the height of the Omkareshwar Dam, which would have submerged their land and life as they knew it. Some people suffer pain and mutilation, like performance artist Inder Salim when he cut off part of his finger to protest the pollution of the River Yamuna. Tibetans have been setting their bodies on fire in protest against Chinese policy.
By denying the self-preservation instinct, these activists point fingers at those who wield powerful institutional tools like the army, police force and judiciary. They can shame those who harm less powerful citizens. They upset the state because, if one person’s right to life can be denied, then nobody can take the right for granted. No ‘body’ is safe. As for stripping, people sacrifice their shame so that they can shame others into paying attention to their cause.
In India too, women have held up their naked bodies like a black flag. In 2004, twelve imas (mothers) shook the nation when they stripped outside the gates of the headquarters of the Indian army in the north-eastern state of Manipur. They screamed slogans and held a banner saying ‘Indian Army Rape Us’.
The mothers were protesting the alleged rape and custodial killing of a woman called Thangjam Manorama, but it wasn’t really about one case. Several young people had recently disappeared; many were brutalised. Manipur has been subject to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act for decades now. It gives armed forces the power to arrest citizens without a warrant and offers judicial immunity to soldiers. That naked protest did not lead to the Act being removed, but reports suggest that the army is more cautious now; there are fewer cases like Manorama’s murder.
There have been more stripping protests in India. Last year, a group of women in Kerala stepped out not quite nude; they were wrapped in shawls – green, saffron and white, the colours of the Indian flag – to protest against sexual violence. In Delhi, a man and a woman took off their clothes outside the president’s house to protest the partition of India, albeit sixty-seven years too late. Press reports quoted the woman as saying: ‘We are doing this for humanity. Why should India and Pakistan be divided?’
This makes for an ironic contrast to a semi-nude protest in 1998, when a group of right-wing (male) political workers stripped down to their underpants outside the home of veteran Indian actor Dilip Kumar. They were upset that the actor was given a civilian award by Pakistan, but their protest won little sympathy. For one, Indian men wearing underpants in public spaces are a common sight. It cannot be treated as any kind of sacrifice. Secondly, the right wing in India protests nudity itself, treating it as a disgrace rather than a symbol of ultimate vulnerability.
In 2013, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a right-wing non-government organisation of Hindus, threatened an exhibition of nude art, forcing it to shut down temporarily. Even when confined to privately owned galleries, artists and curators have been threatened with violence. One of India’s best-known painters, MF Hussain, was practically hounded out of the country after some groups objected to his paintings of semi-naked goddesses. He received death threats after he painted Bharat Mata (Mother India). Woman-as-Indian-map imagery is common enough on kitsch calendar art, notebook covers and cheap pamphlets. The problem was that Hussain did not paint clothes on the nation-mother’s body.
For all their anxiety about nudity in art, what modern right-wingers are most afraid of perhaps is their own ancient heritage – our collective memories of an India where women dressed as they pleased, did as they pleased. Sculpture from the ancient era depicts women (and men) wearing few clothes, if any. Women’s breasts are often bare. There are depictions of sexual congress on walls or pillars in public spaces, including temples. From medieval India, we have miniature art where women are pictured wearing long flowing skirts, but the breasts are often highlighted, either drawn over the clothes or shown as spilling over the blouse. Ordinary Indian women often did not wear blouses at all until the nineteenth century. Even today, many women wear backless blouses, and many rural women do not wear any underclothes.
FETISHISATION AND TERRORISATION of women’s bodies is most evident in pop culture. In their haste to put clothes on Mother India, the torchbearers of tradition have been careful to squeeze their eyes shut, block their ears up against real women, especially women who rejected clothes. Some women cannot be easily dismissed – women such as Mahadevi Akka, one of the saint-poets of south India whose passionate devotional poetry stirred and moved people over several centuries, and Lal Ded (also called Lalla and Lalleshwari), a saint-poet from Kashmir.
Their association with god, their passionate devotion, has made these saint-women hard to reject. It is also hard to deny their nakedness since their own verses mention that they gave up clothing just as they gave up the materialistic, domestic realm. Yet, modern imagery rarely depicts them naked. Representations of Mahadevi Akka vary. Some articles inform us that while Akka did go naked, her abundant hair covered her body. I found some photographs of a statue where the tresses that were meant to shield her modesty have been sculpted so enthusiastically that they cover almost all her skin; it is as if she’s covered in fur. Some artwork depict her clad in a white or saffron sari. There are few paintings of Lal Ded online but some show her wearing a feran (a loose warm shirt worn by both men and women in Kashmir).
