I like watching people. In malls, in the street, at cafes. I like watching women and I like watching men.
When I look at the women, there are myriad reactions. They might check out the superficial stuff – clothes, hair, trinkets. They might meet my eyes and stare with confusion – why am I looking at them? They might see my smile and smile back or my frown and frown back or they could react in an opposite manner – frown for smile, smile for frown. They might touch their face or glance at their own clothes – to see if everything is okay. They might grab the hand of the man they are with – to reassure themselves. They might look away – a kaleidoscope of emotions: embarrassment, nervousness, arrogance.
And then there might be a woman who may ask me something, strike up a conversation, and we will decide to sit someplace and within minutes we would be familiar strangers. Rays from the same sun. There are quite a few such women, and we do not stay in touch all the time, but one day we meet again in some part of the city, the country, the world, and it is the same sun that shines upon us. We forget that it all started with a look across the street or in an escalator.
When I look at men, they always look back. Wide-eyed, with a smile. Sometimes, it ends there. Sometimes, my gaze has to be averted. Their space that I intruded upon now becomes a territorial battle. The colonisation begins. The eyes pierce deep. If it was a travel glance, as is more often the case where I journey through momentary passersby, then it is difficult. Every part is deconstructed. It does not matter that you are not a bubbly youngster anymore.
People use the standard line that men strip you with their eyes. I don’t think it is as simple. Men would prefer that you strip, that is the reason they like it if you are dressed to tantalise. If you are not, then you could be a tease, a challenge. It may not always be negative, but the complexities are daunting.
The man might strike up a conversation. It will be direct – about some part of you, your clothes, your demeanour. Next: Where are you from? Are you alone? With family?
I will be honest here. I indulge in fantasy. My range of husbands is rather interesting; my brood of kids can qualify for American Idol as well as top Mensa scores.
Would a ‘No’ not suffice? I’ve done that too. But, occasionally, because of the female gaze that could have started it, I feel duty-bound to steer the ‘deal’.
So, should I feel guilty about the female gaze? Can’t I immerse myself in the book, the coffee, the menu card, the stores? I can, but then people are books, coffee, menu cards, and stores. It would be disingenuous to say that one looks at women and men in the same way. One does not. I am aware all the time that when I watch women I am watching myself in another garb. When I watch men I am watching myself as the ‘other’. It is subliminal.
I cannot analyse or rationalise it. It is a maze.
As a woman who supposedly knows her way around, I am quite often lost. It can be beautiful to get lost somewhere. It is in these goalless moments that I find serendipity. Serendipity takes no effort, you might say. But to chance upon something, to submit yourself to fate can alter the course of not just the road you take, but the destination too.
I celebrate this state of suffusion.
This is for you today...the women who looked back.
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Also She, an earlier poem