You can tell a lot about a room from the way people walk through it. The very same legs that carry a straight backed high- chinned strut into one room could carry a bowed head and clasped pair of hands into another. Bodies that held one another in one room will pretend they don’t know one another in the next. They will hold back laughter and mirth and enthusiasm and amusement in places that tell them that those are wrong. Improper places try to teach proper things; the only body that is right is the one that is leashed. You hardly notice. People’s bodies tell you more about where they are than where they come from.
You can tell a lot from the way people walk into train compartments, little travelling rooms that go underground and then way above. The Metro station. The platform at Majestic is just queues of people in a hurry and people who can’t move fast enough but want to. The front of the platform, reserved for women, has shorter queues. Women with shopping bags and laptop bags and earphones and backpacks tap their feet and yawn. Nobody but everybody is thinking of what it might be like to go skidding off that platform and down onto the tracks. There are so many tired faces here, where a cold wind hits only your ankles. I wonder where it comes from, and have kept myself from asking this absurd question to the security guard. She always looks bored, and hints of a smile that might line her face when her male colleagues are laughing with her have completely disappeared during the evening rush hour.
If you have been on both sides of the tape that divides the women’s compartments from the rest of the train, you will be able to tell a lot about the metro by the way women walk through them. By the way they stand or sit, and the way they hold onto their belongings, their body included. The women in the front of the train will stand immersed in the music playing in their earphones. The girl with the college ID card will not be wearing her jacket, it will be tied around her waist. The woman with the heavy grocery bag will let herself nod off for a minute, her head resting on the glass. Girls will hold onto the many handled pole at the centre of the compartment and will not flinch when their hands touch one another.
There will be tiredness and the smell of a long day, but when you look at these women, you will know that this is as relaxed as they could be on public transport. They will not walk into the crowded train bracing to be pressed up against boisterous men. They will not hold their back arched straight and keep their eyes on the window to avoid anyone’s gaze. Nobody will hesitate to take a seat; they will be scrambling for it.
Standing in the non-women’s compartment needs defiance. Just like walking around in the world does. It needs a rock hard stare and a tight jaw. You need to be the cool girl, rising above staring eyes, looking good but not too good and pretending you don’t hear what those boys are saying about you. Walking out into the world means being constantly reminded you have a body, and that that is where you begin and where you end. Nobody will let you forget it. Some people have sweaty palms, some sweat in cold buckets and others clasp their hands so tight their knuckles go white. Mostly, they all have darting eyes, like a deer that has been cornered and singled out as prey. Eyes on the ground to keep from meeting anybody else’s, and eyes that uncomfortably look at their reflections in auto rickshaw rear view mirrors.
Body this and body that. Bodies do not deserve to be hidden away. They’re homes and vehicles and factories and instruments and loudspeakers and tape recorders. Once you see what they do, they could never be ugly to you. Unless they spew fake laughter and lie and crash into things and make you feel bad about having a body, about putting it to better use than they are. About having a body that speaks before you do. About making a statement. Convince yourself that certain people need a shock now and then.
It’s like New Year’s Eve, when family sucks the warmth out of my grandfather’s big old house, making it go cold as the dinner that nobody is touching. My fishnet stockings are suffocating and so is my jacket. Neither of them conceal the dress underneath. My uncle can not conceal his own disapproval.
It’s like college days when boys with nailpolish and floral shirts make it clear that they have no desire to conform. I do love boys on most days.
There are certain shocks I wish I had never received, of course, and I do hate men on those days. In the summer between high school and college, I attended two and a half guitar lessons and on the way home from the first one, I encountered a flasher, straddling his motorcycle, rubbing himself on his fuel tank and asking me for directions in impeccable English. I wanted to break something, just swing the guitar in my hand and smash it into his smug chubby face. It was his body on display but I was the one being made embarrassed by his exhibitionism. It was a cheap trap; I was made to look away and walk as far as my legs could take me, my heart in my throat, while he was the one getting himself off on the streets. It was not about his body, it was about mine. About the burning in my cheeks and the ringing in my ears and the anger that burned my eyes.
Public places don’t make the rules about bodies, the people there do. Early Saturday morning at a popular darshini and you will learn that the men there feel an obligation to be very loud, and that you must elbow your way towards the pickup counter and not mind stepping on the feet of some self-assured men “by accident.” You will learn on Sunday evenings at dimly lit bazaars that nobody cares much about your body when you lurk in the shadows, not between carts of flowers and the smell of chaat, not until you make yourself seen. There will be women with baskets on their hips and their heads, their voices like sirens. Their bodies are their own possessions, at least there, on that road where they sell their goods and keep their money in their blouses.
But bodies can be so closed off. We have rib cages like dams. Arms crossed for good measure. We build walls where mouths once were. Legs crossed for extra good measure. It is something we teach ourselves, to be a reservoir of mystery. Our hands, I think, have not caught up with the rest of us yet.
How is it that you can tell so much about someone from the way their hands move? You can weave entire stories about strangers by just watching their hands do things. There are people with restless hands, tapping hands, peeling the skin on their fingers. Hands hooked in mouths, biting and chewing and flicking at their incisors. You see hands that hold each other, like they have no other friends. And then there are hands that move with tongues, accenting every word, making air sculptures for their speeches. There are hands that greet with peace signs and some rare ones that still go in for the old-fashioned handshake. Hands slapping others in high-fives in busy corridors between classes.
Bodies may say, but hands betray things. Look at people’s hands, the way they rest their chin in them or tangle their hair in their fingers or hold onto their biceps when their arms are folded. Hands that have veins running along them like Underworld rivers can stop a heart. By simply being. Look at these hands when they are thinking, gently tapping a chin or a temple, or stroking day old stubble. Most hands could choke without a lot of effort, just fit around necks and keep out the air. Hands could ruin bodies. They could wreak havoc and destroy and crush things to a pulp.
And while hands do all kinds of things, most of all, they make things. Hands, paint-smeared or ink-stained, create things. They betray the body’s inhibitions like no other part, not even the eyes. Eyes look away and pretend not to have seen, but hands register everything. They spin pens like drumsticks and drumsticks like pens, they strum guitar strings and dance across piano keys and make soundtracks for entire generations.
Fingers linger around anxious collarbones and cheeks stuffed with secrets, asking them to ease. They give the body comfort on metro rides when they play with hair and buttons and phone screens. On the street when road rage takes over, a single finger goes up and gives anger an outlet. Hands flip pages on new books and old, the sounds of the paper drowning out your obnoxiously loud classmates. They rub your eyes until all they see are stars, floating around in the little space between your brows.
Places make it hard to deal with being perceived. I forget I am real sometimes. It is either that or a painful conscience. Hyper awareness of every lock of hair and fold of fabric and tilt of head. It is better to forget who you are and how you look, and the fact that people you see everyday see you and take you in and make their own judgments about you. All from the way your body moves. People you see while commuting probably have sagas written about who they think you might be. It is almost maddening to think about. Have you ever had the urge to shake the stranger sitting across the cafe who is looking at you and asking them who they think you are? Because I have. I have, as someone who thinks too much or not at all about herself, wanted to know what I look like as a complete unknown. Being seen is not being known, but while you tread on public property, you feel like a possession of the eyes that see. If beauty really is in the eyes of the beholder, then so is ugliness and everything that comes before and after it.
I wonder if we can ever not take away the body from who lives in it. Because a life without a form is not something we know of. But a life without thought or feeling or conscience is.
Featured Image Credits: Crenaia, the Nymph of the Dargle, 1880 by Frederic Leighton