These women saints rejected marriage and clothes, wandered in forests and mountains alone, and felt no shame. But the thing they forswore, they have been recaptured by. Indians who see these modern representations of Mahadevi Akka and Lal Ded will think of them not as god-loving women who rejected the notion of ‘shame-shame’, but as god-fearing women who kept their shame firmly under wraps.
The great battle for Indian civilisation – to establish it, define it, circumscribe it – is currently fought thus: how a woman dresses, what she wears to school, to work, to a party; how she appears on screen, on billboards, on canvas; who makes sexual decisions for her; how she may be shamed
With these cultural battles being fought at home, I looked to the West – north and south too – and found women everywhere marching towards shamelessness. There are SlutWalks. There is Femen, a radical feminist group founded in Ukraine, with its topless protests against various manifestations of patriarchy. I see photos of young skinny white women showing their breasts. I notice how they pose, for they do pose. Smiling, flowers in their hair. And I see photos of Vladimir Putin raising his eyebrows appreciatively.
Then I remember the topless grandmothers in Nigeria, their weary faces, and middle-aged Manipuri mothers saying ‘Indian Army Rape Us’. Sometimes, my heart contracts with the fear that Femen may weaken the side of women who fight with their bodies. For a topless or nude protest to succeed, there must be an overarching social assumption that this event is a social aberration, a rare step taken by women who’ve been pushed to the wall and can no longer behave as if nothing were amiss in their society. Ideally, the women who lead a topless protest are women for whom the taking off of their clothes is a sacrifice of sorts. Femen, however, seems to be falling between the cracks of its own ideology. They want to shame the onlooker into thinking about structures that oppress women’s bodies and souls, but at the same time they also seem to be rejecting the idea of a personal shame. Besides, the activists are mainly young, white women with the sort of bodies we are frequently exposed to via bikini models on calendars or fashion shows, internet wallpapers, mainstream films and television. Their bodies evoke images associated more often with entertainment than activism; their youth raises questions about why the protests do not include older Ukrainian or European women; the absence of women of colour raises more complex questions about power and race.
Yet, for all their ageism and shapism, these young women are part of the tapestry of our times. They come out of a culture that throws up phrases like ‘wardrobe malfunction’. A model’s top comes unhooked and it makes national headlines. There are tangible and intangible rewards for cleavage, while a lack of cleavage is punished through the simple device of rendering flat-chested women invisible in art, cinema and television. Women get paid to strip in clubs, but face censure for breastfeeding in public. ‘Developed’ nations have needed specific legislation to protect mothers. News reports carry quotes from angry citizens wanting to protect ‘innocent’ children from the sight of breasts.
Besides, how do I forget that Goa has hinted at banning bikinis on the grounds that they are against Indian culture? On social media, men argue with me that people have the right to not see women in bikinis. They speak of a woman’s body as if it were an affront to culture, to temples, to temple-goers. As if women in bikinis were not citizens, as if God had not made women’s bodies. I cannot forget that nobody in our political dispensation has the gall to censure Naga Sadhus, ascetic men who do not wear any clothes; in fact, they are treated with respect. Custodians of Indian culture dare not say a word about the nudity of Mahavir Jain, the founder of the Jain religion. Nor do they ask fishermen to cover up, though they often flaunt as much skin as bikini-clad tourists. Clearly, the problem is not nudity. The problem is women’s bodies.
This is the culture we inhabit – me, my countrywomen and Femen, too. I cannot find it in my heart to blame those young Femen activists for trying to get this world accustomed to the sight of breasts, and not just when they turn into twin bowls of baby food.
IN THE APARTMENT complex where I currently live, there is a gym and a swimming pool. With broken railings and cracked tiles, the pool is quite dodgy but last summer I decided that I simply had to try and swim.
I dug out my old swimsuit, a one-piece that makes friends smile. It is a peculiarly modest affair, with a little skirt that makes it look more like a micro-mini dress. Not that a micro-mini would be considered modest around here; you see thousands of students and working women out in the city but very rarely do you see them in micro-minis or hot pants. Context, however, is everything. In a pool, a suit that covers the whole of your bum is an expression of modesty.
Imagine my surprise when I saw that I was the most undressed woman in the pool. Others wore burkini-style costumes that cover the legs down to the ankles and arms down to the elbows. Necklines were high, above the clavicles. Some women brandished an additional layer of modesty – a sort of frill around the waist that dips down to cover the groin.
