Kozhikode, Hotel Alakapuri, 4-5 March, 2017.
Kozhikode has always upturned my feelings about the male gaze. It is of course a cheerful, bustling, place, full of fabulously good-looking people of all genders. The cheeriness has a certain effortlessly defiant quality – already evident when you look out of the window as the train from the south pulls into the railway station, and see bright, healthy, merrily-swaying wild flowers raise their heads undefeated by the ferocious summer sun– wild sunflowers in hundreds, magnificent vines of kulamariyan flowers ( literally, ‘over-the-top’ flowers, but known here also, interestingly enough, as Antigone vines), creepers happily, constantly, and untiringly winding over little piles of rubbish and covering them with short-lived if emphatic trumpets of mauve, lavender, red, yellow, and white. You pass this eternal artwork-in-progress of the flowers and vines and city trash and enter Kozhikode, but realise that it actually tells you a bit about the men there only when you meet them.
The first one I encounter (and have always encountered), is the autorickshaw driver: this time, a strapping young-to-middle-aged man with friendly, curious eyes. I notice his long, curling, thick eyelashes first of all, and am rather surprised, because in Thiruvananthapuram, I wouldn’t notice Kamadeva himself had he incarnated in my ashram-like abode, CDS, populated by the likes of who Kesari Balakrishna Pillai once called unakkashaastrikal, or the shriveled-up- scholarly-types (which, alas, include me increasingly, as I age). Malayali men are rather notorious for staring at women, and I, having spent my youth here, have become a seasoned observer of men’s staring from which I can now maintain the sort of deep distance that would be the envy of an anthropologist.
Perhaps it is just me, but I have always felt that this species is particularly numerous in the happy city of Calicut, and this autorickshaw driver who has kindly stopped for me is no exception. “Where to?” he asks, expectedly, and I say “Alakapuri”, an old hotel in the centre of town, a great repository of memories in the story of Kerala’s homosocial radical-intellectualisms. He turns around and looks, sizing me up with frank, friendly curiosity. I return the look (especially focusing on the eyelashes).
We make our way through the narrow dusty streets, which exude the sense of an open, merry, welcoming place, precisely through the complete chaos that prevails in the traffic and by the roadside, inviting all to find a place in it somehow. There is a riot of colour – sack-fulls of crisp green-and-gold cucumbers, fat pink pumpkins, slender delicate snake-gourds that seem to be coyly pulling away from mounts of wan-looking ash-gourds, stern grey dosa-kallus , gleaming black fish-fry chattis, enormous vessels of steel, bronze oil-lamps, mangoes and bananas and oranges heaped on hawkers’ carts, gold ornaments glinting in shop-windows, halva-shops loaded with halvas in every colour and flavour imaginable, heaps of coconut-shells, scents from ayurvedic medicine-shops, the sharp smell of rice, chilli, coriander, cooking oils, all sorts of spices, mouth-watering aromas of fried things and heavenly food, wafting there from childhood memories almost, shops full of useless pretty plastic stuff in merry colours, all sorts of garments – the sellers and buyers of all this, passers-by, loiterers and laggards, beggars and sharp young chaps, women hurrying past, school children skipping along, all jostling under the blazing sun, on the roads and by the sides.(There is something really timeless about this sense of the urban – Calicut is still so much the welcoming port town in its booming busy old heart, the market – the fabled Kozhikode angaadi, and I can imagine what someone who came there a century ago from a village — say, a low-caste labourer of the eighteenth century, liberated through conversion or other means, must have felt, when he or she reached the city.).
“What’s going on at Alakapuri?” My auto driver asks, clearly curious about a middle-aged woman without a duppata, bindi, or a dark shadow of anxiety or fear on her face, going to an old haunt of intellectual he-men. “A book discussion”, I say, suppressing the instinct to tell him that he shouldn’t be so curious (and maybe the eyelashes also played a part). He turns his neck to take another look and it is different this time, as though to assess if I did indeed have the ‘look’ of a woman of letters of some sort. “You’ve heard of Ajitha?” I ask him, referring to the city’s most respected revolutionary and its most famous feminist. He almost stops the auto, and with a very slight movement of the neck, looks at me through the rear-view mirror. This is a different look, one that sees a person, not a mysterious woman. “Yes of course. You’re her friend?” “Yes indeed,” I try hard not to sound triumphant. We ride in silence the rest of the distance. When we reach Alakapuri, he makes another try, “Your family?” I pay homage to the eyelashes by paying him sixty instead of the thirty rupees suggested by the meter, and am emboldened by the knowledge this is a short stay. Fixing my eyes on my purse as I pretend to be rummaging through its pockets, I reply, “Looking for a husband, to marry. Know anyone with big eyes and long eyelashes?” I get a very different look, almost feminine in the blush-turned-smile that leaves his very manly thick-inky-black moustache trembling.
