Saturday, December 16, 2017

2017 DNA-OUT of PRINT Short Fiction Finalist: Bhumika Anand

The Gaze
Bhumika Anand

So today, in my gender studies class, I learnt about the Male Gaze. The new guest lecturer was all fire and fury about this. Her indigo blue pallu hung on to her left shoulder, her blouse a black spaghetti top that she could wear with confidence on her skinny frame. Her big black bindi shone with indignation as she spoke about car ads, toothpaste ads, TV ads, and on and on, and how women are objectified, and how that culture is the reason we could all participate in the #MeToo campaign.

Yamini, of course, felt compelled to add to the list of ads. ‘Ma’am. Music videos, ma’am. It’s so embarrassing to watch them at home.’

‘Call me Vishakha, dear,’ the guest lecturer said with a smile. Her lips were lush and red, straight from a lipstick ad. ‘And yes, you are absolutely right. The music videos, especially item numbers, are all about the male gaze. They are obscene.’ Yamini beamed and her big silver nose-pin shook with delight. She sat up straighter. I could see the veins on her neck and her collarbones jutting out from the brown ajrakh-print top she wore over skinny jeans. 

The girls continued to share instances of eve-teasing. I nodded and looked indignant. No one expected me to share. They had labelled me as the quiet one. Yamini smiled at me when I shook my head in apparent shock. Yamini likes to encourage me. She makes an effort to talk to me and she likes having me around.

‘So how do we challenge the enduring dominance of masculine worldviews? How is female desire represented in dominant culture? And, is there such a thing as a female gaze? I want you to think about this before my next lecture.’ Vishakha, who-needn’t-be-called-Ma’am, left us the room and these thoughts.

Yamini immediately turned to me. ‘She was awesome, no? She’s from JNU. Man! I wish I could go and study there. After this, I don’t want to sit through a class on Chaucer. Come, let’s go get coffee. My treat.’ I couldn’t say no to Yamini. I didn’t know anyone who could. I packed my bag and followed Yamini. But Yamini didn’t walk in the direction of the canteen; instead, she kept texting and heading towards the gate.

‘Where are we going?’ I asked. 

‘Yash wants to meet me, so we are having coffee, but we’re going to CCD.’ 
My heart started a low thudding. Since we had already gotten off the stairs and were near the gate, I knew it wasn’t the exhaustion of getting down the stairs. I didn’t want to see Yash and think impossible thoughts again. He would try to flirt with Yamini, and be polite to me, and I didn’t want that at all. 

The thing is I am both extremely visible and almost entirely invisible. I am twenty years old, five feet four inches and weigh 120 kgs. My mother, when she’s feeling kindly towards me, always says how if I lost weight I would look exactly like a movie star because I have such a nice face. That hurts more than she can know because I want to tell her that no one cares about a nice face, or being clever and funny, or personality, or any of those things. That’s why I never bother with make-up even though I love it. That’s why I never say anything about what I am thinking anymore. School taught me that if I tried to be fun and clever, then the only fun people had would be at my expense. So now I don’t talk at all.

I wear loose pyjama pants stitched especially for me and my dad’s closed neck tee-shirts. I always have to shop for tee-shirts in the men’s section. That is, my mother has to. I avoid shopping at all costs because it’s so traumatic. The tee-shirts hang tight over my stomach and my breasts (that aren’t large), and when I sit, I look like folds and folds of washed linen propped up with a face. So I wrap myself in a dull grey and black shawl no matter how hot Bangalore weather is, even in March. 

Today, I was wearing a yellow pyjama, and an XXL Zynga Café World tee-shirt in black that my dad got for free when he worked for Zynga in the US. Everyone stared at me as we walked the three minutes it took us to get to Coffee Day from the all-girls Jyoti Nivas College. But everyone who looked also dismissed me immediately. Sometimes, really mean guys shout a ‘Fatty’ or ‘Fastso’ at me or their equivalent in various languages, but near college, no one cared. I was even called a football once.

But eve-teasing is not my problem. My apparent invisibility is. No one thinks I can have desires at all. How could I tell Vishakha Ma’am with her spaghetti top or even Yamini whose butt is the perfect shape, that in fact, I would like to be ogled at, I would love being looked at with nothing but desire, just once, by men. Maybe even women.

I am twenty-years old and no guy has ever tried to kiss me. Not once. Not even my neighbour Karthik who said as we played on my Playstation once that if he didn’t kiss any girl before he turned sixteen, he would kiss me. But he never did. I keep waiting. But he’s twenty-one now and he has a steady girlfriend. 

My specific problems don’t figure much in my feminist studies. At least, not yet. Even something that aims at creating equal opportunities for all doesn’t think about fat women or their desires. Where’s the discourse on that? Was there a hashtag for #FatFeminists? Maybe we’d learn about that too.

And now, Yash. Yash Chandra Reddy was a Koramangala boy who said he had the hots for Yamini after he saw her riding past his house on her Scooty one day. Somehow they had managed to become friends. I never asked Yamini about that story. I knew Yamini liked to meet him but she never agreed to go steady or date him. I was always the chaperone. And he was always kind to me unlike some other guys Yamini would meet who would completely ignore me. Yamini likes me to be around the guys she meets most of the time. I think she looks at it as a kindness. She once told me I should not be a wallflower. I should speak more. But the boys always ignore me and flirt with Yamini. Yash isn’t like Rahul, for example, who doesn’t even say hello to me. Yash always treats me well.

CCD was always empty at this time of the day. The barista yawned behind the counter and didn’t bother to acknowledge us. He probably knew that we’d order three coffees and sit for four hours. He probably even knew what coffees we wanted by now.