I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Mumbai is an island city with several beaches, but not once in fifteen years have I have seen a woman in a swimsuit. Toddlers stripped down to their underwear, yes. Shirtless men playing volleyball or cricket, yes. Women in swimsuits, never. Even so, our local pool has separate timings for women and I remembered seeing modest swimsuits a few summers ago. This profusion of burkini-style outfits was unexpected.
From their chatter, it was evident that most of them were young housewives and mothers, and they were not all Muslim. In fact, some of them complained quite freely about the existence of Muslims (not in the pool, just their existence in general). Worse, even the little girls wore T-shirts and cycling shorts. One girl was swimming in a pair of denim leggings. The little boys, of course, all wore swimming trunks. I was the only female who showed her arms and legs.
The awareness of my skin became more potent than the chlorine in my nose. I was careful not to splash the water too hard. I tried to move silently. In short, I began to act as if my body did not exist. I contemplated buying one of these burkini-style costumes. But I felt angry at having to consider it. Finally, I just stopped swimming.
The pool was a sixty-second walk from home. It was one of the reasons my mother decided to purchase her house – access to a pool and a gym – and for a few years it felt like a good decision. Builders in Mumbai offer the middle class an elevated, cosmopolitan lifestyle represented by swimming pools and foreign-sounding names for apartments. Our builder had chosen a name that conjures up mental images of London or New York. Then he went a step further. He installed statues to prop up the illusion of an ‘international’ lifestyle: plastic imitations of the Venus de Milo in every cul-de-sac.
A few years ago, I found that the statue outside our building was wearing a cotton nightgown. The statue in the next lane had already been removed years ago, replaced by a Sai Baba temple. Clearly, our Venus with her bare chest was offending someone’s sense of decorum. Someone had acted, so that Venus was dressed like the average urban middle-class housewife.
Operation cover-up afforded me gentle amusement at first. Some poor woman had probably needed a nightgown; the garment was removed one night. Our Venus stood bare-chested again. Not for long, though. Someone dressed her up again, this time in a man’s shirt. It was funny, I thought. The poor statue wasn’t even close to the real thing. The breasts were smooth white domes with no nipples. How could anyone be bothered? But, obviously, I was wrong. Someone was very bothered.
A few weeks later, the man’s shirt also went missing. And a few days after that, someone just smashed in the offending breasts. There were two black empty holes where Venus de Milo’s breasts ought to be.
Nothing funny about that. Now I had to live with the knowledge that people in my neighbourhood would rather damage a woman’s body than look at it, or even turn their gaze away politely. Respectable citizens who probably thought that what they did was the respectable thing to do. After I pointed out the assault, the building’s co-operative society officials had the statue removed. But they did not replace it with a new Venus de Milo. Or even a fully dressed woman’s statue. The niche where the statue stood is now empty.
Every time I walk past that empty space, I am reminded of a poem by Kutti Revathi titled ‘Breasts’. In one verse, she writes:
From the crush of embrace, they distil
The essence of love; and in the shock
Of childbirth, milk from coursing blood.
The poem is on the list of fifty greatest modern poems drawn up by the Guardian. It was written originally in Tamil, and Revathi, along with a few other women, represented a strong new feminine voice in south Indian literature. They wrote of love, sexual desire, troubled marriages and their own bodies. As a result, they found themselves accused of obscenity and threatened with violence. Much of the rage came from male writers.
Sometimes I think about those male writers. I might run into them some day. If I do, I shall be thinking of that empty niche where a cheap imitation of the Venus de Milo once stood, her plastic breasts bashed in.
What shall I say to them? Perhaps I shall tell them about Venus. Or about Femen. Or Lady Godiva. Perhaps I shall tell them to go to hell. I shall tell them to grow a pair of breasts before they try to express an opinion. I shall tell them that they are the wounds of the earth.
Sometimes I lie awake at night and confront them. Sometimes I think of the man who smashed the breasts of our plastic Venus. One of the neighbours? Workers? Street urchins? Most likely I will never know. If I knew, what would I say? Most likely I would not say anything. I would keep my distance.
Sometimes I start to forget that it happened. Then I remind myself to stand guard over the memory of Venus. In the dark hours between bed and sleep, I give her arms. Nipples. Hair. Some day, I remind myself, somehow, I must try and restore her body.