The whole ride leaves me hungry to learn more about the infinite variety of looks that the staring men of Calicut are capable of. I find them refreshingly different from the Malayali men who I encounter on the streets of Thiruvananthapuram. They clinically cut you up into different pieces of flesh and direct their devouring gaze rationally towards those parts which interest them most, calculating a clear order of preference. Men in Thiruvananthapuram also maximise their viewing utility by sneak-bombing your body with glances (I have no doubt, perfected through years of practice) hard to notice unless you have years of experience dealing with them. This adeptness comes in handy when their wives or other female relatives are present. There is, naturally, something awfully cold about the whole thing, and the staring men of Thiruvananthapuram almost appear like tired, decrepit, beings – maybe they are even dead, as desiring beings – trying desperately to stretch their ghoulish existence by devouring women’s bodies through their lifeless eyes . Also, I have a distinct feeling that in Thiruvananthapuram, these he-ghouls seek the flesh of younger women in their attempts to prolong their zombie-ness. I have grown into middle-age in that city and felt relieved of the staring male zombie’s visual fangs as I aged. Thiruvananthapuram has staring females as well, but their looks, sometimes sharp as broken pieces of glass, are not of the Undead trying to prolong themselves. Women’s looks are often directed not at the receiver of disapproving looks (usually young women who wear what they please, or older women ’inappropriately’ attired) but at their own bodies. So many times have I seen women throw a sharp frown at my duppata-less bust and immediately pull their saree-pallus or duppatas over their own. If one learns to brave the zombie-and the disciplinary-looks (takes years, I can say that) they can no longer leave you anaemic in the soul, and you also become strong enough to look back at staring men with anthropological curiosity.
The staring men of Calicut are different. First of all, they stare openly and fully. No sneak-bombs, furtive looks, there. They look at you fully, from top to toe, that is, they don’t reduce you to body parts. I can imagine that this must feel awful to many women, especially those of non-heteronormative sexual orientations, but strangely enough, I found myself being emboldened to stare back, and study, to see what I like and what I don’t about the male body staring at me, and even reflect pleasurably on how these aspects are so interestingly melded together to form that unique male body. Men in Calicut are often undeterred by the presence of female relatives, even wives or lovers, and this is a big difference from the sneak-bombers of Thiruvananthapuram. Don’t know what the latter feel, but I suppose this is more honest to the object of the stare? Secondly, the men of Calicut have a range of stares (as evident above), and many of them clearly involve using the brain trying to decipher the signs on the object of the stare (unlike the Thiruvananthapuram zombies who simply devour through their eyes, like we often say, even a lamppost with a rag wrapped around it). So the stare directed at a middle-aged but busty and lighter-skinned Malayali- and upper-class-looking woman in jeans and a shirt, walking on the road with her hair open and carrying a huge bag stuffed with books is often one that is trying to put together all these different visual aspects to make sense of the female there. There is frank sexual interest, but also other sorts of curiosity and that enables them to smile sometimes, and not leer. For this reason, young flesh is not singled out by the staring gaze. Perhaps there are staring predators here too but I suspect that they must be like the zombies of Thiruvananthapuram.
