When I was about 17, I was suddenly fascinated by salwaar-kameezes. My mom, delighted with my sudden interest helped me build a collection of fabrics from around the country. Fab India, Nalli and the local markets helped. And the local darzi was a genius with the needle. So my lovely designs saw the light and I reveled in my made-to-order wardrobe.
The darzi was a local institution, practically every woman in that 2-km radius swore by his talent. I’d been going to him for a long time, accompanied by mum…mostly reluctantly dragging my feet to get fitted for the ‘decent Chennai wardrobe’ for the mandatory summer vacation visit. Later though, as she observed my own interest, she stopped going with me. I became a regular customer, spending upto an hour every few months discussing a few more new designs. And I took my friends too.
The darzi’s apprentice was around my age, a quiet, diligent guy who listened patiently to my detailed descriptions of embroidery, necklines, side-tucks, sleeves etc and turned out beautiful creations.
<trigger warning: sexual assault>
One time, a friend joined me for a tailor visit. I detailed my ideas and stood for the fitting, chattering with her. Then, suddenly I froze. Did I imagine that? She noticed and she froze as it happened again. Mute, I stood like a statue till the fitting was done and walked out with her. We were both silent for a few minutes before she said,
He touched your breast, didn’t he? It wasn’t an accident, he just put his hand on you. Did he need to do that for the measurement?
I didn’t answer. I was too humiliated, shocked, scared and confused….I wasn’t sure. I didn’t wear salwar-kameezes for sometime and then I stopped buying new fabrics. Then came the summer that I had to visit Chennai for work and I needed a ‘new decent wardrobe’. With much reluctance and much pushing from my mother, we set off to the tailor. The darzi exclaimed that I hadn’t been around for a long time. I parotted out the simple instructions for the most basic outfit I could think of and got out of there in 10 minutes. He did it again. Mum didn’t notice and I never told her.
As Indians, Indian women, we grow up with something of an education deprivation in the area of touching. What’s permissible, how far is okay, what’s right and what’s not….we’re caught in a labyrinth of confusion. I grew up in a predominantly Catholic school environment where it was the norm to kiss and hug others during festivals and holidays. And came home to a well-educated but very much touch-shy South Indian Hindu family. I’ve had a few run-ins with my parents over ‘inappropriate behaviour’. Over time I’ve evolved my own code of what’s “okay” and what’s not. As well as an instinctive sense over what the intent behind the touch is. It hasn’t been simple.
While on one hand there’s the education deprivation of an Indian girl, think of how many people actually do touch us. Doctors, tailors, cobblers, shoe salespeople, clothes salesperson, dentists, orthodontists, beauticians, hair-dressers, bangle-sellers. And then, living in a crowded city and travelling by public transport means you’re often pushed up, brushed, banged into, sandwiched, fallen on, tripped over and felt up…intentionally or not.
Last year I was travelling in a crowded bus. There was one seat left, next to a teenager sitting by the window, lost in the music emanating from her MP3 player. I usually hate the idea of ‘women’s seats’ since it goes against my idea of equality. But I noticed there were about 3 men crowded in the aisle, hanging over…a little too much. I threw them a withering look and sat down next to her. The look on my face (and my sharp elbows) kept them at bay. The kid got off a few stops later and walked off, seemingly oblivious to what she had been inadvertently subjected to.
I once visited a gynecologist for a routine examination. I hated the experience. This was a lady doctor, well-reputed in her field. But she was cold, intrusive and disrespectful of my body. It was a humiliating experience to say the least. Oddly enough, some women I know with more experience say that male doctors are better, gentler…perhaps because they are aware that they can’t completely empathize with a body so different from theirs.
One of the most wonderful physical experiences I’ve ever had was an Ayurvedic Kerala massage. My masseuse was a sweet, young Keralite woman who couldn’t speak a word of Hindi but could decipher some Tamil. She dimmed the lights and set some some instrumental music to play. There was a certain dignity in her movements that put me at ease with my own body and let me relax into the massage.
Touch. How little attention we pay to this fifth sense. We are able to conceptualise and discuss the pleasures of the body. But no one ever talks about the basics of feeling comfortable with your body and about sharing it with others. Not necessarily sexually….a handshake is a touch you’re sharing with another human being, after all.
I don’t quite know where to go with this post. I’m still groping about in the darkness of confusion. Well. Groping isn’t quite the right word for it I suppose.