Here’s looking at you

The eyes have it ♦

On the occasional morning, a tall, dark, handsome man and his short, dark, even more handsome Labrador visit the pocket-handkerchief of a park opposite my house. Once in awhile, the man happens to look up towards my balcony and, suddenly, the world is transformed. The scraggly park becomes a charbagh set with generously leafy trees, rustling and reticulated in myriad shades of green, from parrot’s feather to peacock’s tail. The weedy flowerbeds into which the dog is relieving himself become a many-splendoured gulistaan. And I’m no longer a half-asleep lecher in rumpled nightie with a pillow-streaked face, but the girl in a Bru ad, looking out mysteriously over a suggestively steamy mug of coffee, my cheeks dewy and flushed, hair impossibly kempt.

Then he guiltily looks down at his mobile, and I dart back behind my newspaper, and the spell is broken.

I’d almost forgotten, over the past year or so, about this game of harmless flirtation, played with two pairs of eyes, and with no real object but momentary elation. From newspaper articles to Internet forums, concern about the violence of the male gaze has been so much more in focus. As a viral video released by film students last December 16 suggested, all escalating eve-teasing – brushing, nudging, whistling, pinching and worse – is built upon this foundation of ladki ko galat dekhna. In “Dekh Le”, the ogling men find their daft expressions reflected back to them when the object of their gaze slams down a visor, slips on a mirror pendant or dark glasses, or adjusts a purse. In this fantasy, the daily negotiation of public space is won by women who put the coffee shop creeps and scooter sideys firmly in their place.

But if the current moment is all about reflecting and correcting the inherent violence of the Indian leer, a part of me still romanticises the abundant celebration in our art – in poetry, film and fiction – of the look of lust. If the brazen, impudent looks of the drunken lout worry us now, it was also the mischievous, flashing eyes of the lover that drove the poets to drink. I may be ideali­sing an aesthetic device; nigahon ka khel is a safer game in theory than in practice; but I still hope that between nazron ke teer chalana and aankhon pe mar jana, there’s some possibility of agency, and pleasure, for both parties.

I remember the summer of my awakening, in my early teens, into a world of unfettered visual impulse, of constant sizing-up of men. Until then, I was mostly disdainful of the hot gossip of who-liked-who and who-did-who that kept the pubescent student body of my American middle school on a constant boil. But on a visit to India that summer, my dormant hormones kicked into high gear. I couldn’t stop ogling and mentally ordering. I became a connoisseur of jaw-lines, hairlines and degrees of stubble. You name it, I objectified it: men in tight jeans with non-existent asses; men in uniforms that creased awkwardly around their hips; men in bright spandex shirts and cotton bush-shirts and particularly men in graceful kurtas and flowing pyjamas; men with puffy hair like old film stars, or centre-parts like Salman Khan; even Salman Khan himself, larger than life and hotter than the summer sun, a star fixed in a firmament of PVC flex.

Eventually superego caught up with id and I learned to look away, or not at all. For women on the street, it’s easier to think of men as one undifferentiated pack to be avoided, rather than a species with many variations, to be observed with curiosity, to be considered individually, or catalogued for future fantasising. We use the phrase “shamelessly ogle”, but it seems to me unfortunate that the familiar male stare is always either laden with shame, or else lascivious, but laced with moral judgment.

The past year has brought editorials, articles and umpteen tweets suggesting that India needs a sexual revolution – a good cleansing romp and a round through the wringer to rid us of our dirty shame. I fear the reality of such a revolution would be even more excruciating, and even less cathartic, than sitting through Imtiaz Ali’s Highway.

But I do wish there was something between engaging with the unbearably cocky head-to-toe appraisal and going around blinkered like a gelded horse – and not just in the socially sanctioned spaces of the city where the rules of class and gender are complex but clearly understood.

Maybe romance is just the art of channeling the heat behind an initial look, through the complicated conduits of language, and back to pure heat. Still, what separates the men and women from the dogs and pigeons is the ability to indulge in the pointless yet pleasurable exchange of glances that can be its own reward. I believe the man with the Labrador in the park understands this. We’ll probably never exchange more than a half-smile each, but he knows I’m keeping an eye on him.

Originally published in Time Out Delhi, March 2014