Overall, I think this makes you feel pretty much alright staring back, and for sure, many of these men do reveal peacock-like instincts. Right in the middle of the beautiful walkway at the beach at Calicut, under the sparkling lights, I come across the most fabulous kinds of wiling eye-candy on display – a slender young man in an alluring mauve-tinted silk shirt that falls on his torso and ripples like a rainbow when the sea breeze hits it, raising tapering fingers to an abundant head of tinted hair, tossing his head casually and throwing around huge eyes shielded by heavy eyelids to see who’s watching; another tiger with a tall, bronze-tinted gymmed body to show off, one leg raised on a dilapidated flight of steps leading to the beach, foot bent inward and bent knee outward to reveal that muscled inner thigh swelling within the tightly-flowing dark jeans covering it, and an exquisitely bearded chin raised in sheer invitation to look. Even the waiter at the restaurant where we have dinner knows that he has twinkling eyes, sleek hair, and a cheery smile to show off, and makes the best of it. Women’s stares in Calicut are different too, and I didn’t find them disciplining. Many women here deal explicitly with the male stare through their sartorial style – the mafta, the hijab, or the duppatta or pallu pulled over the head. So when they look at women who seem to be whole sets of unfamiliar visual riddles, it is often frank curiosity, not hostility, that is writ in their eyes. But sometimes I come across a worried stare, directed at a woman who foolishly refuses to deal with the male stare by covering herself. In either, the likes of me have a crazy sexy high that only social risk-takers can experience.
In sum, what we Malayalis have historically referred to as vaayinottam, which may be translated literally as ‘mouth-looking’, is not always the dumb open-mouthed gape of the fool. This term was first associated with saree-pallu-chasers often depicted as the hippie-boys hanging around women’s colleges (Appy-Hippie, Toms’ popular cartoon character who came alive in the last page of the Malayala Manorama Weekly, the bearded long-haired, guitar-wielding, sunglasses-wearing Romeo, for example). Appy Hippie was a playful comment on the unemployment of educated young men in the 1970s and 80s, happily opposed to his (biovular) twin, the Angry Young Man. Snide jokes about how the law colleges in Kerala were the spawning grounds of MLAs (Members of Legislative Assembly) and MLAs (Mouth-Looking Agents) were rife in that time. But the truth is that all staring mallu men are not MLAs in this sense; they are of the many kinds I am trying to describe here, nor has this have anything to do with unemployment.
Some of it is clearly out of perceived resemblance, and the effort to clarify. The shop assistant selling me a lunch packet at the Paragon food outlet in the railway station stares unabashed and open-mouthed, finally blurting out really loudly, “ Madam, you look like somebody on TV … Kamala Suraiyya!” Men and women around me drop whatever they were doing and turn around to look. Ah, for that I cannot blame anyone. Anyway, that moment, poor J Devika and her body vanishes, and only Kamala Suraiyya lives in their collective vision. I am by now used to this. Too often have I encountered deeply admiring men only to realize that they are actually admiring Kamala Suraiyya as they look long at my face. In time I have realized that the world is like the bustling Kozhikode angaadi, in which diamond-studded twenty-four carat gold ornaments shine brilliantly in lavish showrooms reflecting their splendour, and they coexist nicely with the humble one-gram-gold ornaments that shine modestly for the poor in modest shops right next to them, and we, Madhavikutty and One-Gram-Madhavikkutty, can coexist in this world quite happily.
So I do not believe that the leery look always gets the better of the personality-deciphering stare always. This evening, during the release of my translation of Nivi’s book, Seeing Like A Feminist, I noticed that the mic-operator, an older, balding, greying man, smile almost constantly and benignly at us feminists getting generally excited and talking non-stop from four o’clock to seven. After the discussion he approached me and asked if he could have a copy of the book. It has pictures of Nivi and me on the back cover. “This lady wrote it?” he asked, pointing to Nivi’s picture and looking intently at her. I said, “Yes.This lady. Nivedita Menon. Malayali professor at JNU, in Delhi.” “Yes, yes, JNU – it’s in the papers and on TV,” he sounded excited. Just to test, I asked, “Pretty, no? He beamed, but looked up questioningly, “Also Aji-echy’s [Ajitha’s] friend?” “Of course she is!” proclaimed I, only to be joined by his exclamation, “Ah! That is why!”
Calicut has more than its fair share of redoubtable women who can counter a stare, irrespective of whether it ensues from male or female, young or old, with a fatal stab of a look or a sharp expletive, or more. This I am convinced of again when I see the formidable Viji, founder of the women’s collective Penkoottu at Mittaayitheruvu, and the leader of the unorganized workers’ union there, the AMTU (which has female and male members). Her beaming smile and laughing ways are in perfect sync with her upright posture and the unmistakable hint of the Phenomenal Woman’s swinging step in her walk. As Gargi, an AMTU activist and fellow-dreamer, tells me, “When Viji-echy steps into the street, wagging tongues stop wagging, policemen stopping telling women workers, ‘move to a corner, make way’!” Accounts of Viji’s activism make me shut my eyes and imagine her stride through the streets of Calicut turning petty harassers into respectful admirers. This is a woman before who the staring ceases and roads open spectacularly wide.