I saw Yash stretched on our usual red sofa, ankles crossed, his long legs tight and snug in well-fitting jeans. He looked careless and alert at the same time. His thick fingers played with his iPhone. I had only recently figured that he looked like Vijay Deverakonda, the up-and-coming Telugu actor. And the reason I figured that out was because I had seen a poster of his movie from the auto as I was heading home from college and my heart had begun a dull thud again. I had to google the movie and I was even thinking of actually watching it though I didn’t understand a word of Telugu. Yash wore a black tee-shirt that showed his arms and his Chinese tattoo. He sort of worked out at a gym, I thought, but I could tell he wasn’t regular. I desperately wanted to ask him about his tattoo, maybe even tease him. I wanted to be able to really speak to him. Instead, I just muttered a Hi Yash.  

‘Yams! ’Sup babe?’ He had eyes only for Yamini. His eyes were a nice warm caramel brown. The sort of popcorn I always had to resist because it meant I would put on more weight. 

‘Yash, don’t call me Yams, you know I don’t like it.’ Yamini was in a mood after the class. Poor Yash. 

‘Hi, Ira, what class did you have? Let me guess, gender studies, right?’
I couldn’t help it; I smiled up at him. 

‘Hey, you have such great dimples! Didn’t know that! You should smile more often, Ira. Babe, look at Ira’s smile.’ 

‘Ya. Yash, you know I hate being called Yams. I’m not some hateful root. Stop calling me that or I am going.’ Yamini’s ridiculous rant only vaguely registered. I knew I would not be able to sleep all night. This compliment would make me float on air for weeks. I was red in the face; I knew that. No one, other than my parents, had ever said anything nice about my face. And they said it only occasionally. They usually just worried about my weight.  

‘Ms Yamini Jagannath, would you like your regular Café Frappe, and Ira, your espresso shot?’

O he was so utterly charming. Why couldn’t he #MaleGaze me! What was the point of giving up on all the delicious iced coffees and drinking a shot of espresso, if men couldn’t even see me? If Yash wouldn’t even know that I liked him! Yamini didn’t even really like him, and there were other guys too. Rahul was seriously in love with her. Why couldn’t Yash like me! 

‘I am buying Ira coffee, so I will get you one too, Yash Reddy. Why should men pay all the time! And then you will expect favours!’

‘Yabba! Ira, how come you don’t say things like that? You are both in the same class.’ 

‘I think context is important, even with feminist theories.’ I don’t know what came over me. I never spoke out loud; I was the perfect hanger-on. Yamini looked shocked. She just stared. Yash looked uncomfortable. 

Yamini finally muttered an ‘I’ll go order coffee,’ and left without even checking what Yash wanted. 

‘Hmm, these are all hi-fi studies. I am just a simple second year MBA; I don’t understand all this. I’m a simple guy, man.’ 

He looked at me. He really looked at me. I felt my stomach flop down to my toes not that it was physically possible, even when I exercised, and my heart began thudding like it always does around him. I felt like I were in one of those predictable romance novels I secretly read with a lot of curiosity, longing, and envy. I smiled at him. That smile must have held everything I felt for him. I could see his brown eyes darken even as his brows drew together in confusion. He cleared his throat. ‘I…’ 

‘Yash, you are a very simple guy. But really nice.’ 

‘No, man, Ira, nothing of the sort. You get me is all. You the bro, man.’ He made a fist with his right hand and extended it towards me. I knew I was expected to fist bump him; that’s what happens. But I didn’t want to be some sort of a sidekick in a movie. I didn’t want to be his bro! Yamini wasn’t the only one affected by our gender studies class. ‘No, Yash, you are really cute. And sexy. Would you like to go out with me?’ 

Yash simply stared at me. Yamini got back from ordering coffee to hear this. For a second, her perfect pink mouth was an O. ‘Ira, you think Yash … I can’t even…’ and then she laughed. ‘O wait, you are obviously being sarcy, right? That’s so sarcy, man. Way to show him his place! You really should speak more. Ira, you are so funny.’ 

As Yamini’s words finally registered, Yash joined in the laughter throwing his head back. His lips just rightly plump spread over his white teeth and his Adam’s apple bobbed in his throat. Watching him laugh, I had to swallow. 
Just then the barista arrived with our coffees, placed the cups unceremoniously, and left.

What was funny about me asking a guy out? But that’s what all our movies and TV showed us. It is funny when a fat girl likes someone. I kicked myself for having opened my mouth. I wanted to weep but I had my pride. ‘I wasn’t being sarcastic.’ I picked up my shot of Espresso looking down at the beige tiles.  

‘Ya, right! Yash! You and Ira, won’t that be funny!’ Yamini said bursting out again. 

‘Yamini, babes, this is why I keep telling you to say yes to me and save me from these lecherous women.’ 

I looked up to see Yash take Yamini’s hand in his and lightly massage her fingers with his thumb. They smiled at each other. Yash saw me looking and winked. For the first time ever, a man winked at me. Yamini caught my gaze and smiled at me with something like pity, sipping on her cold, sweet frappe. I immediately lowered my gaze and sipped my coffee. 

The espresso, hot and bitter, burnt my tongue, effectively shutting me up. 

*

Bhumika Anand is the Founder and Director of Bangalore Writers Workshop, a first-of-its kind writing school and community in Bangalore. She has been a lecturer, events coordinator, MC, social media strategist, corporate trainer, editor, communications consultant, and manager of online communities for over 15 years. Her work has been published in Urban Confustions, The AffairThe Bombay Literary MagazineOut of Print, and is forthcoming in Queer Ink. She is an intermittent but uncomfortably intense blogger at Bhumika'sBoudoir, and an appreciator of the ridiculous. 



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