Sitting at the bay window in my room, I watch the heavens open up in sympathy with my frustrations–another day at the bootcamp in Kodaikanal, South India. In hot pursuit of the body beautiful, Western and Indian cultural morés and consumer values intertwine, but through that fabric of expectation, the male gaze remains a constant.
Today–I’ve reached a state of out-of-body fatigue, where the body moves like a rag doll, every movement propelled by will. But I duly wake up at 4 am, do the journal the trainers requested, have my weight checked, then slowly, slowly, move out for a walk. More than physical exercise, I need the company of trees, of rising sun and mountains. Buoyed by this dawn camaraderie, I return and press on with my yoga: no chants, just stretches, and attempts at breathing deep. But, there’s a limit, my body lets me know that its all it can do to stay upright.
So, then, breakfast, whereupon I hang out with my trusty Macbook downstairs, waiting for the internet and geyser to warm up before I limp up the stairs, step by slow step, for my bath. P—, trainer guy of the beautiful bod, is concerned, questioning me if I’m still hungry; he is, perhaps, guilty about his hard nosed refusal of a second helping of lentils the day before (60 cals over although my stomach has refused the bread served). So, hey, everything’s hunky dory so far, if I’m just tired tired tired. Finally, I lumber up the wooden stairs to take a bath in the bathroom shared with P and K, another stress magnet. In my room, the bay window is unveiled, blinds up, open to the sun–nobody’s out on the deck, the other client, young Rishabh, hates the sun and is resting in his room. I’ve been reassured couple of times in the last days that privacy is mine, nobody climbs the hill opposite or trains binoculars into the room.
So, peeps, dear blog trawlers, fatigued even more after bath, I sit myself down on the bed to nurse my legs with pain gel, my big brown, tattooed female body, droopy breasts, saggy stomach, love handles and all, backing the window. Lost in my aches and pains, I suddenly espy, from the corner of my eye, movement outside–men–Indians, laborers–are busy moving the pots outside the window on the deck; they’ve finished three quarters of the deck. Stupefied, horrified, I am paralyzed because, of course, they are enjoyed that big brown female naked body—mine! I dash for a sarong, yards away, hanging behind the door, wrap it about me. But I’m frozen again, gazing at them as their studied movements reveal their relish. I’m glued to the door, stuck to the corner of the room. Gradually, very very slowly I make my way back to the cupboard, reach for a caftan and pull it over the sarong.
The angle of their heads tells me, “O yes, we’re enjoying the show!” So, caftan clad, I sidle up to the bay window, and finally, ah, finally pull the blinds down separated only by the glass from the watchers as I do this. Free at last from their eyes, I give vent to my rage as I grab a black sweatshirt, pulling it down over the caftan. “Fuck this,” I scream at the door, pull it open, and shout down to K—, the trainer’s wife and yoga mistress. My fury stemmed for the moment by her abject apology and shocked comprehension, I realize that, as a woman, she understands not only the violation of the male gaze, but as an Indian woman she realizes the peculiar lechery of class underwriting that violation. Hey, but rich or poor, the male Indian gaze has a ferocity all its own.
Silent, I proceed down those wooden stairs, and flop onto the blue couch in the ritzy living room. P—, trainer guy, comes up,
“Tell me,” he insists, as I protest that I’ve already told his wife and he should ask her. But, I recount the incident, rage rising to the surface as I do. P— responds, initially, with a mild apology that he should’ve informed me before sending the workers to the deck, but, almost immediately, he changes tack:
“How could you change with the window open? Rishabh, (who hates the sun, like all privileged Indians conscious of skin color!) could have been outside. You should be more careful.”
Incredulous I begin to defend myself:
“But I did check, the place was totally deserted. I was sitting with my back to the window when I realized the workers were there.”
As I mount my defense, I wonder at myself. Only the evening before as we were getting ready to go out to the club for soup, P— and his wife had entered my room.
The blinds were down as it was late evening and I’d had the lights on. P— commented then,
“hey why do you have the blinds down, the view is beautiful.”
“Well, the lights are on, and I don’t know who might be peeking in through the rain,” I return in reply.
“The hill side’s deserted, nobody is out there,” he affirms.
Backing up his claim retroactively, the masseuse the previous week, had insisted,
“Keep the blinds up, nobody’s going to look into the window from so faraway.”
And as all of us knew, young Rishabh next door was totally uninterested in the deck, the joke of house was that he had to be forced outdoors for a bit of sun for his own good. Ironically, although I had the bay window in my room, his room had access outdoors.
Anger surfaces now at myself and P–, arch jock who claims to ‘love’ women: I retort,
“Don’t turn this back at me! Is the guest always to blame?”
Of course, by that I mean the woman guest:
“If you guys send workers on the deck, as the hosts of the program and house you fucking have to inform the occupants of the room, male or female.”
My feminist self back on track, I settle myself on the couch downstairs until the workers leave. P—, his hackles up, storms outside to be Mr. Fixit. I lie, shivering, cold, muscles tense, for an hour or so, when I finally leave to creep into the violated room, now with the blinds down but with the willing voyeurs continuing their work outside the glass. Heaping the duvet, blanket, and throw over me, I fall into an exhausted sleep, willing to forego lunch at the table with the Master of the house.
But, come dinner time, I have no escape. I force myself downstairs. All the four of us seated about the table, P— looks at me and queries, kindly paternalistic smile on his face, “Everything ok? You alright?” At that, with my gorge rising, womanist old me, throws back, “You alright?” Of course, Master Trainer’s dignity went for a toss–he couldn’t take that. So we agreed, lets part. “Mutual differences.” Catchall phrase.
After all was decided, and my bags packed, hotel room booked, I did manage to explain to P— why his paternal 34 man’s years to my 53 woman’s years attitude was so indigestible to me.
Loving women is not the same as feeling women, being sensitized to women’s issues in an often violent, misogynist world. “Would you,” I ask him, “treat a 53 year old Indian man the same way as you have treated me?” Of course, there had been other previous incidents of the Young Master of house and gym extending his Fatherly (!) arm over me…..but the report/story ends here.