Penkoottu, when we understand it as a value in politics, sounds to me like the most wonderful thing that can ever happen to feminism in India. Literally, it means ‘Women for Each Other’. It is hard to contain my jubilation at being introduced to this as a value to animate all of feminism in our times in which we are foiled not just determined foes but our own inability to come together. Koottu means being for each other as we follow our distinct paths; it is close to what Ambedkar calls ‘maitri’ in Buddha and His Dhamma. It means reaching out to/for the other without compromising one’s ideals, or one’s right to criticise and disagree, from a position of strength. It means deep awareness of the vulnerability and impermanence of all beings, all sides of the debate, and the rooting of one’s responsibility towards the other in such compassionate awareness. I am dazzled, still, by the prospects of rebuilding feminism in Kerala as a politics animated by the value of Penkoottu, which, by its very nature, allows us to ‘be for’ all those who struggle against the violence of naturalized gender, invisibilized class, and secularized caste in Kerala, and all women who grapple with the pleasures and dangers of entry into the public through governmental routes.
Koottu means, in another sense, the fabulous mix of spices characteristic of Malabar’s delectable cuisine, and also the mix of vegetables and pulses in a curry that attains perfection when the latter is cooked soft as butter. The vegetables, however, must be chopped in even thickness, and they must be caught at that precise moment in which they vacillate – to yield or not to yield to the cooked state? Koottu means attaining perfect maturation in one’s own right and contributing uniquely to the taste of the curry that is irreducible to any of its components. It gestures at cooperation of different, but equally vital, ingredients, most of which must subject themselves to the cooking fires to different degrees.
This perhaps is the value that will rebuild oppositional civil society beyond the ruins of Malayali national-popular will that formed under communist hegemony in the 1940s. At present we have no political movements, no political parties. What we have are protectionist rackets that resemble each other rather too closely, which terrorise, silence, and humiliate dissenters and individualize politics ruthlessly. This cuts at the root of oppositional civil society while leaving the conservative civil society of entrenched religions and communities totally untouched. Women-led trade unionism, as well as women-led initiatives to reclaim the pleasures of the female body away from the beauty industry through introducing women to the pleasure of playing sport for its own sake (such as WINGS, led by another truly Phenomenal Woman, Vinaya – someone whose spunk which the might of the Kerala police, her employer, could not wither!), as well as the many LGBTQ groups – and the many new democratic formations to come- can alone rebuild a new hegemonic sense of Kerala by fashioning a new politicised civil society. This civil society is not centred upon the state; it is not animated by instrumentalist concerns, of the state, community, or family; it is not pivoted on the interests of the individual and her family; it welcomes men oppressed by patriarchy and all other genders, promising to ‘be there’ for them in need; it makes lifestyle feminism listen to political feminism and remould itself. The civil society rooted in the value that is penkoottu will, must, ultimately reach out and shape the state-centric civil society of Kudumbashree and transform conservative civil society from the inside by democratising it. As I listened to Mary John and Meera Velayudhan speak in the discussion that followed the release of Nivi’s book, a sense of elation gripped me. Malayali feminists are not confined between Gokarnam to Kanyakumari; neither should the new civil society that they create be thus. The spirit of Penkoottu makes us reach out to these wonderful Malayali women elsewhere in India and in the world to form a live grid of intellectual and political energy that endures even as we reflect and act critically in relation to each other.
I can guess what you will say to this, sceptic reader. You will say that this is too much dreaming. But dreaming possibilities is not empty airy-fairy business. Especially on the eve of Women’s Day we will draw from dreams and magic for I am certain that the energy that burst from us during the discussion on Nivi’s book did not rise from tame and rational examination of the book’s contents. There was magic in our mutual sparking and it lit up, however dimly, the future that we espy in dreams. Indeed, I will echo Audre Lorde:
Moon marked and touched by sun
my magic is unwritten
but when the sea turns back
it will leave my shape behind.
I seek no favour
untouched by blood
unrelenting as the curse of love
permanent as my errors
or my pride.
I have been a woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic
and the noon’s new fury
with all your wide futures
and not white.